Media Criticism

Michael Moynihan on Fabulist Jonah Lehrer's New Book: 'There's a point where you stop stabbing the dead body'

Former Reason staffer who exposed the pop-science bestseller as a fraud says "Let the market decide if people want to buy his books."

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I can't wait for his forthcoming tome,

Michael C. Moynihan, the former Reason staffer who hangs his hat these days over at Vice News, is perhaps best known for conducting the freelance fact-check that eventually brought down the high-flying career of bestselling science popularizer, TED talker, and New Yorker staff writer Jonah Lehrer. Moynihan is also my co-conspirator on the Fifth Column podcast, so I took the opportunity last night to ask him about Lehrer's new comeback effort, A Book About Love, which was subject yesterday of a scathing New York Times review by Jennifer Senior (kicker: "I fear it may be time, at long last, for him to find something else to do"). You can listen to the whole podcast at the bottom of this post.

Lehrer, who once memorably told Reason TV that he chose journalism "because I sucked at being a scientist," seems broadly to be up to his old tricks of trying to boil down big, messy subjects into digestible, neuroscience-heavy explainers, is not the world's most sympathetic character (outside of his immediate orbit, anyway). But to my surprise, Moynihan is declining to plunge the knife any deeper, even suggesting that "I would rather fly the airline that just crashed than the one that didn't, because the one that just crashed is probably going to be paying pretty close attention to safety." This despite the fact that Lehrer lied repeatedly to him.

Here's an edited transcript of Moynihan's interesting remarks, to which I have added a few hyperlinks:

Moynihan: Look, I mean, you can be a libertarian about this, and say the market decides when you come back into the market after failing like this. Because Stephen Glass had a novel called The Fabulist: It tanked. Jayson Blair had a book called Burning Down My Masters' House: It tanked. Jonah Lehrer has a book now, and it will likely tank, too. […]

Welch: Johann Hari, also. He—

Moynihan: Johann Hari had a drug book that—

Welch: I think that book did pretty well, though.

Moynihan: It might have done okay; it probably tanked in England. People don't really know his story here in the U.S. […]

But look, I mean, the Lehrer thing….The point I made to [a New York Times reporter] today is that the problem with these books is ultimately that science is complicated, life is complicated, the answers are complicated, and to get to the point where my mother can read a book about pop science and repeat these little nuggets at a dinner party and everyone sort of scratches their chin and they are intrigued by it, you have to shave off all the rough edges. You have to really sand it down….You have to puff up the Bob Dylan quote, right? You have to invent quotes that didn't exist to prove your point, because science is messy, neuroscience is messy. How we decide—which was the name of one of Jonah Lehrer's pulped books—is very messy. But to condense that into a little pop science book is very difficult.

So how do you do it? Well, you kind of cut some corners, and that's ultimately what Lehrer and that's ultimately what other people in that same genre do.

As to the current book, you know, look, he's written an apology at the front of the book and apparently he doesn't really address it very much in the actual book itself….It's another pop science book, and the reporter asked me today if we should trust him, is it trustworthy material. And I said, "I haven't read the book and I don't know."

But the one thing I would say is he's footnoted this thing up the wazoo, he's got another chance, and I compared it to this: I would rather fly the airline that just crashed than the one that didn't, because the one that just crashed is probably going to be paying pretty close attention to safety so they don't really wipe out there.

Welch: That is surprisingly generous coming from you.

Moynihan: I am trying to be generous to Jonah. I don't dislike Jonah. I think that Jonah had a compulsion that I don't quite understand and he never explained to me and that I never really got out of him, because he cut off contact after he acknowledged that he was lying.

Moynihan went on to explain at length how Lehrer, when caught in the act of lying, then went off the record to "lie and lie and lie and lie to me these fantastical, brilliantly spun lies that I could never talk about, and I have never talked about them because they were off the record":

I have never written about it, I have never talked about it in any length. The only thing I have quoted him in my initial piece was what he said to me on the record. That's it. I have reams of emails. I have piles of conversations and notes and everything, but when doing a story about this sort of journalism malfeasance, you don't want to be accused of the same thing. You want to play it straight….So what a lot of people don't know about that story, and about his problems in the past, was that it was kind of worse than what I let on. And that's all I'll say about it.

Welch: I just want to go on record as this is the first time that I think you are showing more rectitude that I can recall than me, and you are much more generous than I would be personally.

Moynihan: Hey man, here's the thing….You know, we let murderers out of jail. Ours is the only profession in which any transgression, big or small, means the end not of your career at a certain outlet, it means the end of your vocation….Look what happened to Stephen Glass, who's not allowed to be a lawyer in California. He cannot pass the morals clause of the California Bar. These are fucking lawyers in California! These are the least moral people on the face of the earth! I'm thinking about fucking Barry Scheck, you know, Robert Kardashian, Johnny Cochran, the whole Dream Team….And they won't let Stephen Glass in.

There's a point where I say: Enough. Let the market decide if people want to buy his books. If he lies, he will be exposed faster than you can blink. I don't believe in destroying somebody's life forever. People make mistakes. Let the guy have made his mistake. He's been in the wilderness for what, four or five years now? I don't feel bad for him; he created his own situation; I don't feel like I'm responsible for his situation. But there's a point where you stop stabbing the dead body.

 Listen below to the whole podcast, which is filled with discussion about Hillary Clinton's emails, Donald Trump's mouth, Gary Johnson's reticence, and more: 

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  1. At least Lehrer can probably exist for more than a few seconds in direct sunlight.

    1. Why would you want to, when the rewards are endless youth and snark-powers that can kill a man from across the room?

  2. Don’t mean to be a nitpicker (I’m a scientist, not a journalist), but maybe a word or two on what this book is actually supposed to be about…?

  3. Agreeing with Moynihan makes me feel dirty.

  4. Alt-text is missing the following: punchability: a memoir.

    1. Or: The Jonad File.

    2. Wait, did you see that that was my original alt text? If not I’ma get freaked out….

  5. No KMELE NO DOWNLOAD!!!!

    1. Can you imagine a show with Welch, Foster and Moynihan? Not this internet goofaround thing but a real show? I would tune in to that.

      1. Are you disdaining the content or the medium?

    2. Kmele is the adult in that room. This podcast was devoid of his maturity. Also, Moynihan was a little tipsy, which made it fun.

      1. Yeah I have only listened to part of it but defiantly miss Kmele. I like Welch and Moynihan but agree with Foster’s outlook much more. For example I believe the Kmele is a gun owner so he is stronger on the 2nd amendment.

        1. I would enjoy the podcast even if it was just Matt and Moynihan – I am a Moynifan after all – but Kmele seems to steer the the podcast into more of an intellectual discussion, which I appreciate.

          It was like watching Charlie’s Angels with only Jacklyn Smith and Kate Jackson. Sure, I liked it, but I missed Farrah.

    3. He’s in the first 10 minutes!

  6. Moynihan: Look, I mean, you can be a libertarian about this, and say the market decides when you come back into the market after failing like this. Because Stephen Glass had a novel called The Fabulist: it tanked. Jayson Blair had a book called Burning Down My Masters’ House: it tanked. Jonah Lehrer has a book now, and it will likely tank, too [?]

    Not to be a dick, but to be a dick, maybe this is the market deciding.

  7. Michael Moynihan, on Fabulist Jonah Lehrer’s New Book: ‘There’s a point where you stop stabbing the dead body’

    My God, these euphemisms.

    1. Stop peeking in my window

  8. which was subject yesterday of a scathing New York Times review by Jennifer Senio

    “There’s a lot of dime-store counsel in this book, often followed by academic citations. It’s like reading an advice column by way of JSTOR.”

    Day-um, Jenny.

    1. That review was the best thing I will probably read all day.

    2. His book is insolently unoriginal.

      …the vote to excommunicate Mr. Lehrer was as much about the product he was peddling as the professional transgressions he was committing. It was a referendum on a certain genre of canned, cocktail-party social science, one that traffics in bespoke platitudes for the middlebrow and rehearses the same studies without saying something new…

      ..He’s written a book about love that has no heart…

      She then points out that even the few examples of style/insight he displays seem to be carefully-lifted ideas borrowed from other pop-non-fic writers.


      …If you squint, you’ll see that Mr. Lehrer often rehashes arguments made by others, both in structure and content, when writing parts of his book. Sometimes he credits these people; sometimes he doesn’t. But the point is, he’s relying on their associations and connections…

      i’d hate to be this lady’s ex-BF

  9. I dunno, I didn’t read the kid’s books before, I won’t be reading them after, but when you burn your moral capital with the public, sometimes the public decides you’ve burned your moral capital.

    1. It certainly isn’t Moynihan’s job to be the official Lehrer-stabber just because he did it once, but Lehrer chose this profession which is all about praising or stabbing – so to assume he’s corrected his ways because he got caught once seems obscenely naive.

  10. So what a lot of people don’t know about that story, and about his problems in the past, was that it was kind of worse than what I led on. And that’s all I’ll say about it.

    At what point does someone’s deceptions become so bad that a journalist talks more about it?

    Or do they just keep writing about how dishonest someone is and they have proof of it but the subject wouldn’t allow release and basically keep pushing it until the subject says to release it?

  11. re: Lehrer’s faux-apology =

    Michael Moynihan, who broke the Imagine fabrication story, is reported (by Jon Ronson, see below) as having described it as “a string of Gladwellian bullshit.”[41]:49

    Now that’s a black-belt-level diss. It manages to skewer one shitty, pretentious writer by using another as the weapon. 360-no-look headshot.

    Oh, how I pine for the days of Moynihan and Balko. this place had balls.

    1. I enjoyed and still enjoy both of them.

      1. I was suggesting that the current batch of scribblers here have lost some of the edge that formerly characterized Reason.

        Not that either of those 2 were any lower in my estimation.

        1. That I agree with. The snarkier, edgier writing was what kept me reading this site. Welch used to do that more often, too, I think.

  12. Oh, how I pine for the days of… Balko. this place hadpunched balls.

    1. A road is made by walking. Balls are made by enduring endless nutpunches.

  13. Ours is the only profession in which any transgression, big or small, means the end not of your career at a certain outlet, it means the end of your vocation

    a little dramatic? also, is that really true?

    1. Look at Hillary Clinton. She intentionally managed email on a personal and insecure server, and it ended her presidential aspirations faster than Howard Dean can say “Yeeeeeaaaaaah”.

    2. Don’t know if it’s true, but it sure the fuck ain’t the only profession. Ask a film director or actor who made a notorious box office failure and you’ll usually get stories about being blackballed for years afterwards.

      The bar is OK with you being a liar after you’ve proved your honesty, but they ain’t OK with letting you in the club when you’ve already proven you can’t be trusted. Notice how Glass didn’t decide to be a chef or a truck driver or a programmer or anything – he purposely chose another profession involving creative writing. Would Glass just make up pretend laws and precedents to deceive clients?

      1. Ask a film director or actor who made a notorious box office failure

        yeah, but i think the point Mike made was that No Other Profession has quite the same “one-strike-and-you’re out” Ethical standards

        Simply dropping a professional-turd isn’t an ethical violation.

        But i think there are probably a few other careers where if you’re caught “Lying“, you don’t get to play in the sandbox anymore. And i think many of them (law, finance, medicine) are often stricter than Journalism. The thing about journalism is that you have a lot of latitude in the range of *ways* you can bullshit things, whereas in other areas, its more black.

        e.g. There was a piece a while back by Eric Shmitt of the NYT… where he wrote a piece “discrediting critics” of Bowe Berghdal… while *never actually naming who these ‘critics’ were*, or even quoting any ‘criticisms’ verbatim.

        He just quoted the administration responses saying “these critics are innacurate” and “we have no evidence of things they say”, etc.

        The people he was talking about and never actually identified were Bowe’s *platoon mates*.

        Its a case study in strategic dishonesty – never saying anything strictly false, but clearly misleading.

        I think re: plageurism is a fairly narrow category of ethical violation, in a career which otherwise allows for fairly wide-latitude ethically.

        just a thought.

        1. its more black and white

  14. As an aside, I’m sick of TED talks and the usual TOP.MEN “wisdom” they carry.

    1. If you enjoy very-painful meta-comedy=

      The greatest TEDx talk ever

  15. Strange that Moynihen conflates the effects of a repressive, anti-market institution like Cali Bar on an individual with the effects of his personal standards of integrity on a suspect fellow citizen.
    Reconsider, Michael. Don’t count yourself out as a market force.

  16. I get pissed when I think Reason staff are doing the same kinds of shitty things journalists elsewhere do (Hi, ENB, Weigel, and Robby!). They probably don’t understand why we get pissed at ’em–since journalists everywhere else do the same things all the time. Horseshit is basically standard practice almost everywhere else.

    The problem is that I can remember Welsh, Moynihan, Gillespie, KMW, Cavanaugh, Sullum, Bailey, Walker, Sanchez, Balko, Howley, and others being straight shooters–day after day, year after year–even as the rest of the web Salonified.

    When others here aren’t living up the standards that Reason bunch has set, it’s painfully obvious to everyone except the newcomers–who are probably judging their own work by prevalent Salonified standards. Every time the peanut gallery around here gets pissed at someone on staff for not shooting straight, Moynihan and the rest should take it as a compliment.

    We’ve been spoiled by their integrity.

  17. Does Lehrer still owns the Shulman house? It had a heavy renovation since he bought it in 2010. If it’s all still his he’s “winning” financially.

    1. This Shulman House?

      $2.5m will get you a couple bedrooms on the upper west side. I get that it has some arty-cachet, but the valuation isn’t exactly 1% territory.

      1. No word on what the renovations cost. Could exceed the purchase price.

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