You will recall the story of now-defrocked New Yorker neuroscience reporter Jonah Lehrer who Reason Contributing Editor Michael C. Moynihan caught synthesizing and making up Bob Dylan quotes (then serially lying about it) to fit his various neato theories about the creative process. You just knew that a career this shiny couldn't survive such a defenestration without at least some high-toned special pleading, and sure enough, Paul Tullis steps up to the mic in The New York Observer.
I believe we can break this exercise down into its eight constituent parts, so we can spot the formula for next time.
Step 1: Make sure everyone knows that you were far-sighted enough to recognize this genius way back when. This is the piece's opening paragraph:
I was Jonah Lehrer's editor at Seed magazine, which I believe was the first magazine to publish his writing on neuroscience, and the originator of his "Frontal Cortex" blog. One of the stories we worked on together was included in the 2007 edition of Best American Science and Nature Writing (although that one, in truth, didn't need much help from me).
Step 2: Make sure everyone knows you have worked with the best of the best, and he is surely one of them. Paragraph two:
He is one of the most talented, hard-working, meticulous, and careful writers I've edited (a group that includes Dave Eggers, Geraldine Brooks, Peter Godwin, Michael Eric Dyson, Evan Ratliff, Bryan Walsh, Jake Silverstein, and Tom Clynes). And having first-hand experience of the fact-checking departments at The New Yorker and Wired, the magazines for which Lehrer most recently wrote, I doubt very much that his manufacturing or misuse of quotes extends much to his magazine writing.
Step 3: Grotesquely minimize the infraction by using the ol' fake-but-accurate tag.
Absent further revelations, though, I find it an unfair double-standard that something Lehrer falsely attributed to Bob Dylan—which is essentially accurate, even if it isn't technically—has cost him his job, and that his publisher is yanking his book.
Step 4: Change the subject to those right-wing gasbags that all thinking people know to hate.
Because meanwhile, fatheads on cable TV like Bill O'Reilly knowingly (and probably unknowingly, too) purvey falsehoods every day and they don't lose their jobs, and their books (of much lower quality, and higher degree of falsehood, than Lehrer's "Imagine," in nearly all instances) stay on the shelves. Books by Dinesh D'Souza and Ann Coulter have been full of demonstrable falsehoods for years, and what do these authors get? Another six-figure book contract, that's what.
Step 5: Drag government officials into it:
And what of the politicians' lies? Sad to say, but the only explanation is that we expect it of them, and hold our writers to a higher standard than our policy makers.
Step 6: Make the grotesquely inaccurate comparison to the subject songwriter/painter using appropriation in his art.
Dylan himself has not been immune to borrowing, appropriation, theft—Jonathan Lethem would know what to call it: Dylan's artworks displayed at Gagosian Gallery last year included an image that appeared to be mimicry of Henri Cartier-Bresson; he was accused of appropriating lyrics from a Civil War-era poet; and his album "Love & Theft" contains melodies and chord progressions that sound remarkably similar to earlier songs, including one from his own album, "Oh Mercy."
Step 7: Insult everybody who has written about Jonah Lehrer this week.
The fact is that the reporter at Tablet who busted Lehrer; most of the bloggers who’ve recycled the Tablet article and make a living as parasites on the work of better reporters than themselves (the twit at FishbowlNY can’t even bother to spell Jonah’s name right); and this reporter, too, couldn’t hold a candle to him as a writer or original—yes, original—thinker.
Final Step 8: Proclaim that the great man will come back stronger than before.
Lehrer has become less a journalist and more of a purveyor of ideas. He's much higher on the media totem pole than [Jayson] Blair or [Stephen] Glass ever were, and he can come back as an author of books, public speaker, TV commentator, screenwriter.… David Remnick’s distancing statement notwithstanding, Lehrer doesn’t need The New Yorker anymore[.]
Yes, and I'm pretty sure we have learned that we don't need Paul Tullis, either.
A snippet from Lehrer's recent interview with Reason.tv below: