At the age of 31, Jonah Lehrer was a staff writer for The New Yorker and a contributing editor at several newspapers and magazines. He had published three best-selling books: Proust Was a Neuroscientist; How We Decide; and Imagine: How Creativity Works.
In that last one, he discussed Bob Dylan’s songwriting process at length. He used many quotes from Dylan, some of which he cobbled together or misrepresented. He also invented a few. When Michael C. Moynihan investigated this, Lehrer at first made up stories about his sources. He later confessed, resigning from The New Yorker on July 30th. His deceptions in Imagine throw the credibility of all of his other work into question.
Moynihan’s story about this in Tablet fascinates me. I understand why Lehrer might have wanted to fabricate quotes: to meet a deadline, strengthen a tenuous argument, or put out a book even more compelling than his last success. However, he is obviously a smart guy, and lots of people are crazy about Bob Dylan. Didn’t he know he might get caught? What made him take the risk?
It could be that he got away with enough small indiscretions that he felt invincible. Early this year, Lehrer got in a little bit of trouble for “self-plagiarizing,” or recycling sentences and passages without noting they had been published before. He might not have gotten caught in smaller fabrications earlier in his career.
Jayson Blair, a former New York Times reporter who stole some other people’s writing and made things up, claimed in his memoir that a practice called “toe touching” was common at the paper. One could write a poem in New York, travel to Washington D.C,. return immediately, and then give the story a D.C. dateline. Blair argued that this minor deception led him to feel other, bigger lies were no big deal, either.
Blair, who suffered from alcohol and drug addiction during his stint at The New York Times, wrote stories from towns he had never visited. He told Media Bistro in this interview, “I thought that once I felt better physically and emotionally, I would hit the road again.” I can easily imagine that Lehrer, also, might have thought he would just make a few things up for this book and that he would straighten out his act for the next one. I often con myself into thinking my bad habits are temporary, uncharacteristic aberrations. Journalistic lying probably begins with lying to oneself.
Lehrer’s story irritates people, including me, because we know there are so many less successful writers with a lot more integrity. Maybe Lehrer just chose the wrong genre, though. If a powerful turn of phrase or a good story trumps the pesky realities and details, you might still be a good writer. You’re just not a nonfiction writer.