Q & A: Michael C. Moynihan, The Guy Who Uncovered Jonah Lehrer’s Fabrication Problem

Long story short, over the last three weeks, widely ballyhooed author, contemporary thinker, and New Yorker writer Jonah Lehrer has been

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.

Q & A: Michael C. Moynihan, The Guy Who Uncovered Jonah Lehrer’s Fabrication Problem