As I mentioned, I only looked at the Dylan chapter in Imagine, and nothing else. I’ve since had a cursory look at a few other chapters (including in his previous book, How We Decide), no more than a few hours of checking and a few emails [to] people mentioned by Lehrer–and I found fake interviews, quotes that can’t be located, and plagiarism. So while one can reasonably debate how serious a crime it is to fudge a handful of Dylan quotes (pretty serious, if you ask me), always remember: no one ever does this kind of thing once, or just in one chapter.
Moynihan later tweeted an example from “How We Decide” in which Lehrer attributed a quote to an interview he conducted with the pilot. The quote actually appears to have been modified from a speech given by the pilot.
After admitting he lied, Lehrer resigned from The New Yorker earlier this week.
Former Miami Herald Executive Editor Tom Fiedler asks the central question: Why?
Cheaters such as Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass and Janet Cooke claimed to have caved under the pressure to perform on a big stage. Lehrer, the boy wonder who’d become a media darling, highly paid keynote speaker, The New Yorkers’ next star, likely felt the same. There’s a bit of the old Peter Principle involved here, where people like Lehrer fear they’ve been promoted beyond their levels of competence and must cheat to stay there.
But I think that Hamilton Nolan had it right in Gawker when he said the primary explanation is simply that “Jonah Lehrer doesn’t know how to do journalism.” Put bluntly, Lehrer isn’t a journalist. Yes, the publications where his work appeared employed journalists. And what he wrote most of the time looked like journalism. But he wasn’t a journalist. And despite his years of elite education, he didn’t learn the most fundamental lessons of journalism.
Jayson Blair, who was a trained journalist turned fabulist, empathizes with Lehrer, he told The Huffington Post:
I think we underestimate how much pressure there is out there for young people to perform at a certain level. A lot of this is self-inflicted pressure.
In the L.A. Times, Meghan Daum suggests some of that pressure is cultural.
Jonah Lehrer was rewarded for making complicated ideas seem simple and appealing, for making people feel smarter than they are by making things like neuroscience and the works of Proust seem easier to grasp than they are.
But his downfall is not his alone. What has also collapsed is our collective tolerance for complexity, our appetite for concepts that can’t be captured in catchy book titles or appropriated for corporate mantras and self-help seminars. In the wake of all that, should we really be surprised when a writer opts for a made-up Dylan quote over the real thing?
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has stopped selling “Imagine” and has offered retailers refunds for their unsold copies. I’ve asked the company how it will respond to the news about “How We Decide,” a New York Times bestseller in hardback and paperback.
Related: How to protect against journalism malpractice like Jonah Lehrer’s | 4 warning signs that a promising young writer may be developing dangerous habits | Jayson Blair on Jonah Lehrer fabrications: ‘There’s probably more than what we’ve seen so far’ | ‘It’s hard to start at the top,’ says Sharon Waxman of Jonah Lehrer | WNYC: No reason to believe that Jonah Lehrer’s work for ‘Radiolab’ is compromised
Julie Moos contributed to this article.