Long story short, over the last three weeks, widely ballyhooed author, contemporary thinker, and New Yorker writer Jonah Lehrer has been questioned for what one reporter suspected were fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan—of all people—in the first chapter of Lehrer’s new book. The book, ‘Imagine,’ has been promoted everywhere from The Colbert Report to The New York Times to Glenn Beck’s radio show and beyond.
On Monday morning, the piece about Lehrer’s fabricated and re-contextualized quotes was published. Lehrer has since confessed to having fabricated the quotes, and resigned from his job at The New Yorker. His book was put on indefinite hold by its publisher (also, a Fake Bob Dylan quotes Twitter emerged).
The guy who started all of this? A Tablet contributor, former VICE editor, and Wall Street Journal freelancer, Michael C. Moynihan. The Observer reached Moynihan by phone this afternoon, and spoke with him about how he got started on this story, whether or not he thinks Lehrer is truly remorseful, and why he’s motivated to cover stories like these. Also: What it’s like to cause one of the more stunning turn of events in media this year.
‘Must be a pretty crazy day for you.
Yeah—I sort of expected something like this, but not on this scale.
What’s surprising you the most about the reaction? I can’t imagine watching it play out from your perspective.
To be honest? It’s a horrible, horrible, horrible feeling, and that’s not to mitigate in any way what Lehrer did, and what he was guilty of. And what he was trying to do to me, which was to get me to report stuff that wasn’t true.
What do you mean by trying to get you to report things that weren’t true?
If I trusted him initially, and didn’t follow these leads, and decided to write something about this, for instance…
As a Bob Dylan fan…
Yeah, as a Bob Dylan nerd. This quote that you can’t find, for instance, comes from an unedited cut. That’s not true. He [was] sort of suborning me to write things that aren’t true. That said, when I say I feel horrible about it, I spoke to Jonah, and I spoke to him at length, and we had exchanged a lot of emails about this material. I can’t help but feel terrible about what’s going to happen to him and what’s currently happening to his career. In that sense, it’s not a great feeling.
I’m not somebody who desires to nail a scalp to the wall. But I was reporting out a story I thought was interesting, and it became a story that was absolutely necessary to report to correct the record in a lot of ways. And he spun me up with a series of lies that he ultimately admitted to, and I have to write that. At the end of the day, when you see a guy who’s a promising young journalist—a very talented guy, a very smart guy, and a very good writer—and you see him lose his livelihood, it’s not something that makes you jump for joy.
Earlier this afternoon, journalist Jonathan Shainin Tweeted: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice knows that he’s actually in the schadenfreude business.” I could be wrong, but there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly malicious about all of this from your side.
But there are definitely those people who have an inherent dislike or bias against these contemporary-thinkers-as-journalist types.
Oh, I think there’s an enormous amount of jealousy to see someone who’s 31 years-old, who gives TED Talks [Ed. Jonah Lehrer didn't actually give a TED Talk, but did speak at PopTech] and has a column in the Wall Street Journal, then in Wired, then ascends to the height of The New Yorker and gets that sort of brass ring. That’s the schadenfreude that people love to…well, to quote a shitty Morrissey song, to say that “We hate it when our friends become successful.” There’s something to that. To be totally frank, I periodically write for the weekend section of the Wall Street Journal, and that was pretty much the only place I knew Lehrer from. I hadn’t read his book. I didn’t know what he was [beyond what] people told me: That he was sort of this [Malcolm] Gladwell-type—or this sort of thing that he did—I was unaware of that. I still didn’t know too much about him, but I did read this chapter in his book.
To be totally honest, I didn’t want to twist the knife. I don’t think the material was presented that way. I was not interested in that. But I did—unfortunately—come upon something that had to be reported. To me, there was no schadenfreude there. There was more schaden than freude. I had no real idea [of him]. I came across his stuff more or less when the whole self-plagiarizing scandal kind of came up.
Which you wrote of pretty evenhandedly, quoting someone who compared self-plagiarizing to stealing from one’s own refrigerator.
That was a great journalist friend of mine. And I kind of agree with him! My initial thing was: I had talked to two British journalists about a British writer whose piece I had noticed was in The New Statesman, and pretty much the same one a couple months later in The Telegraph. They said, ‘Oh, we do this all the time here, double-dipping is part of the game.’ And so I looked at this because I was interested in sorting out that issue. What is the difference ethically between the United Kingdom and here? Why is it acceptable there and frowned up here? Then I saw that Remnick [addressed it], and he was being perfectly reasonable. I was planning on doing a short little piece about that, and then I saw this chapter.
Do you think this would’ve been less damaging had Lehrer initially been forthright with you, instead of trying to obfuscate the truth?
Absolutely. But at the end of the day, we’re still left with the issue of where did these quotes come from. And this is Dylan. Everything [about him] is reported, every sneeze is analyzed. For fuck’s sake, there used to be that guy in the West Village—A.J. Weberman—who used to do Garbology, he used to sift through Dylan’s garbage when he lived in the West Village, and they famously had a fistfight on the street about this. It was: Why can’t I find these quotes? It was kind of stunning to me. He didn’t think I would do my due diligence. Jeff Rosen [Dylan's manager] is a hard guy to get a hold of, but he’s not impossible.
The Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back is a favorite movie of mine. But had I read Lehrer’s piece, I wouldn’t have questioned that quote from the movie he extended into fiction. It seemed to track, and I would’ve shaped my memory of the quote from his book, which was wrong. And that’s especially odd.
It is. And the thing you have to ask yourself too, is: Why do that? Does it sharpen the point that much? I don’t think it does.
Did you get any insight into the “Why do that?” question from talking to Lehrer?
A bit. Yeah. I don’t think I’m ever going to revisit this, but there’s another piece to be written about the way this all unfolded. And again, I feel bad because: There’s a reason that when you get caught doing something, and you are grabbed by the police, that the police allow you to have a lawyer present. You’re panicking. You start saying things. And then you get in really, really deep. This is not something I did on a whim. I wasn’t trying to hurt him. As a matter of fact, when we were talking for so long, I was trying to help him, saying Let’s find this stuff. This was a three-week process. I could have taken it and put it up online as it progressed, and let the hive mind look for this stuff, and pinned him down…
But that would’ve been a little malicious.
That would’ve been malicious! And I swear on my life that was not my intention. That’s not something I wanted for him or would’ve wanted to have done to him.
Did he seem genuinely remorseful?
Yes. He did. He did. You can make the argument that when there’s been so much deception, at this point, he’s trying to save his own skin, and I don’t know what it takes for somebody like this to have a second chance, or if that happens. There’s been these things that have sort of preceded this that don’t look good either. I really do wish him the best and I really do hope he recovers from this. More than anything, though, by the way, I’m completely fucking mystified as to how somebody who does this sort of thing thinks they’re going to go work at The New Yorker. Those fact-checkers are obviously notorious, and that sort of stuff wouldn’t be published there. But back to your question, I did think based on our conversations that he is genuinely remorseful.
You’ve written about these kinds of ethical lapses before, right? There was that post at Reason about plagiarism…
Yeah. I also wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal last year about a book that was published by Knopf that was plagiarized. The amazing thing about that was: It was clear as day, the author never responded, and the book was then published in paperback with no corrections, because he wasn’t Jonah Lehrer. It was this guy named Dominic Sandbrook, the British historian. He hosts TV shows for the BBC. He’s not a small figure in the United Kingdom, but he is here. It got some pickup, but obviously, things are treated different. Here, because he wasn’t a big name, nobody cared.
I really resent people who plagiarize, and I didn’t catch Jonah Lehrer plagiarizing. But let me amend that: I resent people who cut corners, because I’m not the fastest writer in the world, and I spend time banging my head against the wall trying to make the words come out in the right way. I don’t like people who cheat.
That’s the incredible thing. Why do it? If you don’t have a source, if you don’t have a story, you just say: I don’t have the source. I don’t have the story. You learn and move on from it. And it’s the Internet! They’re all gonna get caught, eventually.
Yeah, but they don’t think that’s gonna happen.
Did this experience with Jonah Lehrer extend any knowledge you have of people who try to get away with these things?
I can’t prove this in any way, but I tend to think [with these kinds of books], the thesis of the chapter is line that everyone works backwards from. It’s the Gladwell kind of thing—and no accusations against him, I think he’s been very good, and people have wanted to take him down, and he would’ve been taken down if he was wrong, and I don’t think that he has [been taken down]. I actually think he’s very good, in fact. But I think those types of books—you know, Have you read this unbelievably clever Tipping Point kind-of-thing? I tend to believe the world doesn’t work that way. It’s horribly flabby and messy and complicated.
The truth is usually grey and boring.
Yeah! The truth is grey and boring and to make it less boring sometimes you have to punch things up. I think that’s what leads people to do this kind of thing. But I think the straight plagiarism thing—as was the case with Dominic Sandbrook—is a guy who’s producing too much. Writing a column, teaching, putting out three books in a year in a half.
I wonder if that’s a sense of urgency, or a sense of entitlement? As in: I work so hard, I’m allowed to take liberties with ethics.
I don’t know. I’m a guy that went to state school and is at 37 blogging and freelancing. What it’s like to be in that pressure cooker situation—being a Rhodes Scholar as Jonah Lehrer was, rising up the ranks so quickly as he did, and getting to that place like The New Yorker and having to perform? His initial performance there was to cannibalize his own material. I think that shows a level of pressure and a level of stress that affects this and guides people’s behavior.
Follow Michael C. Moynihan on Twitter here. Do not try to get anything past him.
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