Jonah Lehrer: A little too much Imagination

I understand the temptation.

It is so much easier to make stuff up than to do the research, do the interviews, dig up the documents, and then reference all those.

This last book was five years in the making. Five years of writing, re-writing, interviewing and re-interviewing. Fact-checking and double-fact-checking.

Someone recently asked me what is the ugly part of my job. “Getting paid so little for all the work I put into writing,” I said.

I should have said the really ugly part of this work is when people cheat their way to the top.

Jonah Lehrer‘s book Imagine: How Creativity Works was released about the same time A Silence of Mockingbirds was released. His sold 200,000 copies. I’d be thrilled if mine sold 20,000 copies.

They are both non-fiction titles.

Granted I’ve had to yank my audience kicking and screaming to the topic matter — who wants to read about child abuse?  While, Mr. Lehrer wrote about the the process of creativity, something most of us want to understand better.

The problem is that Mr. Lehrer took a little too much creative license in writing his book. Headline news stories report that he simply fabricated quotes attributed to Bob Dylan. Lehrer employed a little too much imagination.

As a result, Mr. Lehrer has lost a very prestigious job with The New Yorker and his publisher has yanked a rather successful book from the shelves.

Not only did Lehrer make up quotes by Dylan, an oddly risky thing to do given that Dylan is alive and could dispute the quotes himself, but when questioned by another journalist about the authenticity of the quotes, Lehrer continued his fabrications.

That’s the modern day terminology for saying that Jonah Lehrer is a liar-liar-pants-on-fire sort of fellow.

It makes absolutely no sense really. It’s not like Mr. Lehrer isn’t a learned fellow. He majored in neuroscience at Columbia, gained a lofty reputation for writing about science, in addition to his enviable positions as a writer for The New Yorker and handsomely rewarded public speaker.

He has the chops to do the job the right way. But for whatever reason — boredom, laziness, or just simple arrogance — Mr. Lehrer decided at some point that he didn’t have to abide by some very basic journalist ethics — most notably the rule everyone learns in Journalism 101: Don’t make shit up.

Oh. I’m sure he’s going to come out out of this unscathed. He’s probably already fielding lucrative offers to write a memoir about all his lying.  After he was caught with his lying pants down, Mr. Lehrer said: “The lies are over now. I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologize to everyone I have let down, especially my editors and readers.”

If you believe that he really understands the gravity of his fabrications, then I have some wheatland in Louisiana I’d like to sell you.

What he’s really sorry for is getting caught.

It’s not like he came clean the minute another journalist questioned him about the authenticity of the Dylan quotes. Indeed, according to most accounts, Mr. Lehrer lied for three consecutive weeks before realizing that he couldn’t get out of the fix he’d put himself in because he’d come up against a journalist who valued veracity. The Wrap reported:

Michael C. Moynihan, a writer for the Jewish magazine Tablet revealed that Lehrer concocted Bob Dylan quotes and later lied to Moynihan because he “panicked.”

“Three weeks ago, I received an email from journalist Michael Moynihan asking about Bob Dylan quotes in my book ‘Imagine,’” Lehrer, 31, said in a statement. “The quotes in question either did not exist, were unintentional misquotations, or represented improper combinations of previously existing quotes. But I told Mr. Moynihan that they were from archival interview footage provided to me by Dylan’s representatives. This was a lie spoken in a moment of panic. When Mr. Moynihan followed up, I continued to lie, and say things I should not have said.”

I’m not going to lie to you. It hurts my heart to see all the ways in which cheaters are lauded in this country.

I appreciate that David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, took such a strong position on this matter:  “This is a terrifically sad situation, but, in the end, what is most important is that the integrity of what we publish and what we stand for.”

I wish every writer would take seriously the admonishment from author Garrison Keillor: Be well. Do good work. 

Honest work.

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Karen Spears Zacharias

Author. Speaker. Journalism Instructor. Four kids. Three dogs. One grandson.

  • AFRoger

    Every now and then in preparing a Bible study, I do a little research on the meanings associated with the names of the persons in the story. Names can never be presented as deterministic of events, but every now and again there is more than a little bit of irony in the names. This story carries quite a bit. First name: Jonah. An ancient Jonah once experienced quite a turn-around… Family name: Lehrer. German noun for “teacher”. Mr. Lehrer, what exactly would you be teaching us?

  • tanyam

    Wow. How could you possibly know whether his admission of guilt and apology were authentic or not? You’ve ruled out any possibility . . . because you just know how these things work? A person is caught cheating, tries in a panic to lie about it, and finally realizes, the gig is up, the act was damnable, and the consequences horrific. Ever read Psalm 51?

    I don’t claim to know what’s actually going on for Lehrer, because I don’t think any of us can.

    C. S. Lewis once observed that he would not judge a person who had committed a sin he hadn’t, because he couldn’t possibly understand what it might mean to be tempted by –gambling, — for example. Just held no interest for him. But plenty of other temptations had ensnared him.

    So you haven’t been tempted to falsify information. Good for you. Any other temptations come your way? Ever succumbed?

    The great thing about being a fiction writer is learning the discipline to imagine life inside another person’s skin. A life you haven’t lived.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      T-
      Because it wasn’t his first offense regarding journalist integrity and because when he was first questioned about it, he continued in his lies. Hoping that this too would pass. Perhaps his genius compelled him to think his audience was too dumb to figure it all out. And to fabricate quotes from Bob Dylan? Bob Dylan? Who does that? Makes up the quotes of a man still living? Takes some sort of hubris to do that. As a journalist his behavior is not only offense, it is damaging to the whole lot. Credibility is the byline of all journalists. Without it, we are fiction writers. This seems to be an ethic that Mr. Lehrer and so many others have decidedly dismissed. Great article in Salon on the problem of Lehrer.
      http://www.salon.com/2012/07/31/jonah_lehrer_throws_it_all_away/

    • KarenZach

      T-
      Because it wasn’t his first offense regarding journalist integrity and because when he was first questioned about it, he continued in his lies. Hoping that this too would pass. Perhaps his genius compelled him to think his audience was too dumb to figure it all out. And to fabricate quotes from Bob Dylan? Bob Dylan? Who does that? Makes up the quotes of a man still living? Takes some sort of hubris to do that. As a journalist his behavior is not only offense, it is damaging to the whole lot. Credibility is the byline of all journalists. Without it, we are fiction writers. This seems to be an ethic that Mr. Lehrer and so many others have decidedly dismissed. Great article in Salon on the problem of Lehrer.
      http://www.salon.com/2012/07/31/jonah_lehrer_throws_it_all_away/

      • tanyam

        I still think we cannot be sure. I’m not defending the act — I just can’t possibly know what the motivation was, or anything at all about the man’s inner psyche. Who makes up the quotes of a man still living? Maybe somebody who is intentionally sabotaging himself. Maybe somebody who feels he’s only ever been an imposter. Maybe somebody who is afraid to fail. And Denial is potent. “Its no big deal, and nobody will notice.” Stupid, yes, but I have no problem believing that one could think this. My imagination can think of several possible states of mind that would lead to this, other than the ones you propose, or that Salon hints at.

        But the Salon article does ask the rest of us to consider our part. I see that as all we can ever finally do, especially from this distance, and even that is tough — my own behavior is sometimes a mystery to me. How on earth can I pretend to know another’s inner life?

        Finally this — you confuse behavior with ethics. It is quite possible that Lehrer knew what he did was wrong — but that didn’t stop him from doing it. Happens all the time when people cheat on their spouses, cheat on tests — it isn’t that they don’t know such a thing is wrong –and possibly even feel shame as they do it– they just want something badly enough.

        from the old Cary Grant movie, Charade:

        Reggie Lampert:
        Why do people have to tell lies?

        Peter Joshua:
        Usually it’s because they want something. And they are afraid the truth won’t get it for them.

        • http://www.lukemontgomery.net/ Luke Montgomery

          I certainly appreciate your hesitation to rush to judgment about whether or not the man’s “repentance” is sincere. Somehow such blatant lying makes us reticent to believe he’s telling the truth now. In my mind, it doesn’t matter (to me at least) whether his remorse is sincere or only faked. He cheated. He has to go. Respect will only be earned after he has proven his change of heart through actions and not words. How about refunding the purchases price to every Kindle owner who bought the book? (or at least the author share – I doubt Amazon would be happy about refunding their share). This is the sort of action that would indicate a genuine change of heart. Until we see something like this, his words will inevitably be seen as cheap “lies”. Deceit is a tough rap to beat.

          • tanyam

            Yep, I’m all for appropriate consequences, and firing him is that.

            Refunds would be nice too — but I have no idea what this would look like in his life. Is the money already spent? He’s got a wife and a daughter I believe — and no job. The details of the rest of his life are unknown to me. I think its interesting that Remick, who fired him, called the situation sad. That seems exactly right.

            Some mistakes cannot be made right. A bell can’t be unrung. David couldn’t bring back Uriah. The rest of David’s life had moments of mercy, bravery –and failure. I think we best remember him as a checkered figure.

            Call me naive, but it isn’t hard for me to imagine someone doing this lying thing, and being a decent human being in other areas of his life. Or not. I hold great stock in the idea that human beings are terribly complicated. But in the end while we might enforce consequences, it is only God’s to judge the human heart.

  • http://twitter.com/garywrites Gary Nelson

    Geez, it’s crap like this that gives us journalists who do the work the old fashioned and ethical way a bad reputation. I hope the publisher strings him up and sues him for every penny he hasn’t earned. I’m sure I could make some of my stories a lot more appealing if I started making up quotes. It wouldn’t get me any richer, though. After all is said and done you still have to face yourself in the mirror. What a chump!

  • http://www.lukemontgomery.net/ Luke Montgomery

    I suppose the gravity of the matter will be hard to understand in a culture based on lies. I have seen too many “news” stories represent a version of the “facts” so twisted as to be barely recognizable by those who know the true story. Unfortunately, I believe we are so beset with lies on every side that we come to expect anything but the truth. (This doesn’t apply of course if the source of information is someone we trust!)

    I think it is one reason people simply disbelieve the media. I’m glad he was fired but I suspect there are a lot more fabricators walking the halls of the Main Stream Media than we can imagine.

    In times of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act – Bob Dylan :-)

    Orwell, of course, but it hardly matters, does it?

  • Doris Dagen

    Reminds me of Stephen Glass and his fabrications at The New Republic. The story is told in the movie “Shattered Glass”.


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