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'The Lies Are Over': A Journalist Unravels

Jul 31, 2012

"The lies are over now." That's an attributable quote from writer Jonah Lehrer, who resigned Monday from his job as a staff writer for The New Yorker, one of the most prestigious jobs in journalism. The past few months have been a series of revelations about Lehrer's tendencies to reuse his own material and make up quotes.

Lehrer started to attract unwanted attention earlier this year when his magazine work was found to borrow liberally from his own previously published articles. It seemed lazy and embarrassing, but not punishable.

Around the same time, in March, Lehrer's third book came out. Called Imagine, it examines the nature of creativity and starts with a discussion of a moment when musician Bob Dylan thought about switching to novels. Here's a line from the book:

"But then, just when Dylan was most determined to stop creating music, he was overcome with a strange feeling. 'It's a hard thing to describe,' Dylan would later remember. 'It's just this sense that you got something to say.' "

Lehrer claims the result was the song "Like a Rolling Stone." But when journalist Michael Moynihan picked up Imagine he was already a little suspicious.

"There were moments in it that I thought things were fishy," Moynihan says. "I thought the general premise of the chapter that, you know, Dylan had a creative breakthrough with the writing of 'Like a Rolling Stone' was wrong. I mean, that's a matter of opinion, but i think it was an album before that. And you know, these are things that Dylan nerds like myself care about."

Now, Dylan nerds are notorious completists, so everything the singer's ever said is archived somewhere — fairly easy to find for an inquisitive journalist.
But Moynihan could not find seven Dylan quotes Lehrer used in his first chapter, so he started a three-week long correspondence with the author, who gave increasingly fantastical excuses for lacking sources.

"There was a point when it seemed panicky," he says, "and that's when it started to unravel." Lehrer confessed that he'd made up the quotes, and Moynihan published an article in the online magazine Tablet that led to Lehrer's resignation from The New Yorker, where he'd been a rising star.

Imagine had been a best-seller, another coup for the 31-year-old writer who was frequently asked to discuss science, creativity and the brain, including on NPR and with Stephen Colbert. So Lehrer's predicament, given his preferred topic, makes irony an understatement in this case.

"You know, I do think in some level this is the predictable outcome of expecting a young journalist to be the next Oliver Sacks," says literary agent Scott Mendel. Sacks spent decades as a practicing neurologist and psychologist, Mendel says, but Lehrer benefited too quickly from a system that likes its stars.

"It was easy for people to forget that part of Jonah Lehrer's background and expertise didn't exist," Mendel says. "He's too young to have that kind of experience."

Mendel adds that nonfiction writers throughout history have faked materials, discovered lost texts that weren't truly lost, or made up characters and events. What's new, he says, is how quickly Lehrer was exposed. Fact checking meet crowdsourcing.

"You can't write about something people care deeply about without assuming that hundreds, if not thousands, of people will immediately begin checking your facts," Mendel says.

Moynihan takes no pleasure in having exposed someone whose talent he says he admired. "Why people do it in this day and age, when it's so easy to get caught, is beyond me," he says. "Look, in the course of doing my job, I was ensuring someone else would lose theirs. That's not fun."

Lehrer's publisher has stopped shipping Imagine and pulled the e-book version. And in the tradition of the fabulist James Frey, who wrote A Million Little Pieces, refunds are being offered to readers whose trust was betrayed.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. The writer Jonah Lehrer says, and this is a quote, "The lies are over now." Yesterday, he resigned from his job as a staff writer for the New Yorker. It was one of the most prestigious jobs in journalism. As NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, over the past few months, there's been a series of revelations about Lehrer's writing.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Jonah Lehrer started to attract unwanted attention earlier this year when his magazine work was found to liberally borrow from his own previously published articles. It seemed lazy and embarrassing, but not punishable. Around the same time, Lehrer's third book came out, "Imagine." He talked about it on this program. It examines the nature of creativity and starts with a discussion of a moment when musician Bob Dylan thought about switching to novels. Here's a reading.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Reading) Just when Dylan was most determined to stop creating music, he was overcome with a strange feeling. "It's a hard thing to describe," Dylan would later remember. "It's just this sense that you got something to say."

ULABY: Lehrer claims the result was the song "Like a Rolling Stone."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "LIKE A ROLLING STONE")

BOB DYLAN: (Singing) Once upon a time you dressed so fine, threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn't you?

ULABY: When journalist Michael Moynihan picked up "Imagine," he was already a little suspicious.

MICHAEL MOYNIHAN: There were moments in it that I thought things were fishy. I thought the general premise of the chapter that, you know, Dylan had a creative breakthrough with the writing of "Like a Rolling Stone" was wrong. I mean, that's a matter of opinion, but I think it was an album before that. And you know, these are things that Dylan nerds like myself care about.

ULABY: Now, Dylan nerds are notorious completists.

MOYNIHAN: So everything that Bob Dylan has ever said in public happens to be online and happens to be catalogued somewhere, in which I can find it fairly easily.

ULABY: But Moynihan could not find several Dylan quotes Lehrer used in his first chapter, so the journalist started a three-week long correspondence with the author, who gave increasingly fantastical excuses for lacking sources.

MOYNIHAN: There was a point when it seemed panicky and that's when it started to unravel.

ULABY: Lehrer confessed and Moynihan published an article in the online magazine "Tablet" that led to Lehrer's resignation from The New Yorker, where he'd been a rising star. The book was a best-seller, another coup for the 31-year-old writer who was frequently asked to discuss science, creativity and the brain, including on NPR and with Stephen Colbert.

STEPHEN COLBERT: So the creative act then would be seeing something that already exists and saying, I want to use that in a different way.

JONAH LEHRER: Exactly. A new connection between things that already...

COLBERT: That's also theft. Hey, I like your car? I'd like to use that in a different way, like me driving it. Is that an act of creativity?

LEHRER: It can sometimes be a fine line, you know.

COLBERT: Yes.

ULABY: Lehrer's predicament, given his preferred topic, makes irony, in this case, an understatement.

SCOTT MENDEL: This is the predictable outcome of expecting a young journalist to be the next Oliver Sacks.

ULABY: That's literary agent Scott Mendel. He says Lehrer benefited too quickly from a system that likes its stars. Sacks spent decades as a practicing neurologist and psychologist.

MENDEL: It was easy for people to forget that that part of Jonah Lehrer's background and expertise didn't exist.

ULABY: Mendel says throughout history, nonfiction writers have always faked materials, discovered lost texts that weren't, or made up characters or events. What's new, he says, is how quickly Lehrer was exposed. Fact-checking meet crowdsourcing.

MENDEL: You can't write about something people care deeply about without assuming that hundreds, if not thousands, of people are going to immediately begin checking your facts.

MOYNIHAN: Why people do it in this day and age, when it's so easy to get caught, is beyond me.

ULABY: Journalist Michael Moynihan takes no pleasure in having exposed someone whose talent, he says, he admired.

MOYNIHAN: Look, in the course of doing my job, I was ensuring that someone else would lose theirs and that's not fun.

ULABY: Jonah Lehrer's publisher has stopped shipping "Imagine" and pulled the e-book version. Refunds are being offered to readers whose trust was betrayed. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.