When the uncritical media embrace new prophets
“What I clearly need is a new list of rules, a stricter set of standard operating procedures. If I’m lucky enough to write again, then whatever I write will be fact-checked and fully footnoted.” – Jonah Lehrer
The rise of the new “prophets” and the problem with facts
We have all no doubt noted the rise in popularity of ‘thought leaders’ and ‘curators’; those authors whose books are dedicated to impressing us with certain insights and data points, and bloggers who distribute newsletters containing compilations of links for us to peruse or ignore. Think Gladwell, Lehrer, Popova, all swooned over by media commentators and proudly anointed the title ‘Big-thinkers.’ This flattery is suspect. (Before I continue, I want to be clear here that I am not trying to create a “by association” when I mention Gladwell, Lehrer and Popova in the same breath. They fit together only because media folks have hailed them as leaders in their fields. I am not implying that they are birds of a feather.)
On the book side, I can tell you that after reading the first two chapters of any book by Malcolm Gladwell I get it right away – where it is usually the title of the book. Outliers for instance. Yes, there are “things or phenomena that lie outside normal experience” but I’m not sure that a book full of examples is necessary when an essay would cover it. Anyone who cares to research outliers throughout history will have come across Sir Isaac Newton, Genghis Khan, Leonardo Da Vinci, Karl Friedrich Gauss, Thomas Edison, Amelia Earhart, Marie Curie, Sylvia Plath and William Shakespeare to name just a few. In fact, Polymath may be a better description for some of them. And before the commenters pile on, I do understand that Gladwell covers statistical outliers too, not just people. I also know that he writes articles and essays. In media circles he is considered a very influential author and thinker.
The media flattery I mention becomes misplaced once we discover there are problems with facts or ‘truthiness’ in any non-fiction writer’s books and articles – “truthiness,” such a wonderful term, one that was born during the last Bush administration for obvious reasons. As we now know, some authors have been prone to not only plagiarism, but to making things up. Maybe we could describe that as ‘factiness’?
Most recently Jonah Lehrer resigned from the New Yorker after it turned out that he’d made up quotes by Bob Dylan for his book ‘Imagine: How Creativity Works.’ And there had also been this: “[...] Mr. Lehrer had publicly apologized for taking some of his previous work from The Wall Street Journal, Wired and other publications and recycling it in blog posts for The New Yorker, acts of recycling that his editor called “a mistake.”
It has been an interesting, and sad, debacle. And things don’t appear to be getting better for him. Just this month he gave a speech at the Knight Foundation, yes the foundation that promotes “quality journalism,” titled ‘My Apology.’ Isaac Chotiner of the New Republic didn’t like what he heard, nor did some others in the room according to the article – ““Jonah Lehrer boring people into forgiving him for his plagiarism,” read one representative tweet.” And folks didn’t sidestep the issue of Lehrer being paid $20,000 for his half-hearted mea culpa either. (The foundation later expressed regret for paying Lehrer for his speech.)
Chotiner makes a good point when he writes: “In fact, the entire scandal reveals something rotten about the gotcha culture of the modern media, which has a much easier time focusing on something quantifiable like plagiarism than grappling with the question of whether something is any damn good. Rather than wondering whether or not Lehrer’s apology was suitably abject, commentators should have pondered the disturbing trends that made Lehrer such a phenomenon before his downfall. Or, to put it another way, there is something odd about a culture that becomes appropriately moralistic about lying but sees no problem with selling a book by saying, “the color blue can help you double your creative output.”
In Lehrer’s defense he is talented and his current, self-inflicted travails are deeply unfortunate. Did his judgement perhaps suffer under the Klieg light of media attention?
Maybe non-fiction authors should just keep an online diary or a journal. ‘Factiness’ may be ok in one’s personal diaries and journals. Two good examples of this are The Richard Burton Diaries, a huge collection that I’m currently ploughing through, where the editor has skillfully pulled fact from fiction and, according to a review by Daniel Swift, Christopher Isherwood’s Diaries, Volume Three – 1970-1983.
Swift notes that Isherwood is notoriously self-centered – “Isherwood never missed an opportunity to reflect upon himself.” Swift also points out that “For what is useful in these diaries, for what is enjoyable and has value, we need only turn to Isherwood’s novels. In “A Single Man,” for example, we meet a man a little past middle age, obsessed with his weight. The opening pages are a slow description of his waking and coming to life: first it is a body, and then “by the time it has gotten dressed, it has become he.” The novel is sharp and precise, and here, the manic noticing of detail is cautious; here, the flat description performs the feeling of a hollowed-out, grieving man. This is a modernist game with identity, carefully wrought. It is not simply that the novels are better than the diaries. Rather, the novels are the point of the diaries, and there is little good — and a great deal bad — that we can gain from the diaries that is not already in the fiction.” [My emphasis.]
So, diaries as the foundation for fiction where the diarist details as many ‘facts’ as he or she prefers, and the biographer then has their work cut out, often spending many years to translate that ‘information.’ Better that, than magazine and book editors having to check for ‘facts’ in hastily delivered books and articles, in an era when media commentators are just looking for brainy champions.
Moving on from authors, there’s Maria Popova and her Brain Pickings blog and newsletter. According to Fast Company, Popova is one of the 100 Most Creative People in Business in 2012 (#51 if you’re counting.) That’s a rather stunning accolade given that Popova hardly writes any original content whatsoever. (This is Fast Company’s criteria for the list: “Welcome to our annual celebration of business innovators who dare to think differently. They’re the ones taking risks and discovering surprising new solutions to old problems.”) I don’t believe it’s rude to suggest that Popova doesn’t fit the list’s criteria. Also, she describes herself as a “curator” and I’m not sure why, as curator is one of those words that get bandied around too often in social web circles, usually way out of context.
In a recent Guardian interview, Popova says “Much of what is published online is content designed to be dead within hours, so I find most of my material offline.” Are we to presume that this means the content she publishes to her blog is dead within hours too? And in the interview there’s a strange response when she’s asked about the “lack” of advertising on her blog: “I don’t believe in this model of making people into currency. You become accountable to advertisers, rather than your reader.” I’ll come to this again later.
Popova is a compiler, a human filter who points to what she thinks her readers might like. There’s nothing wrong with that, but is it an activity that is worthy of that Fast Company ranking? Based on what she does Fast Company would have had to change its criteria and have a list of at least ‘one thousand most creative people in business.’
So who reads Popova’s newsletters and her blog? From Fast Company: “Maria Popova is a self-proclaimed “curator of interestingness.” Her blog and Twitter feed is read by the Who’s Who of the media, marketing, and ad worlds.” So there you go.
I suspect that Popova is popular with that cohort, not because she is a self-described “curator of interestingness,” but because it’s easy to namecheck her and retweet her, creating that loose tie of association that is endemic in social media circles – I “read” Maria Popova therefore I stand out in the herd. What Popova does, she does well – the compiling of lists of links, but please don’t call it curation. Her link lists require action; one has to click through on those links of hers or actually buy the books she recommends. You have to read what’s on offer, otherwise you can’t offer an opinion or be any more knowledgeable than you were before you subscribed to her lists. Retweeting her last tweet does not add to your insights, it simply comes across as you looking for social caché.
Felix Salmon of Reuters fell for it a bit, before reversing himself sort of when he wrote: “…Popova provides a valuable service to the web.” (I presume Salmon meant web users?) In those two blog posts, Salmon makes an heroic effort to support Popova and gives her space to defend herself, where the discussion is about the large income Popova garners through her ‘empire’ while promoting her site as ad-free when it’s technically not, and asking for donations to “keep the site going.”
In Salmon’s posts, Popova addresses Tom Bleymaier’s concerns about her money-raising methods when he wrote on his Tumblr about her affiliate advertising links and the lack of transparency as she asks for donations: “There are important differences that make affiliate ads more subversive than the Xerox-Esquire scenario. The Affiliate form of advertising invites more detriment to quality writing because it actually requires an author to interrupt the reader with a link and it incentivizes authors to change their tone such that they convince the reader to go all the way through with the purchase (which is necessary for them to receive their kickback).”
For example, the last post I checked on Popova’s blog contained 23 links to her own posts and 3 Amazon affiliate advertising links. This is all a storm in a teacup though. Tom Bleymaier makes valid points, but surely it is smart of Popova to link back to her own posts, and why begrudge her those affiliate marketing links? (I use them myself on my Pampelmoose blog.) Obviously she falls short when she says the blog is “ad-free” when it is clearly not, and when she asks for donations on her blog, pointing out rather forlornly: “Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month.” Asking for a donation of $7.00 a month to cover those hours of work is fine, but not when she doesn’t make clear that her blog and newsletter affiliate marketing links are apparently pulling in a tidy sum of money.
Whether Popova will become more transparent about how she makes money or not is of no consequence to me personally. I prefer to paraphrase Isaac Chotiner’s P.O.V. about Lehrer and mull on: “[...] the disturbing trends that make
Lehrer Popova such a phenomenon.”
Transparency is becoming an overused word. The best phrase for what is required from these authors and bloggers is – be honest and ethical. Politicians are not immune either – Paul Krugman covered the dilemma of public figures getting in over their heads through lack of honesty and their unwillingness to back down, in a recent post: Little Statesmen and Philosophers. The political media stokes the problem by never confronting politicians who make false statements about the economy for instance. Their style of reporting is simple: If a Republican says the world is flat, they run off and find a Democrat who says the world is flat too.
And the passion for appearing smart, or smarter than others, isn’t just an American conceit. It turns out that in Germany there has been a spate of ministers resigning because of their fake PhD’s. There are, or were, apparently quite a few fake Herr and Frau Doctors in the Bundestag.
And finally, there’s this: Wikipedia: “The idiom “the devil is in the detail” derives from the earlier phrase, “God is in the detail;” expressing the idea that whatever one does should be done thoroughly; i.e. details are important.”
Perhaps we should take a cue from Charles Eames when he wrote: “The details are not details. They make the product.”
Yes, the details are important, and the burden for accuracy rests not only with our new “prophets.” The media has a responsibility to research the details too. And then report back.