Bestselling author, 31-year-old TED-style talker, and (until yesterday) New Yorker staff writer Jonah Lehrer, usually described as Malcolm Gladwell 2.0, is now being lumped in a rocky pile along with the likes of Johann Hari, Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, and Ruth Shalit.
Lehrer, who had already dipped his toe in warm water last month when it was discovered (among other slip-ups) that he was publishing items on the New Yorker's website that he had published elsewhere, stepped into it big time by including a bunch of never-before-seen quotes by Bob Dylan in his new best-selling book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. The new transgressions, though they were already raising some general suspicions and critiques, might have yet escaped attention had not they caught the attention of Reason Contributing Editor and Dylan obsessive Michael C. Moynihan.
Yesterday morning, Moynihan detailed for Tablet his three-week odyssey of trying to get Lehrer to reveal his sources. This is the deadliest of several damning sections:
But the most troubling citations relate to one of Dylan’s most famous compositions. According to Lehrer, here is Bob Dylan on his 1965 song, “Like a Rolling Stone”: “[Dylan] would later say it was his first ‘completely free song … the one that opened it up for me.’ ”And these ruminations on where the song came from: “ ‘It’s a hard thing to describe,’ ” Lehrer claims Dylan said. “ ‘It’s just this sense that you got something to say.’ ” Lehrer does not provide citations for either of these, and after a deep excavation of the Dylan record I was unable to locate them. In a phone call and subsequent emails, Lehrer told me these quotes were a result of his research at “bobdylan.com headquarters” and that he had access to the uncut version of No Direction Home provided by Dylan’s manager Jeff Rosen.
When I asked about aspects of his interactions with Rosen, Lehrer provided a sketchy time frame and contradictory specifics—he first told me that he had personally exchanged emails with Rosen, then attributed this supposed email exchange to his literary agent—then further claimed that Dylan’s management had approved the chapter after being sent a copy of Imagine. He added that Dylan’s management didn’t want their cooperation sourced in the book. But when I contacted Dylan’s management, they told me that they were unfamiliar with Lehrer, had never read his book, there was no bobdylan.com headquarters, and, to the best of their recollection, no one there had screened outtakes from No Direction Home for Lehrer. Confronted with this, Lehrer admitted that he had invented it.
By the afternoon, Lehrer apologetically resigned from The New Yorker, his publisher Houghton Milton Harcourt was yanking his book from stores, Amazon and Barnes & Noble were halting sales, and The Wall Street Journal (for which he was a regular contributor for a couple of years) announced that "We are currently reviewing Mr. Lehrer's work for the Journal." It will likely get worse before it gets better.
Moynihan, unlike most of my Twitter feed, is not dancing on the grave of a younger, more-accomplished-until-yesterday journalist. From an interview with the New York Observer:
To be honest? It’s a horrible, horrible, horrible feeling, and that’s not to mitigate in any way what Lehrer did, and what he was guilty of. And what he was trying to do to me, which was to get me to report stuff that wasn’t true. [...]
I’m not somebody who desires to nail a scalp to the wall. But I was reporting out a story I thought was interesting, and it became a story that was absolutely necessary to report to correct the record in a lot of ways. And he spun me up with a series of lies that he ultimately admitted to, and I have to write that. At the end of the day, when you see a guy who’s a promising young journalist—a very talented guy, a very smart guy, and a very good writer—and you see him lose his livelihood, it’s not something that makes you jump for joy. [...]
I really resent people who plagiarize, and I didn’t catch Jonah Lehrer plagiarizing. But let me amend that: I resent people who cut corners, because I’m not the fastest writer in the world, and I spend time banging my head against the wall trying to make the words come out in the right way. I don’t like people who cheat.
Are there any great takeaways from this, other than don't mess with Dylanologists? I'd tentatively suggest three:
1) Books don't get nearly the editing scrutiny that magazine articles do. This is known by absolutely everybody who has written both, but is still not universally understood by the public.
2) Vaunted Big Media fact-checking departments are still no match for a skilled liar, and may just be overrated.
3) When you (and your career) grow up almost exclusively in public (and in high-profile venues to boot), you don't have the usual space and leeway to make (and learn from) egregious errors and bad habits. If my early output as an 18-year-old college student was widely available at a location people paid attention to, I might have some stuff to answer for. I don't know about Lehrer's career path, but I can testify that writing and editing many hundreds of articles before entering the semi-conventional journalistic workforce burned my fingers permanently from the temptations of corner-cutting, while leaving me with the conviction that the slower slog of trying to make the words "come out in the right way" is an infinitely more rewarding and potent exercise.