There have been a series of rapid-fire implosions in the careers of a particular sector of the media here in the U.S. in recent months. The hardest hit have been those who play the role of the informed translator, the enlightened individual who interacts with complex subjects like the economy, neuroscience and global politics and then brings the rest of us their interpretive insights. In systems terms, you could say they provide a special kind of uncertainty absorption by filtering and repackaging the “best” thinking of academics and other inaccessible figures for the public.
But a funny thing seems to be happening – these guys (and so far, it’s all guys) have been falling apart not because of their inability to understand and communicate, but because of failures of basic journalistic ethics. Consider the most recent (and likely the most grateful for the saturation coverage of Romney’s VP pick yesterday and today) – Fareed Zakaria admitted to plagiarizing another writer’s piece in the New Yorker, in an echo of an earlier claim of plagiarism against him by the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. This follows the trouncing earlier this week of Planet Money’s Adam Davidson by Yasha Levine and Mark Ames for conflicts of interest and other problems, and the resignation last week of science writer wunderkind Jonah Lehrer for self-plagiarism and fabricating quotes.
While the corruption of the US media is hardly news, what I find interesting here is the inability of these men to function within the normal ethical bounds, even when they have access to more information and resources than all but a select few. Is it the incompatibility of always-on 24/7 journalism and proper analysis, which takes time? Davidson’s case with Ally, a company at the center of predatory lending and mortgage servicing, is particularly egregious given that it marks not only a personal lapse but an ethical failure by the institution that surrounds him.
At any rate, I don’t have any clearer thoughts than these, but it has been striking to see, and I have to wonder who will be next. Levine and Ames’ SHAME Project is focused on exactly this, and bears watching.