Wednesday, August 01, 2012

The Fall of Jonah Lehrer

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.”

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.”
 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.

Former New Yorker staff writer Jonah Lehrer is the author of Imagine: How Creativity Works.
Nina Subin/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Former New Yorker staff writer Jonah Lehrer is the author of Imagine: How Creativity Works.
July 31, 2012
"The lies are over now." That's an attributable quote from writer Jonah Lehrer, who resigned Monday from his job as a staff writer for The New Yorker, one of the most prestigious jobs in journalism. The past few months have been a series of revelations about Lehrer's tendencies to reuse his own material and make up quotes.

Lehrer started to attract unwanted attention earlier this year when his magazine work was found to borrow liberally from his own previously published articles. It seemed lazy and embarrassing, but not punishable.

Around the same time, in March, Lehrer's third book came out. Called Imagine, it examines the nature of creativity and starts with a discussion of a moment when musician Bob Dylan thought about switching to novels. Here's a line from the book:

"But then, just when Dylan was most determined to stop creating music, he was overcome with a strange feeling. 'It's a hard thing to describe,' Dylan would later remember. 'It's just this sense that you got something to say.' "

Lehrer claims the result was the song "Like a Rolling Stone." But when journalist Michael Moynihan picked up Imagine he was already a little suspicious.
"There were moments in it that I thought things were fishy," Moynihan says. "I thought the general premise of the chapter that, you know, Dylan had a creative breakthrough with the writing of 'Like a Rolling Stone' was wrong. I mean, that's a matter of opinion, but i think it was an album before that. And you know, these are things that Dylan nerds like myself care about."

Now, Dylan nerds are notorious completists, so everything the singer's ever said is archived somewhere — fairly easy to find for an inquisitive journalist.

But Moynihan could not find seven Dylan quotes Lehrer used in his first chapter, so he started a three-week long correspondence with the author, who gave increasingly fantastical excuses for lacking sources.

"There was a point when it seemed panicky," he says, "and that's when it started to unravel." Lehrer confessed that he'd made up the quotes, and Moynihan published an article in the online magazine Tablet that led to Lehrer's resignation from The New Yorker, where he'd been a rising star.

Imagine had been a best-seller, another coup for the 31-year-old writer who was frequently asked to discuss science, creativity and the brain, including on NPR and with Stephen Colbert. So Lehrer's predicament, given his preferred topic, makes irony an understatement in this case.

"You know, I do think in some level this is the predictable outcome of expecting a young journalist to be the next Oliver Sacks," says literary agent Scott Mendel. Sacks spent decades as a practicing neurologist and psychologist, Mendel says, but Lehrer benefited too quickly from a system that likes its stars.

"It was easy for people to forget that part of Jonah Lehrer's background and expertise didn't exist," Mendel says. "He's too young to have that kind of experience."

Mendel adds that nonfiction writers throughout history have faked materials, discovered lost texts that weren't truly lost, or made up characters and events. What's new, he says, is how quickly Lehrer was exposed. Fact checking meet crowdsourcing.

"You can't write about something people care deeply about without assuming that hundreds, if not thousands, of people will immediately begin checking your facts," Mendel says.

Moynihan takes no pleasure in having exposed someone whose talent he says he admired. "Why people do it in this day and age, when it's so easy to get caught, is beyond me," he says. "Look, in the course of doing my job, I was ensuring someone else would lose theirs. That's not fun."

Lehrer's publisher has stopped shipping Imagine and pulled the e-book version. And in the tradition of the fabulist James Frey, who wrote A Million Little Pieces, refunds are being offered to readers whose trust was betrayed.
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 

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