I had not been following this case too closely until now, when Lehrer resigned Monday from The New Yorker after admitting he made up some Bob Dylan quotes in his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works (which the publisher is now pulling from shelves and offering a refund).
I liked Jonah Lehrer, despite the reputation he had earned as a "populist" science writer who was not to be taken too seriously. He made serious ideas available to the mainstream, and that is a real skill. The fact that he looked like an innocent kid no doubt helped his reputation.
The prior allegation, that he had recycled some work from previous articles into blog posts was no big issue to me - one should make note of such things, but it's hardly plagiarism when the words are yours in the first place.
Michael C. Moynihan wrote the article for Tablet that brought down Jonah Lehrer, and it all began because he could not identify some quotes Lehrer attributed to Bob Dylan. Apparently, and I did not know this any more than Lehrer seemed to know it, Dylan fans are insanely complete in their knowledge of his every utterance.
When contacted, Lehrer provided an explanation for some of my archival failures: He claimed to have been given access, by Dylan’s manager Jeff Rosen, to an extended—and unreleased—interview shot for Martin Scorsese’s documentary No Direction Home. Two of the quotes confounding me, he explained, could be found in a more complete version of that interview that is not publicly available. As corroboration, he offered details of the context in which the comments were delivered and brought up other topics he claimed Dylan discussed in this unreleased footage.
Over the next three weeks, Lehrer stonewalled, misled, and, eventually, outright lied to me. Yesterday, Lehrer finally confessed that he has never met or corresponded with Jeff Rosen, Dylan’s manager; he has never seen an unexpurgated version of Dylan’s interview for No Direction Home, something he offered up to stymie my search; that a missing quote he claimed could be found in an episode of Dylan’s “Theme Time Radio Hour” cannot, in fact, be found there; and that a 1995 radio interview, supposedly available in a printed collection of Dylan interviews called The Fiddler Now Upspoke, also didn’t exist. When, three weeks after our first contact, I asked Lehrer to explain his deceptions, he responded, for the first time in our communication, forthrightly: “I couldn’t find the original sources,” he said. “I panicked. And I’m deeply sorry for lying.”
By the time that article was published online on Monday, Lehrer had resigned from The New Yorker and his publisher announced the expensive recall/refund measure to get the books out of circulation.
Lehrer issued an apology through his agent:
“The lies are over now,” he said. “I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologize to everyone I have let down, especially my editors and readers.”For more in-depth analysis of this issue, NPR ran two separate segments yesterday, one on All Things Considered and one on Talk of the Nation.
He added, “I will do my best to correct the record and ensure that my misquotations and mistakes are fixed. I have resigned my position as staff writer at The New Yorker.”
From Talk of the Nation, Who Makes Stuff Up, And Why They Do It, Neal Conan speaks with:
- Jayson Blair, former reporter for The New York Times and author of Burning Down My Master's House
- Meghan O'Rourke, poet, critic and author of The Long Goodbye
- Adil Shamoo, editor-in-chief, Accountability In Research