On Monday, New Yorker staffer Jonah Lehrer resigned and had his latest book, Imagine, pulled from the shelves when he was revealed to have fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan and then attempted to mislead a journalist reporting on his impropriety. Lehrer’s ethical crimes came to light just weeks after he was found to be duplicating large chunks of his own work and passing it off as new writing, a lapse for which he’d apologized, but not been punished. In the days since his latest admission, the stories about Lehrer’s corner-cutting — and worse — have started to add up, as his large body of work is further scrutinized. There appears to be no end in sight.
Jayson Blair, himself a veteran of the journalistic scandal (and now a life coach), told Salon in a sympathetic interview about Lehrer on Monday, “my guess is there’s probably more than what we’ve seen so far.” Today, Tablet writer Michael Moynihan, who uncovered the Dylan issues, said Blair is right, based on only a quick look at more of Lehrer’s writing:
I’ve received a few emails and seen a number of pieces/blog posts that ask, in essence, “what’s the big deal”? It’s just a few quotes, after all. 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 too 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.
In reviews of Imagine in The New Republic and the New York Times, Lehrer had already been accused of being misleading in his prose, at the very least, in addition to using questionable paraphrasing techniques and publishing sloppy historical errors.
Blog posts this week, like this one from Seth Mnookin, include still more occurrences of Lehrer making mistakes, cobbling together disparate quotes to fit his ideas, and being slippery when confronted with his errors. “It illustrates a writer with a remarkable arrogance: The arrogance to believe that he has the right to rejigger reality to make things a little punchier, or a little neater, or a little easier for himself,” Mnookin writes. “This is not the work of someone who lost his way; it’s the work of someone who didn’t have a compass to begin with.”
Daniel Bor has yet another similar story, in which Lehrer, after having a mistake pointed out, blamed the error on his editor:
At the time, I simply assumed this was true. But now I don’t. This morning I contacted his editor at Nature, Brendan Maher, to ask about this, and Maher told me that this mistake was present in the first draft of the article that Lehrer sent to him, so was most definitely not an inaccurate last minute addition by the editor. To add insult to injury, after I’d pointed out this mistake to Lehrer, he nevertheless repeated it verbatim 7 months later in this Wired blog article, and then 6 months after that in another Wired blog article.
While the trickling out of first-hand Lehrer stories may feel like piling on, a crowd-sourced, piecemeal approach is the only realistic way to reassess his prolific career thus far. It’s going to take a while and it’s not going to end well.