How Edward Champion catalogued Jonah Lehrer's sins

Lots of media outlets have written about Jonah Lehrer's ill-defined journalistic no-no's. Poynter, for instance, has published eight posts (make it nine) since learning Tuesday that Lehrer has recycled old columns.

Edward Champion has published one post about Lehrer, but what a post it is: At 7,985 words, plus a Storify, "How Jonah Lehrer Recycled His Own Material for Imagine" is the Starr Report of the Lehrer affair.

Champion's relationship with Lehrer goes back to this spring, when he got the author to participate in one of his Bat Segundo podcasts. I haven't listened to it, but a partial transcript on Reluctant Habits, the culture site Champion owns and edits, includes this wonderful quote from Lehrer:

Shakespeare did not like inventing his own stories, of course. He made them his own. He reinvented them.

Champion has been down roads like this before. In 2010 he painstakingly chronicled how the magazine Cooks Source flagrantly took others' material. He provided a similar service last year when Q.R. Markham's publisher yanked one of his novels after he was accused of plagiarism.

"I'm fascinated by plagiarism," Champion said when reached by phone.

While he said he "can't fathom" why anyone would steal work, he suspects Lehrer's reuse of old material is the result of the popular author and speaker getting "caught in a massive need to produce."

"Something had to give, and he found a workaround," Champion said. He took exception to "the idea that someone would feel glee for this or schadenlehrer."

Champion said he's hardly unfamiliar with writers ginning up previously published work into book form. Christopher Hitchens, he noted, did an admirable job of that in "God Is Not Great."

"But even Hitchens restated the material in his own indelible voice," Champion said. "And that really is the issue."

In his accounting of Lehrer's generous reuse of his previously published material, Champion discovered that Lehrer had helped himself to Malcolm Gladwell's work by reproducing a quote from screenwriting giant William Goldman. "I have found three other instances in 'Imagine' where there is a very close similarity to stuff Gladwell has published," he said, information he said he'd publish soon.

Gladwell defended Lehrer in the comments section of Champion's post:

If Lehrer is plagiarizing me, by quoting the same quote I quoted, then I am plagiarizing the person who used that quote before me, and that person is plagiarizing the person who quoted it before them, and so on and so forth, and we have a daisy chain of “plagiarizing” going back forty years and plagiarism, as a ethical concept, has ceased to mean anything at all.

But David Folkenflik noted that Lehrer and Gladwell have elided Goldman's words in the exact same way.

Champion admitted to a little frustration that, so far, most discussion of Lehrer's sins has centered on his salami-slicing and not the Goldman lift. "I wish people would say, if this isn't plagiarism, it's pretty close," he said.

Champion fired up his Lehrer forensics on Tuesday after Jim Romenesko filed the first report of Lehrer's duplicative ways. "First of all," Champion said, "based off the existing plagiarists, you have to find out how the person is plagiarizing."

Digging up Lehrer's duplications was "fairly effortless," he said: He looked for "anything that involved a study or a finding or a pithy summation" and Googled the passages. "I did a very selective search to ensure anything I found would be before the actual publication of the book in 2012."

He tweeted his findings as they occurred and said he appreciated the crowd-sourcing that enabled. Thinking he'd find two or three examples, Champion said he was surprised to find nine before he hit the sack Tuesday night. So he woke up Wednesday and started whaling on Google again.

After he found the Gladwell lift, "that was the cue to stop," he said. "My partner was saying, no, get away from this. You have to eat breakfast."

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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