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Because he fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan, Jonah Lehrer left his job at The New Yorker, and his publisher is recalling his book. The pain of those consequences will likely fade with time. (The public-radio show Radiolab, which defended Lehrer strongly when he was accused of mere self-plagiarism, has not weighed in.) What may not ebb is Lehrer’s gift to writers discussing fabulism: His name will forever be typed beside those of famous fabulists Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair.
Salon’s David Daley spoke with Blair, who said Lehrer’s fall “rings so familiar“:
Once you’re young and successful, I think, in this profession you’re only as good as your last story — and you want every story to be better. I think when you’re young and you’re immature — well, I’m unclear on why he did it, but when you’re young and immature, it’s just very difficult, I think, to resist temptation.
Blair also talks about the psychology of fabulizing, and guesses “there’s probably more than what we’ve seen so far” vis-a-vis Lehrer’s work.
But the most eviscerating piece of it is knowing what’s about to come — knowing that colleagues who are perhaps some of the best journalists around are about to put the same scrutiny they put on government and companies onto your work.
In a piece for The Daily Beast published Tuesday morning, Blair explained his empathy a little more: “Nine years ago,” he writes, “I was Jonah Lehrer.”
His story is familiar to me in many of its details. A promising young journalist working at one of the most prestigious publications in the world heads down a slippery slope that starts with sloppy corner-cutting and leads to all-out fabrication.
“To me, it’s just so sad that it keeps happening with these talented young men,” USC Annenberg’s School of Journalism director Geneva Overholser told The Wrap’s Alexander C. Kaufman. “It happened with Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair and, now, Jonah Lehrer.”
“Glass’s transgressions are, for now, at least, far worse” than Lehrer’s, Adam Penenberg told BuzzFeed’s Rosie Gray. Penenberg busted Glass when he was an editor at Forbes. Gray tried to get a “number of other noted plagiarists and fabulists” to respond, but Blair wasn’t available, nor were “Mike Daisey, Rob Sgobbo, [Johann] Hari, and Mike Barnicle.” Janet Cooke said no, as did Patricia Smith.
But that diverse group of people doesn’t fit the Blair-Glass-Lehrer narrative as easily. Columbia University professor Todd Gitlin told The New York Times’ Julie Bosman that Lehrer’s type — young, smart hotshot rocketing into the media’s upper echelons — mattered when it came to perpetrating his deceptions.
Conjure me up a guy who talks science winningly, who shows you that everything is transparent, and does it in a self-help-y spirit,” he said. “In our age, a guy who looks cute and wonky is better positioned to get away with this than others.”