Photograph courtesy of twitter.com/jonahlehrer
Here’s what we thought we knew about Jonah Lehrer: Only 31 years old and dweebishly handsome—nerd-hip Clark Kent glasses below a flop of hair—he wasn’t just clever; he was supremely prolific. In addition to writing for Wired, the temple of wonk, he was contributing to The New Yorker, bantering expertly with Stephen Colbert, and “appearing” on Radiolab, the WNYC show that explains everything in a darling kind of way. Armed with an Ivy League degree in neuroscience, Lehrer had a brain that clearly functioned at a higher level than other people’s, propelling him to pop-intellectual stardom in less than a decade.
More than a mere scribbler, Lehrer was a brilliant personality who soothed us with his easy command of the very complex. He wrote best-selling books—first 2007’s Proust Was a Neuroscientist, then two others in rapid succession. Encountering Lehrer in his off-hours only cemented the impression that he was, indeed, living the life—hiking Runyon Canyon in the afternoons with his pretty wife and sweet-faced baby, returning (fitter than when they began) to their expensive architectural gem of a house once owned by the photographer Julius Shulman. By example, Lehrer seemed to prove that youth is more vigorous, there is an explanation for everything, and you really can have it all.
At least that was the story line until this summer. First, in July Lehrer admitted to (and apologized for) plagiarizing himself by repurposing some of his past work in supposedly fresh blog posts for The New Yorker. Many journalists saw this as a misdemeanor (one likened it to stealing food from your own refrigerator). A few weeks later, though, Lehrer was approached by Michael C. Moynihan, a writer and editor who was doing a piece for Tablet, an online magazine that calls itself “A New Read on Jewish Life.” Moynihan, a self-described aficionado of all things Bob Dylan, had discovered a couple of unfamiliar quotes from the legendarily press-shy bard in the first chapter of Lehrer’s latest book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. Since Lehrer acknowledged he’d never interviewed Dylan, Moynihan wanted to know where the quotes came from. The answer, it turned out, was Lehrer’s imagination.
It wasn’t as if Lehrer’s faux quotes were especially juicy. Mostly he altered or fused together existing statements uttered in other contexts to support his thesis. For instance, Lehrer had Dylan sum up the creative process this way: “It’s a hard thing to describe. It’s just this sense that you got something to say.” Dylan never said that. In another passage Lehrer took a remark Marianne Faithfull had made to a writer (referring to how Dylan responded—“a little tantrum of genius”—to her rebuffing his romantic advances) and altered its meaning: Lehrer said Dylan was frustrated by songwriting, not by women.
Moynihan reported that when Lehrer finally stopped dodging him and sending him down blind alleys, the author fessed up. “I couldn’t find the original sources,” Lehrer said. “I panicked. And I’m deeply sorry for lying.” But after Lehrer resigned from The New Yorker and his publisher pulled Imagine off the shelves, umbrage in the Twittersphere only grew. Jonah Lehrer was an imposter! A pretender! An actor! Instead of breaking with L.A. stereotypes (it had felt good to say the City of Angels had a resident big thinker, its own Malcolm Gladwell), he turned out to be fulfilling them with so much fakery. Not even his “crime” showed much creativity.
That’s what is puzzling: Lehrer must have known he’d likely be found out. Making up Dylan quotes is the journalistic equivalent of poking a stick into a hive of angry bees. When plotting a deception of this sort, wouldn’t it have been prudent to quote someone completely obscure? Or someone with logorrhea, whose words are nearly impossible to track because of their sheer volume? Choosing an icon who rarely gives interviews, each of them the subject of worshipful study by his fans, seems pathologically self-destructive. It reminds me of a remark an LAPD officer made about how, if criminals were true masterminds, they probably wouldn’t be resorting to lawbreaking in the first place. His colleagues’ term for this knack people have for making such revealing and incriminating mistakes? “Felony stupid.”
Depending on which analysis you read after Lehrer’s fall, his falsification and decontextualization of Dylan quotes was evidence of the culture’s overvaluing of genius, or of big ideas that explain things too simply, or of wunderkinds in general. There were observations about hubris and schadenfreude. There were grim tweets that illustrated both. (“Jonah Lehrer is a modern day Icarus. Flew too close to Gladwell,” read one from the blog the Native Angeleno, referring to Lehrer’s colleague at The New Yorker.) There were Web essays from Salon and Slate and Forbes and The Atlantic about how ironic it was that magazines fact-check material while book publishers don’t, about how the cult of “boy wonders” such as Lehrer bespeaks an underlying sexism in magazine and book publishing, and about how hard it is to do the basic work of real journalism.
By the time the inevitable interviews appeared with Gladwell (“I am heartbroken”) and with Jayson Blair (the infamous former fabulist reporter for The New York Times speculated on Lehrer’s probable “relief” at getting caught), the frenzy had already been nicely captured by Tyler Dukes, the managing editor of Duke University’s Reporters’ Lab. Dukes tweeted a picture that he headlined “Everything being written about @JonahLehrer right now, all summed up.” It was a photo of Gene Wilder as the top-hatted, purple suit-wearing Willy Wonka, with this caption: “No, please. Tell me more about how Jonah Lehrer’s downfall fits your preconceived narrative about what’s wrong with media culture.”
Was Lehrer just lazy? When Forbes’s John McQuaid noted that Lehrer’s deceit allowed him to avoid “the drab scutwork of journalism”—the tedium of tracking down facts—I knew exactly what he meant. In my many years as a writer, I’ve knocked on the doors of accused murderers once, twice, three, and finally four times until a family member answered and let me in (or slammed the door in my face). I’ve invested weeks scouring immigration records to prove a tangential point. I’ve camped out in subterranean courthouse archives, reading thousands of pages of documents in search of a single verifying detail. Journalism can be thrilling; it can also be a chore.
But Lehrer wasn’t simply a corner cutter. By creating an identity as a purveyor of wisdom, not only of narrative, he upped the ante on his own game. For him, success required more than telling the truth. To continue to be seen as a megathinker, he needed to introduce a fabulous new idea. Again and again and again. That pressure, it seems, was his undoing. In McQuaid’s view, Lehrer’s misbehavior is distressing “because Lehrer is more than just a journalist or even a best-selling author. He is a brand unto himself. And his fall shows what can happen when the personal brand supersedes everything else."
That journalist-as-brand phenomenon is tightly intertwined, of course, with the cult of oversimplification. As Atlantic editor Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in the days after Lehrer’s dethroning, “we now live in a world where counter-intuitive bullshitting is valorized, where the pose of argument is more important than the actual pursuit of truth, where clever answers take precedence over profound questions.” He also wrote: “Great long-form journalism comes from the author’s irrepressible need to answer a question. Fictional long-form journalism comes from the writer’s irrepressible need to be hailed as an oracle.” Reading that, you could be forgiven for thinking that Coates was taking a not-so-subtle swipe at Gladwell, too.
There’s an obvious irony to the title of Lehrer’s now-tainted best-seller, Imagine. But there’s another, deeper one. Part of being a good nonfiction writer is, in fact, imagining answers before you have them. This kind of imagining helps you ask better questions. It aids you as you hone a strategy for tackling the often difficult job of finding out the truth. The essential trick, though, is to let go of those early presuppositions the instant they are disproved by real information. Certainly it seems this is partly what derailed Lehrer—that he didn’t let go. He wanted Dylan to have had tantrums about the difficulty of writing a song because that served a goal bigger than the truth. It’s easy to see how desperately Lehrer, having sought and obtained membership to the smarty-pants club, needed to prove himself worthy. Still, you can’t help but wonder how Lehrer felt as he perched on the precipice before making his career-maiming leap. Was he aware enough to be nervous? Or was he deluded by his own ambition?
When I e-mailed Lehrer to ask him, he responded right away. Despite the avalanche of coverage, he said, I was only the third person to contact him for comment. (Apparently Lehrer wasn’t the only person guilty of laziness. Or was it that a potential response from Lehrer might not jibe with what the commentariat wanted to say?) “I’m extremely tempted to correct many of the false accusations that have been made about my work in recent weeks,” he wrote before declining to answer my questions. “I’m writing something about the mistake and affair myself, if only so I can learn from the failing, and I’d prefer not to talk until my writing is done.”
Let’s be honest: Journalists and book writers everywhere have felt the panic that rises when a source doesn’t respond to repeated queries, or when our reporting isn’t supporting what we thought was our central thesis, or when a particularly grievous deadline looms. We know it is unforgivable to cross the line from nonfiction to fiction, so the vast majority of us heed our moral compasses. But we are also guided by fear. While I seriously doubt that capital punishment deters criminals from committing murder (covering prisons and death row in Georgia for a year in the late ’80s—more scut work!—vanquished that argument’s chances with me), I do think that for journalists, fear of a career implosion is a useful check-and-balance.
Not for Lehrer, though. Two other sources Lehrer cited in his book—Teller, the magician, and Milton Glaser, the graphic designer—went on to raise questions about their quotes. Then in late August another shoe dropped. At the behest of Wired, an independent investigator, Charles Seife, examined 18 of Lehrer’s blog posts and found that “all but one piece revealed evidence of some journalistic misdeed.” In an essay on Slate, Seife said he’d interviewed Lehrer at length about his findings. While Seife was not permitted to quote Lehrer’s explanations (because Wired had not told Lehrer the inquiry would be made public), the investigator concluded, “I am convinced that Lehrer has a cavalier attitude about truth and falsehood.” In Seife’s opinion, Lehrer repeatedly “plagiarized others’ work, published inaccurate quotations, printed narrative details that were factually incorrect, and failed to address errors when they were pointed out.” Wired promptly fired him.
For non-journos, Lehrer’s downfall means far less than it does to those of us who pay our bills writing nonfiction. What bugs me, most, though, is that now even more readers will believe journalists really are willing—as the saying goes—to make stuff up to sell newspapers, magazines, books. Readers will distrust writers as much as our various detractors say they should. Lehrer’s sins soil not just his own reputation but those of his fellow journalists. Yes, the planet keeps spinning and the sun still comes up. But for writers who see their jobs as uncovering the truth, it was a long, hot summer. As Bob Dylan said in “Everything Is Broken,” a song from his 1989 album, Oh Mercy, “Seem like every time you stop and turn around / Something else just hit the ground.” Imagine.