A carefully crafted apology doesn’t mean we think you are sincere
You’ve probably heard the story of Jonah and the Whale from the Bible. This, however, is a “big fish story” of a completely different kind and features an entirely different Jonah: Jonah Lehrer. If you have not followed Jonah Lehrer’s fall from grace here’s a brief description of what happened from Ethics Alarms:
“When we last looked in on writer Jonah Lehrer last summer, he had detonated his career and credibility with a series of incidents of serious professional misconduct that led to his ignominious firing from The New Yorker, where he once was regarded as a rising star. First he was caught plagiarizing himself, recycling a previously published work as an original essay for the magazine. That led to an investigation showing that this was not the first time he had taken such an unethical short-cut. Finally, it was discovered that he had fabricated Bob Dylan quotes in his best-selling book about, ironically enough, creativity. When confronted about this, Lehrer lied. Soon he was out of a job and condemned to the limbo reserved for writers who deceive their readers: Jason Blair, Stephen Glass, James Frey, Janet Cooke, and others. It is not a pleasant or profitable place to be.”
From the beginning, Jonah Lehrer said he would apologize. But it never came. He was asked multiple times to apologize and he said, in effect, he was “working on it” while intimating he would write about why he had lied. Because of his history of saying “he would get to it”, many wondered why he had agreed to speak on his misdeeds recently. Why, indeed after stalling on previous requests? The tipping point for Mr. Lehrer appears to be exactly $20,000. In an ironic twist, the Knight Foundation, long known for quality journalism, offered Mr. Lehrer $20,000 to discuss his plagiarism and deception. (The Knight Foundation has since apologized for paying him and says they regret rewarding someone who violated the basic tenets of journalism.)
While Jonah spoke, a giant Twitter screen beside him filled with tweets castigating him, making fun of him, describing his apology as manipulative and self-serving, and ultimately, serving as a final humiliation. Here’s a screenshot of what it looked like on the Knight Foundation stage. Many writers stepped quickly forward to complain about Lehrer’s apology–pointing out it’s arrogant, conniving and misleading nature, how lucrative his apology was, how he should be apologizing not for intellectual dishonesty but for intellectual laziness, how his apology only fueled the anger toward him, how his apology and explanation was really a non-apology and a non-explanation, and accusing him of cashing in on his notoriety.
Ethics Alarm was perhaps the only website to say that Lehrer’s apology was a terrific one. But they were not rating him on sincerity nor credibility. The Ethics Alarms site has an Apology Scale that rates the ethical levels of various apologies. They say Lehrer’s apology is a Level One Apology–the highest level of ethical apology possible. Yet, alas for Lehrer, they wouldn’t hire him. Because no matter the artfully crafted language–no matter that his apology contained remorse, regret, and contrition–they just don’t trust him.
This is the fate of liars, once they are exposed—they never can completely regain their previous level of trust, except with the unusually kind, forgiving, and gullible. Yes, it is a magnificent apology, but if I had to choose, I would gravitate to distrust. I wish I didn’t feel that way. That does not diminish my admiration of Lehrer’s apology, however. I hope it is read, studied and recited in school. It is truly the ethical way to say, “I’m sorry.”
And often, saying “I’m sorry” even if artfully crafted–is simply not enough. Especially if you’re in the business of reporting the truth. It’s a good lesson for all of us as we issue apologies. Whether we are liars or not. Because ultimately, we are all responsible for reporting the truth.