Respecting the Fundamentals

If you’re interested in how content is produced in our socially connected media world, David Carr had a nice piece in Monday’s New York Times (“Journalists Dancing on the Edge of Truth“). He was focusing on the lessons inherent in the case of Jonah Lehrer, the Wired and New Yorker science writer who was caught inventing and retooling quotes from Bob Dylan in a book published this summer and then lying about it.

Lehrer isn’t the first to be caught creating nonfiction from a fertile imagination, and he won’t be the last. Carr and others argue that a lot of this kind of behavior is the product of a news/entertainment industry landscape in which journalists, reporters, columnists, and analysts–maybe the best catch-all description would be “media performers”–are slaves to a nonstop, multi-platform demand for their brilliance.

Carr also suggests that part of the problem lies in what’s missing from Jonah Lehrer’s journalistic resume:

“Mr. Lehrer, now 31, became famous before he had a grasp of the fundamentals. …

“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.”

“Tattooed a message deep into their skull.” I like that. Though I can testify that the tattooing these days needs to be done with a certain modicum of sensitivity that was scarce in those Old School days Carr speaks of.

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