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: