I wrote about Jonah Lehrer's article, Why Smart People Are Stupid, from the New Yorker, a few days ago. I didn't realize that, at the time, I was also writing about Jonah Lehrer's Wall Street Journal article, The Science of Irrationality. The articles deal with similar topics, and the first several paragraphs are nearly identical. Lehrer appears to have been doing this in a lot of articles -- recycling chunks of his old work as new. This is unethical, because if an editor is paying for new content, and you're giving them stuff their customers may have already read, it's pretty close to stealing from your editor.
Slate.com's article about the ethical breach compares Lehrer to Malcom Gladwell, in that they're similar types of self-promoters -- people who connect a lot of vivid anecdotes and use them to spread ideas, allowing for a strong implication that they are the sources of this wisdom, not just the compilers.
But Gladwell, I’m guessing, would never get caught writing the same words twice. It’s not just that it will piss off your editors. It will also disappoint your customers. If you’re passing yourself off as an idea man, self-plagiarism is bad for the brand.
Ultimately, the Slate piece is charitable, though. At the end, the suggest that what's happened here is that Lehrer is running on fumes, and made some bad decisions that lead to that state showing. His transgression is not a failure to be the person he's suggesting himself as, but a failure to position that identity correctly.
Conflicts of interest in journalism are hard to think about. Gladwell, the Slate article points out, has a 6,300 word disclosure statement talking his way through the issue. I'll be reading that soon.
It's a difficult career -- it pays terribly, unless you're very high up, and it feels (and, indeed, is) very important. The various elements of journalistic quality are in pretty direct conflict with each other -- being fair and informative conflicts with being entertaining and with drawing in customers, and both of those elements conflict with one's editors, who expect you to do work that (a.) makes them money, and (b.) keeps them out of trouble.
Lehrer is a professional, though. He should have a better handle on that balance.