The core of their criticism was that the practice was covert and hence fraudulent. Readers who paid for a top-tier publication who were unknowingly served warmed-over prose were being deceived. And the publishers who bought what they thought was custom work had a right to know they were getting pre-owned goods.
All true. But I think the emphasis on deception misstates the real problem. The more serious wrong is, I think, thornier — and what makes this affair noteworthy is that it’s seldom considered ethically problematic. Lehrer is really being nailed for coasting, for intellectual sloth, for what on Broadway would be an actor “phoning it in.” He conceded as much when he told The New York Times that what he did was “incredibly lazy and absolutely wrong.”
His critics, to their credit, are doing something unusual in the realm of professional standard-setting — insisting that the quality of one’s work really matters. Their criticism reaffirms an idea of professionalism that obligates writers — especially ones as obviously gifted as Lehrer — to strive, to push themselves to do ever better stuff, to produce fresh and rewarding expression, to refine and build upon previous insights, not just to dust them off because of relentless production pressures and because they can get away with it.
It’s a powerful admonition, and it gives the tired old notion of quality a ranking in the hierarchy of journalistic values that it deserves and rarely gets.