At The New Yorker, David Remnick initially saw the “self-plagiarism” pile-on as overkill. “There are all kinds of crimes and misdemeanors in this business,” The New Yorker editor said that Thursday, explaining his decision to retain Lehrer. “If he were making things up or appropriating other people’s work, that’s one level of crime.” A source says Remnick did consider firing Lehrer outright, but decided against it.
Ironically, it was another journalist’s sympathy for Lehrer that led to his complete unraveling. “The Schadenfreude with Lehrer was pretty aggressive,” says Michael Moynihan, a freelance writer who was then guest-blogging for the Washington Post. “I was going to write a bit about the mania for destroying journalists because they’re popular and have more money than you do.” Having never read Lehrer’s books, he dug into Imagine (which purports to explain the brain science of “how creativity works”), not even knowing that its first chapter focused on one of his favorite musicians, Bob Dylan. He found some suspiciously unfamiliar quotes. “Every Dylan quote, every citation, is online,” Moynihan says. A new quote is “like finding another version of the Bible.”
He e-mailed Lehrer, who claimed to be on vacation until just after Moynihan’s Post gig was up. But off the top of his head, Lehrer offered one source for a quote—a book on Marianne Faithfull. It was wildly out of context, but no matter: Where did the other six come from? When Moynihan reached him the following week, Lehrer expressed surprise that he still planned to run the piece. That was when, as Moynihan puts it, “the calls started.”
On the phone, Lehrer seemed charming and cooperative. He said he’d pulled some quotes from a Dylan radio program as well as unaired footage for the documentary No Direction Home. Dylan’s manager, Jeff Rosen, had given him the latter. Moynihan pressed him for more details over the next several days, but Lehrer stalled.
Finally, Moynihan was able to reach Rosen, who said he’d never heard from Lehrer. When Moynihan spoke to the author, while walking down Flatbush Avenue near his Brooklyn home, the conversation grew so heated that a passing acquaintance thought it was a marital spat. Lehrer finally came clean about making up his sources. He was impressed that Moynihan had figured out how to reach Rosen. “It shows,” he told Moynihan, “you’re a better journalist than I am.”
An editor Moynihan knew at the online magazine Tablet had happily accepted Moynihan’s exposé. The Sunday before it was published, July 29, Moynihan had to ignore Lehrer’s late-night calls just to write the piece.
That same evening of July 29, David Remnick was at his first Yankees game of the season. After getting an e-mail from Tablet’s editor, Alana Newhouse, he spent most of the game in the aisle, calling and e-mailing with Newhouse, his editors, and Lehrer. It was all, as Remnick said the next day, “a terrifically sad situation.”
The next morning, a desperate Lehrer finally managed to reach Moynihan. Didn’t he realize, Lehrer pleaded, that if Moynihan went forward, he would never write again—would end up nothing more than a schoolteacher? The story was published soon after. That afternoon, Lehrer announced through his publisher that he’d resigned from The New Yorker and would do everything he could to help correct the record. “The lies,” he said, “are over now.”
The ensuing flurry of tweets and columns was split between the Google Game fact-checkers and opiners like David Carr, who felt that Lehrer’s missteps were the result of “the Web’s ferocious appetite for content” and the collapse of hard news. All of them were grappling to name Lehrer’s pathology. What none of them really asked, and what Houghton Mifflin’s fact-check won’t answer, is what Imagine would look like if it really were scrubbed of every slippery shortcut and distortion. In truth, it might not exist at all. The fabricated quotes are not just slight aberrations; they’re more like the tells of a poker player who’s gotten away with bluffing for far too long.
In case after case, bad facts are made to serve forced conclusions. Take that Dylan chapter. First, of course, there are the quotes debunked by Moynihan. Then there are the obvious factual errors: Dylan did not immediately repair from his 1965 London tour to a cabin in Woodstock to write “Like a Rolling Stone” (he took a trip with his wife first and spent only a couple of days in that cabin), and did not coin the word juiced, as Lehrer claims; it had meant “drunk” for at least a decade. (These errors were discovered by Isaac Chotiner, weeks before Moynihan’s exposé, in The New Republic: “almost everything,” he wrote, “from the minor details to the larger argument—is inaccurate, misleading, or simplistic.”) Lehrer’s analysis of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” breakthrough is also wrong. It was hardly his first foray into elliptical songwriting, and it was hardly the first piece to defy the “two basic ways to write a song”—a dichotomy between doleful bluesy literalism and “Sugar pie, honeybunch” that no serious student of American pop music could possibly swallow.