New Yorker editor David Remnick was rather precise when he said, “This is a terrifically sad situation.”
He was referring to the resignation of one of his newly minted staff writers, L.A. native Jonah Lehrer, a preternaturally gifted thinker and writer and best selling author, who admitted fabricating Bob Dylan quotes for his latest book, “Imagine.”
Lehrer had recently come under intense scrutiny after it was discovered that he recycled chunks of his own work on his Frontal Cortex blog for the New Yorker. He was loudly accused of “self-plagiarizing” for reproducing work he had previously published for other outlets without proper disclosure. The strange allegation sparked a debate about the pressure on contemporary writers to produce ever more content. Some (myself included) found the charge a little ridiculous since creative people often draw on formative or recurrent ideas, though, perhaps taking the time to dress them in new clothes.
Though I initially found the media pounding harsh, where there was smoke, there followed fire.
Tablet magazine’s Michael Moynihan, who describes himself as a “Dylan obsessive” read with keen interest Lehrer’s “Imagine” chapter on Bob Dylan. But, something felt amiss. “[W]hen I looked for sources to a handful of Dylan quotations offered by Lehrer—the chapter is sparsely and erratically footnoted—I came up empty,” Moynihan writes, adding, “and in one case found two fragments of quotes, from different years and on different topics, welded together to create something that happily complemented Lehrer’s argument. Other quotes I couldn’t locate at all.”
When he confronted Lehrer about the discrepancy via email, Lehrer tried to cover his tracks. As Moynihan put it, “Lehrer stonewalled, misled and, eventually, outright lied to me.”
The full story of what transpired between the two journalists is available here, but the unhappy ending is that Lehrer admitted his deception and resigned his vaunted position at The New Yorker.
Lehrer issued the following statement to The New York Times:
“Three weeks ago, I received an email from journalist Michael Moynihan asking about Bob Dylan quotes in my book ‘Imagine[.]’ The quotes in question either did not exist, were unintentional misquotations, or represented improper combinations of previously existing quotes. But I told Mr. Moynihan that they were from archival interview footage provided to me by Dylan’s representatives. This was a lie spoken in a moment of panic. When Mr. Moynihan followed up, I continued to lie, and say things I should not have said.”
“The lies are over now. I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologize to everyone I have let down, especially my editors and readers. I also owe a sincere apology to Mr. Moynihan. 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.”
Dishonesty and fear has ensnared one of journalism’s brightest young stars. And as a result, Lehrer has lost the most invaluable assest of any journalist: trust.
Coming upon the high holidays, the Jewish question is this: Will he repair what he’s broken and restore his integrity? Can he? It may seem impossible now, but he’s a creative guy; he’ll figure it out.