Accounts vary over whether Seife was expected to publish a Wired story about Lehrer, and whether his 90-minute conversation with Lehrer was on the record. Lehrer told a friend that Chris Anderson assured him there wouldn’t be a story—but then Hansen called him to ask if his remarks were on the record. Lehrer said they weren’t. Wired decided against running a full story, but allowed Seife to take it elsewhere.
Slate’s story went up on August 31, just after Wired began posting its first corrections to Lehrer’s blog posts. All Seife could say about his phone conversation with Lehrer was that it “made me suspect that Lehrer’s journalistic moral compass is badly broken.” An hour later, wired.com issued a full statement saying they had “no choice but to sever our relationship” with Lehrer.
If Anderson did indeed quietly defend Lehrer against Seife, it would fit the pattern: For all the hand-wringing about the decline of print-media standards, Lehrer was not a new-media wunderkind but an old-media darling. Just as newyorker.com had banned Lehrer before David Remnick canceled his print contract, it was wired.com that led the charge against Lehrer, and the print magazine that only fired him when it “had no choice”—after Seife published his exposé at another web magazine.
Lehrer’s biggest defenders today tend to be veterans of traditional journalism. NPR’s longtime correspondent Robert Krulwich has known Lehrer for almost a decade and used him many times on the science program “Radiolab.” “I find myself uncomfortable with how he’s been judged,” Krulwich wrote in an e-mail, weeks after “Radiolab” ran six corrections online. “If in a next round, he produces work that’s better, more careful, I hope his editors and his readers will welcome him back.” Malcolm Gladwell wrote me, “[Lehrer] didn’t twist anyone’s meaning or libel anyone or manufacture some malicious fiction … Surely only the most hardhearted person wouldn’t want to give him a chance to make things right.”
If anyone could have gotten a second chance, it was Lehrer. He’d made himself the perfect acolyte. Lehrer seemed to relish exciting ideas more than workaday craft, but editors are ravenous for ideas, and Lehrer had plenty. He fed pitches to deskbound editors and counted on them and their staffs to clean up the stories for publication. He was a fluid writer with an instinctive sense of narrative structure. In fact, he was much better at writing magazine stories than he was at blogging. His online posts were not only repetitive but too long and full of facts—true or not.
Seife spent a chunk of his time tracking down a change made to an E. O. Wilson quote in one of Lehrer’s New Yorker stories, only to find that a fact-checker had altered it at Wilson’s insistence. The piece’s editor told Seife that Lehrer was “a model of probity.” Meanwhile, wired.com—the very site that hired Seife—couldn’t vouch for any of the work Lehrer had published there. Lehrer told a friend that the first time he heard from Hansen in his two years at wired.com was during the vetting. The lack of oversight became distressingly clear when Seife, on the phone with Lehrer, demanded to know why he hadn’t asked his blog editor to fix his errors. Lehrer shot back in frustration that there was no editor.
Lehrer spent much of August writing about the affair, trying to figure out where it had all gone wrong. He came to the conclusion that he’d stretched himself too thin. His excuses fall along those lines: He told Seife that his plagiarized blog post was a rough draft he’d posted by mistake. And his latest explanation for those fabricated Dylan quotes is that he had written them into his book proposal and forgotten to fix them later. Even by his own account, then, the writing wasn’t his top priority.
The lectures, though, were increasingly important. Lehrer gave between 30 and 40 talks in 2010, all while meeting constant deadlines, starting a family, and buying a home in the Hollywood Hills. It was more than just a time suck; it was a new way of orienting his work. Lehrer was the first of the Millennials to follow his elders into the dubious promised land of the convention hall, where the book, blog, TED talk, and article are merely delivery systems for a core commodity, the Insight.
The Insight is less of an idea than a conceit, a bit of alchemy that transforms minor studies into news, data into magic. Once the Insight is in place—Blink, Nudge, Free, The World Is Flat—the data becomes scaffolding. It can go in the book, along with any caveats, but it’s secondary. The purpose is not to substantiate but to enchant.