Today’s journalism — plagiarism, scandal and other forms of editorial mayhem

English: New York, New York. Newsroom of the N...
English: New York, New York. Newsroom of the New York Times newspaper. Reporters and rewrite men writing stories, and waiting to be sent out. Rewrite man in background gets the story on the phone from reporter outside. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I recently spent a few hours with a rising senior at a top American university who thinks he might want to become a journalist. I agreed, because he’s been interning for a good friend of mine.

He will graduate with $68,000 in debt.

But what, really, can I tell him?

I wonder if my field is still worth entering or committing to: financially terribly insecure, often poorly paid and sadly formulaic in its thinking.

The web’s ruthless drive to get news first destroys, at worst, the larger goal of being accurate. Of telling us why a story matters, not simply that it exists.

And, please God, not just telling us what another sad sack “celebrity” wore to buy a latte.

Here’s a heartening little tale, that of 31-year-old Jonah Lehrer, whose enviable trajectory of best-selling books and, (most coveted of all), a staff job at the New Yorker, recently ended with his admission of making shit up.

Dude, seriously?

If there is anything more annoying than the latest tyro being glorified, it’s finding out, (which keeps happening), they’re a lying plagiarist. Typical of these sorts of debacles is the statement from New Yorker editor David Remnick that this discovery is “terrifically sad.”

No, it’s not. When I Facebooked my feelings about this, several of my veteran journalism colleagues chimed in, agreeing with my disgust.

What it is is someone who’s gotten the sort of opportunities most of will never even get near treating them carelessly. Sort of like the Yale grad who was fired this summer from her reporting job at The Wall Street Journal.

It’s like being given the keys to a shiny new Escalade and dinging the doors because…you can.

For those of you living outside the U.S., perhaps less familiar with the narrow and slippery rungs of privilege here — getting into an Ivy League school, (Lehrer attended one as well, Columbia), is extremely difficult. Every year there costs about $40,000+. Then gilded doors swing open to you, at places like the New Yorker, many of whose staffers also attended prep schools and Ivies.

An article in the June Vanity Fair was a name-drop-fest of elite privilege and Ivy log-rolling:

Ben Bradlee, the managing editor of The Washington Post from 1968 to 1991…hired me fresh out of college as a night police reporter the year he took the paper’s helm—we had been members of the same undergraduate club at Harvard…Harvard has been a big feeder of The New Yorker over the years, particularly the Lampoon, where I was the jester, dancing on the table in a multicolored jingling outfit at Thursday-night black-tie dinners, from 1965 to 1968.

Charm and connections offer these folks rare and much-coveted opportunities to publish in the most respected and influential of outlets, while, almost daily, dozens more journalists are being fired, their odds of getting back in at their previous level of skill or wages, slim to none; 24,000 of us lost our jobs in 2008.

Many of us, and many over 45, are now working at home for a fraction of our former incomes.

Freelance pay rates today are often as low as they were 30 years ago, (while the cost of living has risen tremendously), typically paying $1/word.

If you’re writing 3,500 to 5,000 words, you’re cool. But very few publications still assign at that length; more typically 500 to 1,200 words. You do the math on the volume we now need to pump out to simply get the bills paid. Pre-recession, the big mags were paying $3/word; now you’re lucky to get $2/word.

Yet the way journalists think and behave editorially hasn’t changed much, or enough.

Here’s a recent New York Times piece by their media columnist David Carr, writing on the Murdoch phone-hacking scandals:

Now would seem to be journalism’s big moment to turn that light on itself, with deeply reported investigative articles about how things went so wrong: the failures of leadership, the skewed values and the willingness of an industry to treat the public with such contempt. The Guardian correctly suggested that the arrests were unprecedented in the history of newspapers.

But because it is the news business and the company in the sights is News Corporation, the offenders are seen as outliers. The hacking scandal has mostly been treated as a malady confined to an island, rather than a signature event in a rugged stretch for journalism worldwide. Collectively, the press in the United States put more time and effort into pulling back the blankets on the indiscretions of Herman Cain.

But journalism’s ills don’t live exclusively on Fleet Street or stop at British shores. While American newspapers don’t publish in the hypercompetitive landscape that played a role in the tabloid excesses in Britain, the growing ecosystem of Web and cable news shares many of the same characteristics and, all too often, its failings. Economic pressures have increased the urgency to make news and drive traffic, even as budgets have been cut and experienced news professionals tossed overboard.

Here’s an excerpt from a new autobiography by a top American editor, describing how print fell prey to digital media.

Do you write for a living — or hope to?

What do you think of media these days?

18 thoughts on “Today’s journalism — plagiarism, scandal and other forms of editorial mayhem

  1. I’d like to write for a living someday, but until then I’m happy in the job I have now, a part-time job in the financial aid office. As for the media question, I think it’s actually kind of deplorable that people with all that going for them make up stuff for their own lazy benefits. I know journalists have to get the story no matter what, but they should focus more on the story part, not the “no matter what”.

  2. With all the celebrity news seemingly the only way to sell. It is the public and education that also has to take partial blame for what has happened. Yes, the media has steadily lowered its standards to meet the public’s expectations. We have also allowed this. And the money to support the papers has followed by choosing papers that sell. Which means overhyping of stories, about people not news. Editorial about news, not news itself. The giving of opinions. I could go on, I grew up reading a cross section of newspapers, expecting some political bias, but the story would be there. Now??? Conflict, who said what. No background, or information about the ramifications of a piece, no meat to make you think or give you deeper understanding.

    Good article, thanks


  3. NPR did a story the other day on how writing is being outsourced like manufacturing jobs to countries where buyers can pay less for the product, and the actually writing produced is just regurgitation of information already out in the published world anyway. I think that sites like Buzzfeed echo this – collecting material written somewhere else by an unaffiliated writer, but being tweaked a bit and regurgitated onto a new site.

    As someone who wants to write for a living, it’s frustrating to watch the industry change so much and so quickly. I did freelancing work to survive between graduation and finding a day job, and then had to keep the day job when the recession hit. Now I feel behind the times, unable to catch up to many of the (admittedly interesting and I think good) leaps in the industry, and simultaneously wondering if I can ever make a living out of it as the value placed on original content seems to be drying up.

    PS – I think redjim99 has a point, opinion (which anyone can whip out) seems to be more important that style, substance, and goodness knows, facts these days.

    1. I have no doubt you could jump right back in. Don’t overthink it or make it more complicated than it is. Depending on the level of your technical/online skills, you could probably get a job pretty easily — your blog is good and you have been both consistent and consistently interesting, which is more than many can say, in any medium.

      As for $$$$, welllllll. It also depends a great deal on where you end up and your skills. I think you mentioned a friend writing for the Chronicle of Education. That’s a smart outfit…

  4. I am soon to graduate with a masters in English Literature/Composition Studies. I teach composition at the state university where I attend–it is scary thinking of entering a field that will educate those in writing (a long forgotten skill for many). It’s especially scary to think that I have 70k in debt and I am currently getting job offers for maybe 15k a year–I keep telling myself, though, it’s my passion and where there is passion then there is a will that will make a way.

    1. The single determinant will be your willingness to be flexible — one can be a writer in a variety of settings, some of which pay very well (i.e. corporate communications) and some that pay very poorly.

  5. I don’t even go to the traditional media for information anymore- unless I want to know what their parent company wants me to think. The BBC is just as bad as RIANovosti or MSNBC or Fox.

    1. Which is a little scary to me…so from whom do you get your news and information — and do you think it is reliable and accurate?

      I’m in no way denying your larger point, but.

      1. I don’t rely on any one source. If there is an altercation in say, Georgia, I would first go to the BBC or Deutsche Welle. I probably wouldn’t even bother with an American publication because it’s likely that the event won’t be covered. After getting the British and German government’s take on the situation, I would go to RIANovosti and see the Russian government’s opinion. Then I would probably go to China Daily and see if Beijing has any new information to offer. Depending on the nature of the event in Georgia, I would then check out Haaretz and Fars.

        The point being, I would like to get the scoop from a variety of different points of view. That’s the closest thing anybody can get to balanced reporting these days. Sorry for the scary news.

  6. No, not for me to judge….I assumed (wrongly) you’re getting all your news from the Internet or Facebook.

    I’m impressed you care that much. I do, but not for every story. I read US, British and Canadian news sources and am not willing to make much time for more than that. Good for you.

  7. Your article was incredibly sad and I hurt for journalists. I came so close to getting a journalism degree instead of an English degree. I am a teacher, and have been for almost 15 years, and we are disenfranchised as well.

    About the plagiarism: I see this as a cultural thing. My students will plagiarize in order to keep from doing anything themselves, so much that I have to carefully read each sentence to see if they are not borrowing from another student. We have “Turn-it-in” websites that check for plagiarism for a hefty fee. Our culture is on a downward slide.

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