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February 20, 2013

House of Burgess: Hey, liars, stop writing now

Unscrupulous journalists should be banned for life

— Last August, I wrote a column called “Journalism’s new crime lab” in which I outlined the misdeeds of several less-than-truthful writers including Mike Daisey and Jonah Lehrer. In that piece I wondered why modern journalists would risk plagiarizing when things like Google exist. For Daisey and Lehrer, the answer seems to be: Because even when caught red-handed, the embarrassment itself can become fodder for future projects. Daisey first came to my attention when parts of his one-man show called “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” were used as the basis for a January 2012 episode of the radio show “This American Life”. The episode detailed Daisey’s “firsthand” accounts of meeting with workers in China employed in making Apple products. Two months later, the show officially retracted the episode.

“Host Ira Glass tells listeners we can no longer stand behind the reporting in the recently aired episode ‘Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory,’” reads the show description for the episode “Retraction”. “He explains how Marketplace reporter Rob Schmitz tracked down Daisey’s interpreter in China — a woman named Cathy Lee — who disputes much of Daisey’s story. And Ira talks about how Daisey lied to [us] during the fact-checking process, telling Ira and our producers that Cathy was not her real name and that she was unreachable.”

Now Daisey is back with a new one-man show. Guess what it’s about.

“Next month, coincidentally one year after ‘This American Life’ issued a retraction, Mr. Daisey will perform a new monologue called ‘On Lying and the Nature of Magic’ at Joe’s Pub at The Public Theatre,” reported Kara Bloomgarden-Smote of the New York Observer on Feb. 13.

Wait. What? How does he keep getting to make stuff in public? Daisey is a monologist first and was only shoehorned into the journalism field as afterthought. He did wrong, sure, but storytelling by any means necessary was his first concern. On the other hand, Lehrer was one of the most respected science journalists in the country before his fall from grace. Last July quotes attributed to Bob Dylan in Lehrer’s book “Imagine: How Creativity Works” were found to be completely made up. This turned out to be only the beginning as Lehrer’s years-long streak of falsehoods and thievery were exposed. After he lost his gig at the New Yorker last July, I thought that might be the end of his career. How wrong I was! On Feb. 12, he was paid a whopping $20,000 for speaking in front of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to “transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts,” according to their website. In his speech, Lehrer had the audacity to suggest he would return to journalism in the future after implementing a “standard operating procedure” to help him avoid his previous misdeeds.

“If I’m lucky enough to write again, then whatever I write will be fact-checked and fully footnoted,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a book or an article or the text for a speech like this one. Every conversation with a subject will be tape recorded and transcribed. If the subject would like a copy of their transcript, I will provide it.”

Oh, wow. Way to go above and beyond, man. If he thinks this is some new technique, I shudder to think what he was doing before.

“There is, of course, nothing innovative about these procedures,” he continued. “The vast majority of journalists don’t need to be shamed into following them. But I did, which is why I also need to say them out loud.”

How dare you, sir? As a journalist, the only reason anyone believes anything I write is a blind trust that I’m telling the truth to the best of my abilities. When people like Lehrer and Daisey are allowed back into the game, they dilute the public’s trust in journalism itself, and by proxy everyone else who practices it. I can control what I do, but if we let these people back into the fold, where is the consequence? So, Jonah Lehrer and Mike Daisey and everyone like them: If you do have to write, there’s this wonderful genre called fiction in which you can write whatever you want without regard to facts or reality. You can make your own truth. That’s what liars like James Frey and Stephen Glass turned to after it all came crashing down for them. Pete Rose and Lance Armstrong have been banned from baseball and bicycle racing for life for cheating. Why can’t we do the same for deceitful journalists?

Rob Burgess, Tribune night editor, may be reached by calling 765-454-8577, via email at rob.burgess@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter at www.twitter.com/robaburg.

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