UPDATE: Over at The Daily Beast, disgraced journalist Jayson Blair offers a take on Lehrer’s sins and offers him some “advice”.
At 31, Jonah Lehrer was a Wunderkind of popular science writing, with a regular gig at The New Yorker and three best-selling books on brain science under his belt (he was also a Rhodes Scholar). His latest book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, sold 200,000 copies and made the NYT bestseller list. But I always found his writing a bit too slick, and sometimes erroneous, as I noted in two separate posts (here and here). He interviewed me by phone about the E. O. Wilson piece in the second link, and although I thought he understood the problems with Wilson’s work, what he published in The New Yorker was a lame and noncommital assessment of the “group selection” controversy.
I can’t claim that I’m prescient, but Lehrer was clearly an ambitious young man in a hurry, whose work I always saw as superficial. And now he’s been caught out.
According to yesterday’s Washington Post, Lehrer fabricated some quotes from Bob Dylan for his newest book, and the repercussions are serious:
A staff writer for The New Yorker has resigned and his best-selling book has been halted after he acknowledged inventing quotes by Bob Dylan. [JAC: See this separate NYT piece on Lehrer’s resignation.]
Jonah Lehrer released a statement Monday through his publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, saying that some Dylan quotes appearing in “Imagine: How Creativity Works” did “not exist.” Others were “unintentional misquotations, or represented improper combinations of previously existing quotes.”
Lehrer said he acknowledged his actions after being contacted by Michael Moynihan of the online publication Tablet Magazine, which earlier Monday released an in-depth story on the Dylan passages in “Imagine”
“I told Mr. Moynihan that they (the quotes in question) were from archival interview footage provided to me by Dylan’s representatives. This was a lie spoken in a moment of panic. When Mr. Moynihan followed up, I continued to lie, and say things I should not have said,” Lehrer wrote in his statement.
“The lies are over now. I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologize to everyone I have let down, especially my editors and readers.”
Houghton Mifflin said in a statement that Lehrer had committed a “serious misuse.” Listings for the e-book edition of “Imagine” will be removed and shipments of the physical book have been stopped.
Both the hardcover and audiobooks of Imagine are still listed on Amazon, but they seem to have pulled the main offerings, since there are almost no reader comments on the hardcover.
Michael C. Moynihan’s story in the Jewish magazine Tablet—the story that led to Lehrer’s downfall—is free online: “Jonah Lehrer’s deceptions.” It turns out that this is not the first time that Lehrer played fast and loose with his journalism:
Last month, Lehrer was accused of a curious journalistic offense: the act of “self-plagiarism.” Lehrer, a staff writer at The New Yorker and celebrated author of three books, cannibalized his own work, posting often word-for-word excerpts from Imagine on The New Yorker’s blog without noting that it had been published elsewhere. To some, it was a tenuous charge—as one journalist commented to me, this was like “being accused of stealing food from your own refrigerator.” Others highlighted the pressures brought to bear on young writers to produce more and more content.
It wasn’t the first time Lehrer’s fellow writers had raised questions about his work. Reviewing his first book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, philosopher Jonathon Keats upbraided Lehrer for a narrative larded with examples that “arbitrarily and often inaccurately” supported his thesis. The writer Edward Champion, who catalogued Lehrer’s recent recyclings on his blog, stated baldly that Lehrer was guilty of “plagiarizing” a paragraph from fellow New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell. A New York Times reviewer catalogued the “many elementary errors” in Imagine. And the New Republic’s Isaac Chotiner, in a devastating review of Imagine, chided Lehrer for “borrowing (heavily)” from economist Edward Glaeser and claimed that “almost everything” in his exegesis of Bob Dylan’s song “Like a Rolling Stone” was “inaccurate, misleading, or simplistic.”
Lehrer’s Wikipedia bio gives a bit more information (I’ve removed the footnote numbers):
In 2012, it was reported that Lehrer had self-plagiarized several blog posts he had submitted to The New Yorker. All five of these blog posts now appear on The New Yorker website with editor’s notes listing where Lehrer had previously published related sentences, including The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Wired, and The Guardian. Additionally, Edward Champion reported that portions of Imagine: How Creativity Works had been published previously in various forms by Lehrer. In response, a spokesperson for Lehrer’s publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, stated: “He owns the rights to the relevant articles, so no permission was needed. He will add language to the acknowledgments noting his prior work.” Lehrer apologized for the unattributed reuse of his own work.
A correction appended to a different Lehrer article on The New Yorker website from January 2012 noted that unattributed quotations published in the original version of that article had been taken from the work of another writer.
Moynihan, the author of the Tablet piece, turns out to be something of a Dylan maven, and when he saw the dubious quotes in Imagine, he wrote Lehrer and asked for the source. After weeks of evasion and lying, Lehrer finally came clean.
Over the next three weeks, Lehrer stonewalled, misled, and, eventually, outright lied to me. Yesterday, Lehrer finally confessed that he has never met or corresponded with Jeff Rosen, Dylan’s manager; he has never seen an unexpurgated version of Dylan’s interview for No Direction Home, something he offered up to stymie my search; that a missing quote he claimed could be found in an episode of Dylan’s “Theme Time Radio Hour” cannot, in fact, be found there; and that a 1995 radio interview, supposedly available in a printed collection of Dylan interviews called The Fiddler Now Upspoke, also didn’t exist. When, three weeks after our first contact, I asked Lehrer to explain his deceptions, he responded, for the first time in our communication, forthrightly: “I couldn’t find the original sources,” he said. “I panicked. And I’m deeply sorry for lying.”
Read Moynihan’s piece for a lot more gory detail.
Now you may think that making up a few Bob Dylan quotes, and then lying about them, is not an offense serious enough to warrant recall of Lehrer’s book or his firing at The New Yorker. But you must remember that publishers don’t vet the accuracy of books: they depend on the author to do so. Once an author has transgressed, how can they ever trust him again? And The New Yorker does vet quotes: it’s famous for its fact-checking. The sin of that magazine is not in buying Lehrer’s fabrications (though I pointed out two errors in the New Yorker piece on Wilson), but in hiring a young man whose slick prose hid both his errors and his superficial conclusions. The New Yorker is all too ready to favor style over substance, and it needs to do some serious soul-searching about this tendency.
Lehrer is, for the nonce, journalistic toast. It will take a long time, if ever, before publishers trust him again. And he’ll never again write for The New Yorker. I’d feel sorry for him except that making stuff up and lying about it is nearly as big a sin in journalism as it is in science, and Lehrer scuppered a brilliant career by being in too much of a hurry. Did he really think he could get away with this?
Moynihan gives the eulogy:
A month ago, when Lehrer’s self-plagiarism scandal emerged, some supporters argued that it was simply the misstep of a young journalist. But making up sources, deceiving a fellow journalist, and offering accounts of films you have never seen and emails never exchanged, is, to crib Bob Dylan, on a whole other level.