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The Media Equation: Journalists on the Edge of Truth

Before writing this column on recent incidents of plagiarism and fabrication, I spent time on the Web reading all known thought on the subject, making notes as I went. When I wrote it up, I used those notes to help create something I am now claiming as my own. Yes, I made phone calls to relevant experts and did historical research, but in the main — columnists are in part human aggregators — everything written here reflects something that came before it.

So does that make me a thief, or a journalist?

It all comes down to execution. If I attribute the reporting of others and manage to steer clear of proprietary intellectual property while making a cogent argument, then I can live to write another day.

If, on the other hand, I manufacture or manipulate quotes or fail to process the work of others through my own thinking and writing, then the Web — a crowd-sourced scrutiny machine — will find me out. My column will become a spectacle and I will end up in my boss’s office explaining myself.

Columns, even reported ones, as this aspires to be, pivot on ideas rather than news. Once spilled, news quickly becomes a commodity, so ideas — shimmering intellectual scoops — have very high value.

That preciousness is part of why Jonah Lehrer, the ninja of neuroscience, became a highly prized collectible while still in his 20s. After writing the well-received “Proust Was a Neuroscientist,” he became a contributing editor at Wired, and also did work for NPR’s Radiolab, Grantland, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The Boston Globe.

So are he and I in the same business? Not by a long shot. He is smarter than I will ever be, and has written three best sellers while being paid thousands of dollars for speaking engagements. The other difference? I never made up quotes, lied about it and resigned in disgrace, as Mr. Lehrer recently did. (I say that with zero malice and a knowledge that pointing a crooked finger can backfire).

Because of a quirk of timing, the blogger-author-speaker’s troubles have been conflated with those of Fareed Zakaria, the television host-columnist-author. Both are overhyphenated in a way that makes feeding all those platforms with fresh intellectual scoops a risky enterprise, but that is where the similarities end. As was once explained to me by no less an authority than Ruth Shalit, the notorious tyro offender of Washington journalism, there is a big difference between being a plagiarist — at bottom, lazy or sloppy — and being a fabulist.

Ten days ago Mr. Zakaria, who has a show on CNN and columns in Time and The Washington Post, acknowledged plagiarizing content for a column in Time. He apologized, was suspended, and Time and CNN investigated whether there was a deeper problem and decided there was not. He was reinstated on Thursday. End of story.

As for Mr. Lehrer, he was first found to have plagiarized himself, rerunning parts of his books and previous writings for different publications, which is an offense against his employers, not his readers. Then Michael C. Moynihan, writing in Tablet Magazine, found that Mr. Lehrer, in his book “Imagine,” had fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan, one of the most scrutinized cultural figures in the hemisphere. As the evidence mounted, Mr. Lehrer first dissembled to hide his transgressions and when that didn’t work, he resigned from The New Yorker.

Wired magazine, which has published a great deal of his work, first seemed remarkably unconcerned, saying he continued to be a “valued contributor” before walking that back and saying his work was the subject of an ongoing “inquiry.” Makes you wonder what it would take to end up in the permanent naughty corner at Wired.

The self-cleaning tendencies of the Web got credit for unearthing the misconduct in the first place. Then again, the Web’s ferocious appetite for content — you are only as visible as your last post, as Clay Shirky recently said to me — probably had something to do with why Mr. Lehrer tried to feed the beast with retreads and half-baked work.

Before we place all the blame on the Web, let’s remember that Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass and Janet Cooke all made stuff up for print realms. But part of the problem with journalism online is that it all seems mutable. The truth, if there is one, emerges in the wash and if there is an error, well, that’s what find and replace is for, right? Or maybe it can be finessed in the next post.

Mr. Lehrer, now 31, became famous before he had a grasp of the fundamentals. Seth Mnookin and others pointed out that his approach to writing about science was somewhat less than scientific.

The now ancient routes to credibility at small magazines and newspapers — toiling in menial jobs while learning the business — have been wiped out, replaced by an algorithm of social media heat and blog traction. Every reporter who came up in legacy media can tell you about a come-to-Jesus moment, when an editor put them up against a wall and tattooed a message deep into their skull: show respect for the fundamentals of the craft, or you would soon not be part of it.

I once lost a job I dearly wanted because I had misspelled the name of the publisher of the publication I was about to go to work for. Not very smart, but I learned a brutal lesson that has stayed with me. Nobody ever did that for Mr. Lehrer, even after repeated questions were raised about his work.

It may not have made a difference: journalists are tasked as seekers of truth. Fabulists find the truth quotidian and boring, insufficient to convey them to the renown they seek.

But as rapidly as the Web can indict, it can also rehabilitate. Mr. Zakaria went from abject apology to justification to reinstatement in a matter of days, all in real-time bulletins. What was once a gallows, a place of professional execution, has become a kind of highly visible penalty box.

Mr. Lehrer is working from a much deeper hole, but he is hardly bereft. He has a well-followed Twitter account replete with a link to his now checkered blog post for The New Yorker. He may have put fake words in the mouth of Bob Dylan, slipped recycled content past one of the most fact-checked franchises in the land and popularized science in a way that distorted it. But he’s not going away. He will come back because he hasn’t actually left.

E-mail: carr@nytimes.com;

Twitter: @carr2n

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NYT > Business

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