Jonah Lehrer resigns from New Yorker after fabricating Bob Dylan quotes in ‘Imagine’

Tablet | The New York Times | Poynter
As The New York Times’ Julie Bosman first reported, Jonah Lehrer has resigned from The New Yorker, soon after new allegations that he fabricated quotes. Michael C. Moynihan says he’s uncovered something worse than Lehrer recycling his own material for New Yorker blog posts, which came to light in June. Moynihan says he couldn’t find evidence that Bob Dylan said some of the things Lehrer quotes him as saying in “Imagine: How Creativity Works.” Worse, he writes, Lehrer admitted lying to him about where he got some of the material because he “panicked.” Moynihan confirmed Lehrer’s resignation in a tweet: “Jonah Lehrer has resigned from the New Yorker and apologized to me.”

New Yorker Editor David Remnick tells the Times’ Julie Bosman, “This is a terrifically sad situation, but, in the end, what is most important is the integrity of what we publish and what we stand for.”

In a note provided by his publisher, Lehrer said:

“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.”

– Jonah Lehrer

There was also an additional Publisher’s Note: “In light of the serious misuse of quotations admitted above, we are exploring all options available to us. We are taking the e-book of IMAGINE off-sale, and halting shipment of physical copies.”

Moynihan, a Tablet magazine contributor, explains how he discovered the fabrication:

I’m something of the Dylan obsessive — piles of live bootlegs, outtakes, books — and I read the first chapter of Imagine with keen interest. But when I looked for sources to a handful of Dylan quotations offered by Lehrer — the chapter is sparsely and erratically footnoted — I came up empty, and in one case found two fragments of quotes, from different years and on different topics, welded together to create something that happily complimented Lehrer’s argument. Other quotes I couldn’t locate at all.

Here’s his description of what happened with one supposed Dylan quotation:

In another quote mined from Dont Look Back, in which Dylan is asked by a pestering Time magazine journalist about the inspiration for his songs, Lehrer quotes Dylan as saying: “I just write them. There’s no great message. Stop asking me to explain.” The last sentence sharpens and simplifies Lehrer’s point — that Dylan’s brilliance isn’t easily explicable. But it doesn’t appear in Dont Look Back.

When I questioned Lehrer about where this added sentence came from, he claimed it was a hybrid quote, with the first two sentences appearing in Dont Look Back and the admonition to “stop asking me to explain” from a 1995 radio interview included in a rare — and nearly impossible to find — collection of Dylan interviews called The Fiddler Now Upspoke. According to Lehrer, in 1995 Dylan told an interviewer, “Stop asking me to explain. Those songs weren’t about anybody.” But I couldn’t find this either, and the only radio interview Dylan gave in 1995 doesn’t include these lines. When asked for a more specific citation — a page number, a photo of the passage, more information about who conducted the interview– Lehrer ignored the request.

And here’s what transpired when Moynihan tried to get Lehrer to explain where these quotations came from:

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 publically 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.”

In a statement quoted by New York Times’ Bosman, Lehrer said “The lies are over now. I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologize to everyone I have let down.”

Last month, Jim Romenesko revealed that a New Yorker blog post by Lehrer borrowed material from something Lehrer had previously published in The Wall Street Journal. The New Yorker eventually added Editor’s Notes to five stories and other self-plagiarism discoveries soon followed.

At the time, New Yorker editor David Remnick told Jon Friedman, “There are all kinds of crimes and misdemeanors in this business, and if he were making things up or appropriating other people’s work that’s one level of crime.”

A month after he revealed that a portion of one of Lehrer’s New Yorker blog posts contained previously published material, Jim Romenesko asked the magazine why hadn’t seen Lehrer’s byline since. He was told that Lehrer was working on a story for the magazine. Lehrer’s byline hasn’t appeared on a story since June 13.

Remnick, by the way, said recently that he’s glad he never profiled Dylan:

For the few profiles he has time to write, Remnick tends to pick subjects he’s personally intrigued by — musicians, writers, politicians, even tyrants. But he’s acutely conscious of the potential for failure or misdirected ambition. “I used to think that I wanted to profile Bob Dylan,” he says by way of example, “and I think now that would be a terrible mistake. First of all, there’s enough written about Bob Dylan to last us twenty-seven lifetimes, and I think he would be the most elusive of subjects, and I’ve seen everyone else do it and I think it would be a disaster.”

New Yorker senior PR director Alexa Cassanos said by email that Lehrer’s posts “will stay on the site, and there are no plans to add further [editor's] notes unless necessary.” The Wall Street Journal, where Lehrer wrote a biweekly column from October 2, 2010 through the beginning of last month, tells its Speakeasy blog, “We are currently reviewing Mr. Lehrer’s work for the Journal.”

Related: Lehrer on creativity: ‘You fall in love with something and then you steal it‘ | Journalist feels ‘horrible’ about revealing Jonah Lehrer’s fabrications

Earlier: How Edward Champion catalogued Jonah Lehrer’s sinsJonah Lehrer is sorry for whatever you call what he didUnder the microscope, Lehrer’s work shows bigger problems than self-plagiarism

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  • John Lobell

    I gotta agree with W. – All of these expressing outrage on the behalf of that wonderful
    profession of impeccable integrity, “JOURNALISM:”

    - Have they
    ever read story in the New York Times about themselves and noticed that none of
    the facts, which you know intimately, were correct?

    - Have they
    ever watched a network newscast story about ANYTHING?

    No!!!! Real JOURNALISTS never make
    anything up. I mean, they wouldn’t
    shoot a rocket at a GM truck, or present presidential military documents
    written on a machine created twenty years after the date on the document.

    And those
    are just two highly prominent events.
    There couldn’t be THOUSANDS more.

  • Anonymous

    Jane! Thank you so much for the journalism lesson. You are 100 percent right. 1000 percent. And I’m sure you’ve never made a mistake in your life, so please cast the first stone. He “made up” quotes in a book about creativity. And used some quotes from Bob Dylan out of context, allegedly. He should be put to death. By stoning. Not really. 

  • Anonymous

    Um, because he MADE UP quotes from Dylan out of whole cloth. When the reporter asked him for his sources, he made up more lies. Did you even bother to read the original story? Lehrer told many, many lies to the reporter.

    This may come as news to you, but making up quotes in journalism will get you fired every time. 

    You might want to read up on ethics in journalism.

    And you’re also ignoring the fact that Lehrer told a huge whopper when he said he got the quotes from Dylan’s own representatives.  The cover up made it worse.

  • Anonymous

    Um, no it has already been established that Lehrer was the one who lied and lied again.

    Moynihan is to be commended for pursuing the truth to the end and nailing this liar.

  • Anonymous

    And Lehrer shoudl know the difference between a real quote and a fabricated quoted. Nice try at attempting to deflect away from the real issue at hand.

  • Anonymous

    31 is not young. And sorry, covering up a lie with more lies is inexcusable. I mean, the arrogance of the guy, telling the intrepid reported Moynihan that Dylan’s own people gave him access to unpublished interviews that will be in the upcoming Scorcese document on Dylan.

    Congratulations to Moynihan for a job well done.

  •!/davidjkramer DavidKramer

    I love to pokie in the eye now and then. It is fun.

  • Robert Knilands

    Glad to see you don’t have a point, other than the talking points you recycle.

  • Larry

    Glad to see you don’t have a side.

  • Robert Knilands

    You just made up a bunch of things, claimed those were wrong, and then ran with it. Not sure how you can now claim those were accurate, but pro-gun people are very good at operating outside the argument. They operate outside the “well-regulated” clause of the Second Amendment fairly often, and they convince politicians to do so, too.

    But just to set you straight, Lar — I don’t own a Prius, and I have never made the claims you mention.

    But if you are going to bring up those foreign conflicts, I’ll say this: If there were annual mass murders in public places in those countries (and there have been), people here would be raging about the evil of terrorist attacks. When it happens here, we have a much different response, with the groups that operate outside the Second Amendment — NRA, rogue politicians — defending what would be called terrorist attacks anywhere else.

  • Robert Knilands

    Read the comment from buffalocharlie below. Breathe deeply while doing so, and see if the point sinks in.

  • Keith Griffith

    Well,,, in very short order we should know about the validity of his other quotes.  I’m sure all of his public works are in the process of being pulled apart down to the punctuation level at this point.  This has got to be one of the best examples of the internet’s influence on journalism I’ve seen.

  • Anonymous

    It’s pretty mean what they’re doing to this guy. Mis-quoting Dylan on creativity? Who really cares? It’s not like he has Dylan saying something offensive. Gosh. Like Abe Lincoln said, “It’s hard to verify everything you read on the Internet.” And does anyone have Bob saying, “Uh, I was misquoted. Soybomb.”

  • Keith Griffith

    Well,,, Obama and Gun control at least took the pressure off Jonah for the day ;-)  I’m sure he needed the break.

  • Anonymous

    In the backwash of this pathetic event, we have little to get a grip on.

    We might take Chapter 3 of “Imagine,” “The Unconcealing,” as a text sample.

    Is there value in this chapter on working memory?

    I would deny that there is.

    But it is something of an occupational hazard.

    Whether we study the real people, Kandel, Damasio, or Kahneman, or the shadow people, Lehrer, Gladwell or Zimmer, we find odd incomprehensions.

    Working memory is potentially an extremely powerful subject for research. It induces the paradox of learning, in that until we have created our Thoth’s Metaphoric Memory Tablet we can’t master working memory (a poverty-stricken term) or advanced tasks employing it.

    But until we have assimilated high quality bodies of knowledge engineered to do so we can’t assemble Thoth’s “space.”

    Lehrer stays well away from that paradox.

    His is strictly a journeyman’s account. As if we already knew the score.

    But we do not at all.

    Cognitive science, whether that of the real people or the shadow people, is at a dead end. Lehrer is just a symptom, as was Hauser. (And the man unspeakable in Colo.)

    “It’s ruminating in the backs of taxis and popping pills until the poem is finished.” Working memory creativity is. In “The Unconcealing,” page 83 of “Imagine.” Allen Lane.

  • Anonymous

    You aint kidding . . .

  • Larry

    First you state that you don’t have a side, then you dismiss my argument as “pro-gun crowd”silliness that isn’t worth answering. This points you up as being dishonest because you very clearly have a side.  I was feeling a little bad about the ad hominem parts of my comment, but now I see just how accurate they were.

    And besides, who was it that brought up the gun argument in the first place?  You, chump.  It was you.

  •!/davidjkramer DavidKramer

    Some people can do more than just chew bubble gum at one time.

  • Robert Knilands

    I don’t have a “side,” other than wanting some sane discussion about the issue. Right now, every time we have an annual mass murder, carried out with guns (as always), we have a bunch of people who talk about how nothing can be done to change the situation. That’s where politicians have failed.

    The rest of what you say is just the usual silliness that wafts from the pro-gun crowd. Not even worth answering, especially with an article that has nothing to do with guns.

  • Anonymous

    A lying “staff writer”… aka, a liberal.

  • Anonymous

    At least now you’ll know that all his writings need to be classified as fiction.

  • James Stagg

    Funny it happened in the New Yorker…..not much to read there but gossip and fashion news anyway.

  • Anonymous

    It would be fascinating to see how many Jonah Lehrers are on the staffs of the NYT, WaPo, Huffington Post, Politico, MSNBC/NBC, CNN and on and on. The number of stories containing unnamed sources, unnamed experts, unnamed economists and the like have raised eyebrows for quite some time. My eyebrows have been stuck in the raised position for so long that I have ended up having to consult a plastic surgeon!

  • Anonymous

    he was following barack hussein obama who made up girlfriends racism for his “dreams”…by “combining” girls until one popped up a racist….what’s the problem?

  • Anonymous

    Funny.  A magazine that prints no truth whatsoever fires a dude for lying.  Is there no honor among thieves?

  • Larry

    Robert, I know you’re poking fun at the thought that guns in the hands of private citizens is any deterrent to tyranny.  However people like you generally believe that the Iraqis took down the US Marines with cell phones, some C4 and a few guns.  Remember the “War isn’t Working” bumper sticker you were so proud to put on your Prius?  To the extent that was true it was because some ragtag militias with a few guns made things so tough.  Hey, these are the talking points from your side.  And who won in Afghanistan?  I’m sure it’ll hurt you too much to say the USA won.  For some reason people like you feel much better thinking we lost.  So OK, if we lost, how do you explain that?  

    The answer is yes, a few guns present a big problem, even for the best armies in the world. I’d agree with you that it is vanishingly unlikely that tyrants will ever come to power here, but if they did, they would in fact find that the guns in the hands of the townspeople would make things seriously hard for them.

  • Anonymous

    so now mis-quoting bob dylan is a crime ? nobody can tell what he’s saying most of the time anyway.

  • Robert Knilands

    Are you the same guy who claimed the Jews could have taken down Nazi armies if the townspeople had a few guns to defend themselves? If so, you really need to try to stay focused on one thing at a time.

  • zen

     How much of the book is true, now you don’t know for sure. Like Dreams from My Father.

  • zen

     No. This is not his field.

  • moderate Guy

    Is ANYTHING MSM ever published true?

  • Anonymous

    no big surprise for the obamamedia…………but there will be another obamabot to take his place


  • Anonymous

    What a fool.  There are legions of Dylan-obsessed fans out there.  If you’re going to fabricate quotes, don’t do it with a guy whose every word for the past 50 years has been dissected and analyzed.  

  • Anonymous

    What a fool.  There are legions of Dylan-obsessed fans out there.  If you’re going to fabricate quotes, don’t do it with a guy whose every word for the past 50 years has been dissected and analyzed.  

  • Anonymous

    The complaint that I have is that Jonah has never done the work.

    One of the most obvious limitations of cognitive science is that the language and memory experiments are in arrested development.

    The best general text in the field is Mark Ashcraft’s “Cognition.” If you read this text carefully and work on it with students, you will note how flimsy the experimental tradition is for language and memory.

    Despite having more to offer on cognition than other American media outlets, The WSJ has failed to get traction on this issue. Academics just cannot grasp it.

    Let’s take a simple example of a sharp cluster in Richard Ford’s “Canada:”

    “Her brain simply must not have tracked all the way out that far. Because if her brain had, the uncertainty would’ve been forbidding” (136, Harper Luxe).

    If professors in literature, linguistics, and cognitive science could work together, and if they could understand the challenges facing native speakers and ESL students in assimilating modal past perfect deduction, and reason and counterfactual conditional clauses operating together as here, they would be able to motivate literary grammars, and inspired experiments in language and memory so that we could move the default settings in human cognition.

    They cannot do it.

    I recommend that journalists study two other files:

    1.”Octopus,” by Guy Lawson. This book has a very different feel than “The Brotherhoods.” I am not convinced by it at all. It is as if the publisher rented the Guy Lawson name to promote a shabby performance.

    2.The new Modern Library “Absalom, Absalom!” The old one contained 20 major errors, despite being tagged a corrected text. How is it possible that this book is still at Chapters Robson, despite the many warnings that I sent to the editor?

  • raj trivedi

    @Keith Griffith I hope you’re right, I also enjoy his writing style and his work with Radio Lab, and hope he can overcome this and come back strong and honest.  I do think Sclannad is right however and we’ll be waiting quite a while before that happens, unfortunately. 

  • Tanya Raz

    OHHHH, that is too bad. I love his book “Imagine” which I read after hearing his interview on public radio. I’m disappointed in the quotes being fabricated, although “Imagine” is still very insightful and inspiring nonetheless. But this discovery does make me wonder, if the facts of the research (besides the quotes) are falsified in any way, if some of the quotes from the scientists and information from the researchers are incorrect. He has lost a lot of credibility, it will be hard for him to recover from this.

  • Anonymous

     Well, you’ll be looking forward for a long time, because he’s finished. And he should be, “writing style” or not. The guy’s work has always been questionable – its reporting, its logic. People have been calling bullshit on the guy since well before any of his cut’n’paste crimes came to light.

  • Anonymous

     Well, you’ll be looking forward for a long time, because he’s finished. And he should be, “writing style” or not. The guy’s work has always been questionable – its reporting, its logic. People have been calling bullshit on the guy since well before any of his cut’n’paste crimes came to light.

  • Anonymous

    Moynihan should know the difference between ‘compliment’ and ‘complement’

  • Keith Griffith

    He’s young.  At times, young folks make bad decisions.  The trick is, can he learn and get thru it.  I really enjoy his writing style, and hope he just steps back, takes a breath and discovers that what appears to be an early case of inflated sense of self entitlement, and a lack of regard for his readers, was a mistake that he’s got lots of time to fix.  (and in context,,, no where near as bad as our politicans).   I look forward to following him in the future, even if I’ll be a bit more skeptical of his writings ;-)

  • Christopher J Hughes

    This is either a case of one guy out to destroy the reputation of the good journalists that remain or a man whose ethics were second to his word counts. In either case, it’s sad. Hope young journos and writers can learn from his serious errors.