Malcolm Gladwell Is Not Mad at Jonah Lehrer for Recycling Work [Updated]

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Photo: Michael Loccisano/2011 Getty Images

The discovery that young New Yorker staffer and speaking-circuit draw Jonah Lehrer reused chunks of his material across publications and in his books has drawn repudiation from his current and past employers since examples first surfaced Tuesday. Lehrer apologized last night, telling the New York Times, "It was a stupid thing to do and incredibly lazy and absolutely wrong," while his editor said he was still employed and insisted, "It's not going to happen again." Wired, where Lehrer worked previously, said today, "We're going to work with him to identify which stories are affected." But Lehrer has his defenders too: "Self-plagiarization is … I don't even know what it is," his agent Gordon Mazur, who has a very lucrative dog in this fight, told Women's Wear Daily. "Where does that fall in the level of crimes?" And then there's Malcolm Gladwell. (Update: See David Remnick's take below.)

"The conventions surrounding what is and is not acceptable in magazine writing, books and speaking have been worked out over the past 100 years. The conventions over blogging are being worked out as we speak," Gladwell told WWD. "Everyone who writes for a living is going to learn from this. I'm just sorry Jonah had to bear the brunt of it."

In an extensive blog post after Lehrer's pattern of copying-and-pasting himself was first spotted by Romenesko and here at Daily Intel, the blog Reluctant Habits compiled more examples, including one that wasn't from Lehrer's own back-catalog:

Malcolm Gladwell, “The Formula.” The New Yorker (October 16, 2006): “One of the highest-grossing movies in history, ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’ was offered to every studio in Hollywood, Goldman writes, and every one of them turned it down except Paramount: ‘Why did Paramount say yes? Because nobody knows anything. And why did all the other studios say no? Because nobody knows anything. And why did Universal, the mightiest studio of all, pass on Star Wars? ... Because nobody, nobody — not now, not ever — knows the least goddamn thing about what is or isn’t going to work at the box office.’”

Jonah Lehrer, Imagine, p. 144: “For instance, one of the highest-grossing movies in history, Raiders of the Lost Ark, was offered to every studio in Hollywood, and every one of them turned it down except Paramount: ‘Why did Paramount say yes?’ Goldman asks. ‘Because nobody knows anything. And why did all the other studios say no? Because nobody knows anything. And why did Universal, the mightiest studio of all, pass on Star Wars … ? Because nobody, nobody — not now, not ever — knows the least goddam thing about what is or isn’t going to work at the box office.’”

But in response, a comment by someone purporting to be Malcolm Gladwell, who has blurbed Lehrer's books and to whom he's often compared as a pop-science thinker, wrote:

In 2006, I quoted a line from William Goldman about how no one knows anything in Hollywood. In Imagine, Jonah Lehrer quotes the same line. This is not surprising, since Goldman’s comment is one of the most famous things ever written about Hollywood and has been quoted, by journalists, probably hundreds of times since it was written. 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.

By the way, if I run across the same absurd allegation anywhere else, I intend to reproduce my comment verbatim. Why? Because I thought about what I wanted to say, I’m comfortable with the way I said it, and I see no reason to tinker with my own language for the sake of tinkering with my own language.

And indeed, the same comment showed up on Jack Shafer's article on the issue at Reuters. Gladwell's first point about reusing quotes makes sense, but what his second argument discounts is that Lehrer was getting paid anew each time he recycled a passage, and without alerting his superiors. As far as we know, no one's getting paid for Internet commenting just yet.

Update: New Yorker editor David Remnick has spoken. "There are all kinds of crimes and misdemeanors in this business," he told MarketWatch's Jon Friedman, "and if he were making things up or appropriating other people's work that's one level of crime." But Lehrer will appear in the magazine again. "This was wrong and foolish," Remnick said, "and I think he thought that it was OK to do this in the blogging context — and he is obviously wrong to think so."

Friedman has an interesting theory on the ruling from above: "By keeping Lehrer in the fold, the New Yorker is effectively minimizing its own role. The New Yorker is telling us that Lehrer's 'misdemeanor,' in Remnick's word, didn't warrant dire consequences. So, if the offense wasn’t that awful, then the New Yorker can't be accused of gross sloppiness, unprofessional behavior or guilt by association."