New Yorker Wunderkind Fabricates Himself Out of a Job, as Discovered by Michael C. Moynihan

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.

Another interview with Moynihan over at Poynter.

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.

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  • R C Dean||

    the slower slog of trying to the words "come out in the right way"

    Slow, indeed. Keep plugging away!

  • Pro Libertate||

    Hey, maybe Hayden Christensen can play him in the biopic about his downfall? He was really good in Shattered Glass. This one could be called Lehrer, Lehrer.

  • Brandybuck||

    That movie was Christensen's best work. He's was such a natural at portraying the whiny entitled douche that was Stephen Glass. Unfortunately, he also portrayed Anakin Skywalker as a whiny entitled douche.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Well, to be fair, Anakin was written that way. Though I don't think Christensen was the right guy for that role, either.

  • SIV||

    New Yorker staff writer Jonah Lehrer, usually described as Malcolm Gladwell 2.0, is now being lumped in a rocky pile along the likes of Johann Hari, Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, and Ruth Shalit.

    Janet Cooke!

    Janet Cooke!

    Janet Cooke!

  • DJF||

    Judith Miller beats them all, she helped lie the US into war.

    The NYT tried to turn her into a hero for protecting her sources which lied the US into war.

  • SIV||

    Drumming up support for going to war is an age-old journalistic tradition. Not a career-ender.

  • John||

    But she didn't go to jail over that. She went to jail over who revealed that that soccer mom in Virginia worked at CIA headquarters. And what lies did Judith Miller ever print? It turned out that Valarie Plame did get her dingbat husband the job. And that he didn't do much of any work in Nigeria.

  • DJF||

    Its a good thing he did not do much work in Nigeria, he was suppose to be in Niger.

  • John||

    Point still stand. Miller never lied about anything much less lied the country into war.

  • DJF||

    So where are the WMD's. Oh wait, you think that they are on a tour of the middle east with stops in Syria and Iran.

  • John||

    The entire world thought Saddam had stock piles of weapons. Indeed, that was the biggest argument used against he war before the invasion, that a desperate Saddam would turn Iraq into a chemical hell. Odd how that argument got forgotten and changed into "everyone knew it was a lie".

    Saddam had claimed to have the weapons, acted like he had the weapons and had had them and used them in the past. And still had the know how and capability of producing them. The intelligence was wrong but the idea that it was fabricated like there was no reason to ever believe it is one of the dumber things people tell themselves.

  • Proprietist||

    The entire world, except for the millions of people who were skeptical that the governments couldn't seem to provide one shred of evidence for their assumptions, right?

  • John||

    The entire world, except for the millions of people who were skeptical that the governments couldn't seem to provide one shred of evidence for their assumptions, right?

    LOL. I love how people rewrite history. That wasn't the argument. The argument was Saddam was going to chem the middle east and create a humanitarian disaster. It was later that everyone claimed to be so "skeptical".

  • robc||

    Yes, it was the argument. From me, at least.

    Stop lying.

  • Proprietist||

    Yeah, that was the argument for me too. If you can't produce one single photograph, or an interview from a defector from the regime or any evidence of nuclear testing - and with the entire intelligence community supposedly watching them - why pre-emptively strike if you can't show what exactly you're pre-empting convincingly?

    Also, many of us noted even back at the time that it's possible Iraq was putting up a defensive facade to stave off regional enemies like Iran, which turns to have been exactly what they were doing.

    And finally - why is America the only country that can legitimately have nuclear weapons? I would take claims that we should pre-emptively sacrifice tens of thousands of civilians and soldiers to stop others from getting weapons more seriously if we didn't look like total hypocrites on the subject and the goal was to actually have a nuke-free world.

  • Brandybuck||

    I remember Colonel David Hackworth wringing his hands that we weren't properly prepared for chemical warfare.

  • Mensan||

    I don't find this all that disturbing. Maybe it's because I have assumed for years that most reporters lie and fabricate pretty frequently. I formed that opinion when I was 14-years old, and read the newspaper coverage of an event of which I had first-hand knowledge.

  • ||

    I'm convinced that most reporters never leave their desk or pick up their phones. They simply piece together facts gathered from publicly available sources and stitch them together into semi-coherent passages that the majority of people never even read anyway.

  • DJF||

    Most just regurgitate press releases from “authoritative sources”

  • Pro Libertate||

    That reminds me of that scene in Foundation, where Hardin bitches about the decline of an Empire where research is all about reading other people's research.

  • Fatty Bolger||

    I formed that opinion when I was 14-years old, and read the newspaper coverage of an event of which I had first-hand knowledge.

    Yes, it's amazing what an eye opener that experience can be.

  • SIV||

    I blame neuroscience.

  • SIV||

    Mr. Lehrer, who majored in neuroscience at Columbia

    Perhaps holding a degree in psuedoscience should have served as a warning to Lehrer's editors and publishers.

  • ||

    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.

    I'm not a Jonah Lehrer expert or fan or whatever but what little I've read about him has me convinced that he's not a writer but a salesman. I see his type online all the time. They rely on continually rehashing crap they wrote months or years before that at one time was actually good and original. It wouldn't surprise me one bit to discover that much of his work was simply adapted from other people's writing. He obviously didn't walk the same path of someone who wanted to be a good writer for love of the profession. His only concern was feeding his own ego.

  • Paul.||

    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.


    You sit in that lane, sometimes clear back from Fauntleroy, waiting in that interminable line of traffic. Then, right before the exit, some kid in a Honda Civic just cuts in. They just ignore the signs and cross that double white line.

    re: debugging reason.com: Blockquote tags ain't a-workin'.

  • Paul.||

    Oh, they do work... they just don't work in preview. Huh. Ok, amend that. Blockquote tags don't a-work in preview.

  • Mensan||

    I noticed that too. They just show up as larger bold text in preview.

  • Night Elf Mohawk||

    At least you have preview.

  • Caleb Turberville||

    Okay, but to be fair, who here has never intentionally misquoted Bob Dylan to support an argument?

  • Paul.||

    Who's Bob Dylan?

  • Caleb Turberville||

    I don't know. Seem to remember Jesus Jones singing about him once.

  • Joe R.||

    He's a cover artist. I always hear him singing these songs that someone else sang.

  • Pro Libertate||

    I like him best when he's Jimi Hendrix.

  • Broseph of Invention||

    I like him better in the 70's when he was called Steely Dan.

  • Proprietist||

    His Byrds ripoffs were so awful and out of key.

  • ||

    Okay, but to be fair, who here has never intentionally misquoted Bob Dylan to support an argument?

    Of course everyone misquotes Bob Dylan (his songs anyway). All the guy does is mumble.

    And yes, that is a big middle finger to all you Dylan fans.

  • Lord Humungus||

    you're dead to me.

  • SIV||

    Michael C. Moynihan: dean of Dylanology.

  • Caleb Turberville||

    "Beauty walks a razor's edge, someday I'll make it mine." - Bob Dylan

  • Joe R.||

    "I was dreaming when I wrote this, so sue me if I go too fast." -- Bob Dylan

  • EDG reppin' LBC||

    You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar
    When I met you. I picked you out
    I shook you up

    And turned you around
    Turned you into someone new.

    Now five years later on you've got the world at your feet
    Success has been so easy for you.
    But don't forget it's me who put you where you are now

    And I can put you back down too.

    --Bob Dylan

  • Proprietist||

    "Everybody was kung-fu fighting
    Those cats were fast as lightning"

    -- Bob Dylan

  • robc||

    Google "Bill James Summer of '49"

    David Halberstam wasnt immune to cutting corners. You think he would have learned over time.

    If you can find the essay (its in James' The Baseball Book 1991), read it.

    Even people who acknowledge James' essay on the internet dont get the point, which wasnt about the egregious factual errors, but the mischaracterization of people.

  • John||

    James has his own issues. This is the guy who for years claimed that Rose was innocent and the Dowd report was a fabrication and is now claiming Joe Paterno was innocent of any wrong doing.

    And of course James got famous for doing nothing but publishing statistics and making points that knowledgeable baseball people had known for decades.

  • robc||

    knowledgeable baseball people had known for decades

    Then why werent they doing it on the field?

    He always acknowledged that people like Branch Rickey were well aware of many of the things he pushed decades before he started writing, but it hadnt filtered down to the rest of baseball.

  • John||

    A lot of them were doing it on the field. It is just that some didn't. But it is not like James invented anything. At most he just put a lot of different things people were doing into one place.

  • robc||

    A lot of them were doing it on the field

    Bullshit.

    Managers STILL bunt way too much. They still use their most valuable relief pitchers in unvaluable situations. Your closer is more valuable in a tie game, than with a 3 run lead at the top of the 9th, for example.

  • John||

    They use relievers in that position because relievers want saves. The save is a stupid statistic. But relivers love it and they do it to keep them happy.

    And managers pre-James in the 1970s, before the save, used relievers exactly as you want them to. It was the save that changed things.

  • robc||

    Relievers* arent valuable enough to worry about keeping happy.

    Im well aware of the history, but James slammed it repeatedly.

    *with a tiny handful of exceptions.

  • robc||

    Finding a top notch closer isnt hard. Find a washed up drunk starter, for example.

    There is a reason Smoltz moved back to the starting lineup.

  • John||

    Closers are of no value. That is why none of them ever get big contracts (not).

  • robc||

    Closers are of no value. That is why none of them ever get big contracts (not).

    Thats the point!!!! Teams dont understand the true value of closers, so overpay them.

    You claimed that the baseball people understood the stuff James was writing about, but this is a clear example that they dont.

  • John||

    Teams dont understand the true value of closers, so overpay them.

    But above you were saying they were misused not undervalued. Which is it, do relievers not have any value or are they not used in the proper spots?

  • robc||

    Both. Except you are lying once again with "not have any value".

    They pitch 80 innings a year. Thus, they have little value. Even worse, the best of them, in theory, arent always used in the high leverage situations, but instead get half their innings in low leverage situations.

    They have relatively low value, but it would be bigger if they were used in 80 high leverage innings per year.

  • robc||

    Closers are of no value.

    This is so typical John, right there. I say closers arent worth much, and you turn it into zero.

    Thats the kind of thing liars do.

  • robc||

    Another example, you still see teams put a fast guy with a low OBP in the leadoff position.

  • John||

    I really turned on James in the 90s over his defense of Pete Rose. It was obvious that Rose was guilty. I will never understand why James wouldn't admit the obvious.

  • robc||

    See my comment below. He wanted criminal court level proof.

  • Pro Libertate||

    That level of proof is needed to protect someone's liberty, not their reputation. There are plenty of people we all dislike/distrust/etc. based on less than that standard.

  • robc||

    I didnt say he was applying the right standard, just the one he was using.

    His claim was that Rose could have fought the ban in court and might have won, as the Dowd report wouldnt have been accepted, IIRC.

  • John||

    That is the whole point, he was applying the wrong standard and defending an obviously guilty guy who was getting what he deserved.

  • robc||

    Is there a wrong standard for personal decisions on this? I dont think there is.

    He never claimed Rose was innocent and wasnt defending him. He claimed that the Dowd report was shitty and that Rose could have countersued and avoided the ban.

    Of course, as Rose knew he was guilty, he probably knew that doing that would lead to good evidence being found and then he was screwed.

  • John||

    Is there a wrong standard for personal decisions on this?

    Yes there is. We have rules of evidence and such because we are willing to let guilty people go. The standard in court is a procedural one as much as a factual one. And the Dowd report was well done. They had the damned the betting slips with Rose's finger prints on them. James' arguments against them were total bullshit.

    James just liked Rose just like he likes Paterno. The whole thing proved what a hack he is.

  • robc||

    It did nothing of the sort. He isnt a hack, for one thing.

    And compare and contrast his writing on the Dowd report with his HOF book. Its not that he liked Rose, he didnt like the way it was handled. I think it comes from his lefty mindset, but whatever.

    In fact, I know he didnt like Rose, look at his pre-scandal writings...he ripped Rose as a manager and considered him overrated as a player.

    Read EVERYTHING James wrote about Rose to get the whole picture. You, once again, are freaking picking and choosing.

    And still not sure what this has to do with Halberstam. Was he right about him or not?

  • Brandybuck||

    I once waited on Pete Rose's table. He didn't tip.

  • robc||

    Re: Dowd Report.

    Speaking of fabrications, you just made one up right there. I have read James' comments on the Dowd report. He thinks it was shoddily done and wouldnt hold up in court. I dont ever think he claimed Rose was innocent, just that his guilt hadnt been proven beyond reasonable doubt.

    Admittedly, James is applying a higher standard than a commissioner would need to apply, but that is beside the point.

    In his HOF book, he rips apart the people who say Rose and Jackson should be in the HOF because Cobb or Anson are in it.

  • John||

    James totally claimed Rose was innocent. Right up until Rose admitted that he was in fact guilty. And it was pure sophistry on James' fault. Who cares if the Dowd report couldn't meet the rules of evidence? The fact was Rose was guilty and it was obvious he was from the report. James is pulling the same bullshit again with Paterno. "we don't know what happened". Bullshit. We know exactly what happened.

  • robc||

    Read James' essay on the Dowd report. You are complete mischaracterizing it.

    He went thru it bit by bit, pointing out why it was poorly done.

  • SIV||

    SUCK IT BITCHEZ!

  • SIV||

    Hmmmm, MARQUEE seems to be disabled. What's up with that?

  • Lord Humungus||

    I don't think Bob Dylan could even quote himself. If you asked him a question multiple times, you would get a different answer every time.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    "But that's what he would have said, if I could have gotten him to talk to me!"

  • ||

    I can't wait for him to reinvent himself as Henry Blodget 2.0

  • SIV||

    The guy who started all of this? A Tablet contributor, former VICE editor, and Wall Street Journal freelancer, Michael C. Moynihan.

    Reason doesn't make the resume.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    I was first at Reason to break this story, but that's okay. I'm not looking for recognition. [Higher pitch] That's okay.

  • Franklin Harris||

    ... usually described as Malcolm Gladwell 2.0 ...

    Because we needed more of that tripe anyway.

  • ||

    Exactly what I was going to write, poorly written pseudo-science for the ADD generation.

  • SIV||

    Looks like the Shulman house should be back on the market soon.

    Moynihan's wiki bio contains some questionable claims:

    Moynihan is the senior editor of both Reason magazine, as well as its website, Reason.com.

  • AReasonableMan||

    I appreciate that making up quotes is a no-no. But, I'm in the middle of reading this book and finding some interesting insights about creativity. I won't bet my life on the quotes, now, but it would never have mattered much to me anyway. I care more about good theories, and I'm finding them in the book.

    I, personally, really don't care about what Bob Dylan did or didn't say.

    I understand that some people do, but halting sales seems a bit extreme. Wouldn't it be enough to add a disclaimer online, and maybe drop the price? (not that that would help me)

  • Sohnman||

    I know that journalistic integrity is supposed to be sacred; however, to be honest it must be realize that journalism today sucks and the ability to write something without plagiarizing is difficult. There is an old saying, "There has been nothing original since Shakespeare" and some have suggested that Shakespeare plagiarized. In other words, plagiarism is pretty easy and it should be no surprise that someone plagiarizes a prolific artist like Dylan or fabricates quotes. I am not saying it is right, nor am I suggesting that this guy should keep his job. I am simply saying, “Should we be surprised?”

    Journalistic integrity is at an all time low. One cannot trust news outlets to provide the whole picture or present an honest undistorted picture. Recently CNN played "Stupid Girls" and the host laughing as they introduced a segment on Sarah Palin. I am no fan of Palin (She stole the Tea Party from Libertarians in my view); however, this type of “journalism” seems to be the norm. Sensationalism sells and journalism fails.

    I think the case is even clearer in the election. Obama and Romney have not been fully vetted. Romney has had more vetting, which is truly sad since Obama has been president for 4 years; however, there is much in their backgrounds that is unknown. Even a friendly biography on Obama completely trashed Obama’s own biography. His life is a mystery and the NYT even admitted that they allow Obama's White House to edit what they write before publishing.

  • ENDelt260||

    Apparently he makes up quotes from other folks as well. This time Teller (of Penn ).

    http://www.poynter.org/latest-.....nn-teller/

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