Article / Books / Journalism / Media

Jonah Lehrer — You Totally Screwed Up

As a J-School grad, I distinctly remember being shown the film Shattered Glass at least four times. Once in a magazine publishing class, once in a media ethics class and a couple of other times in similar classes. No matter how many times I’ve watched this movie (which I would count among my favorites), I still get incensed about how former New Republic writer, Stephen Glass, could do such a horrific thing. “Horrific” may be an overstatement to an average individual, but in the journalism industry, when all you have is the trust of your readers and a belief that you’re working to make the world a better place, lying, cheating and fabrication are original sins.

This week, when I heard the news of how Jonah Lehrer, now former New Yorker writer, author and lecturer, self-plagarized in several New Yorker articles and fabricated Bob Dylan quotes for his book Imagine: How Creativity Works, I thought, “hasn’t this guy learned from his predecessors?” Namely Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, Janet Cooke and countless others? But he never went to J-School where these people are flagellated and shamed in front of idealistic 18-year-olds, which may or may not have mattered in the long run. That’s a different argument for a  different day. But still, how could someone blatantly and willingly go against the core values of the journalism industry. No, the industry isn’t perfect, but we should at least hold ourselves to the standard of telling the truth and the pursuit of the truth.

Jonah Lehrer at Aspen Ideas Festival in June 2012. (photo ran with Tablet article, originally from Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis.

Tablet magazine writer Michael Moynihan, a self-proclaimed “Dylan obsessive”, read Lehrer’s book out of pure interest, but then when he started to look for the paper trail for the Dylan quotes used, he noticed a lot of missing sources and a lot of inaccuracies. When Moynihan contacted Lehrer and asked for more specific sourcing, Lehrer said he panicked and lied and sent Moynihan some false leads on where the quotes were and after Moynihan posted his story (see link above) on Tablet, Lehrer resigned from his position at the New Yorker and his book publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt did an expensive recall of his book Imagine from bookstore shelves.

Lehrer’s young and blossoming career at 31-years-old is taking an incredible, well-desrved hit. Who would risk so much for a couple of quotes that he didn’t even need for his book? If he didn’t have the evidence or “perfect” quote he need to write about Bob Dylan, then he shouldn’t have written about Dylan at all.

It’s just impossible to justify what he did at all, especially after being so trained in school (and real-life experience, of course) that any sort of lying or even thinking about lying in an article or non-fiction piece of writing is totally forbidden. And I guess Lehrer will soon figure out how badly he messed up and what it will cost him in personal and professional relationships.

Now, he’s just another example for those idealistic 18-year-olds in J-School about what NOT to do.

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One thought on “Jonah Lehrer — You Totally Screwed Up

  1. I found this whole scandal to be pretty appalling, especially since so few of my friends actually heard about it. I was pretty shocked by the fact that he apparently represented some paraphrased parts of other works (e.g. Young Men and Fire) as original reporting.

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