L’Affaire Lehrer: In Defense of Jonah

Amid the pile-on of denunciations of Jonah Lehrer, the New Yorker writer whose invention of a Bob Dylan quote was uncovered earlier


Amid the pile-on of denunciations of Jonah Lehrer, the New Yorker writer whose invention of a Bob Dylan quote was uncovered earlier this week by a contributor to the Tablet, his former editor steps up to defend him. 

I was Jonah Lehrer’s editor at Seed magazine, which I believe was the first magazine to publish his writing on neuroscience, and the originator of his “Frontal Cortex” blog. One of the stories we worked on together was included in the 2007 edition of Best American Science and Nature Writing (although that one, in truth, didn’t need much help from me).

He is one of the most talented, hard-working, meticulous, and careful writers I’ve edited (a group that includes Dave Eggers, Geraldine Brooks, Peter Godwin, Michael Eric Dyson, Evan Ratliff, Bryan Walsh, Jake Silverstein, and Tom Clynes). And having first-hand experience of the fact-checking departments at The New Yorker and Wired, the magazines for which Lehrer most recently wrote, I doubt very much that his manufacturing or misuse of quotes extends much to his magazine writing.

It’s possible that this analysis is colored by my being invested in the outcome of this affair—I don’t know him well but I like and admire the guy. The corrections and suspicious non-attributions that others have uncovered have no doubt already led some editor somewhere in Manhattan to assign a young writer to fact-check all Lehrer’s work; if Michael C. Moynihan’s Tablet article is just the opening of the floodgates, expect the water to rise suddenly sometime next week.

Absent further revelations, though, I find it an unfair double-standard that something Lehrer falsely attributed to Bob Dylan—which is essentially accurate, even if it isn’t technically—has cost him his job, and that his publisher is yanking his book. It’s not as if he quoted Dylan as saying, “I’m a Wiccan,” or “Wallace Stevens was a sucky poet.” He wrote, “‘It’s a hard thing to describe,’ Mr. Dylan said. ‘It’s just this sense that you got something to say.’” Here’s Dylan, to Ed Bradley on “60 Minutes” (according to the New York Times’ Media Decoder blog): “It came from, like, right out of that wellspring of creativity…I don’t know how I got to write those songs.”

(This isn’t to say what Lehrer did is OK, but as in many cases it seems the attempted cover-up was worse than the misdeed itself; if, say, Lehrer had cut corners in his book proposal’s sample chapter and forgotten or otherwise failed to fix it later, then admitted as much to Moynihan, I venture that he’d still have his cushy New Yorker contract, and his best-seller status.)

Because meanwhile, fatheads on cable TV like Bill O’Reilly knowingly (and probably unknowingly, too) purvey falsehoods every day and they don’t lose their jobs, and their books (of much lower quality, and higher degree of falsehood, than Lehrer’s “Imagine,” in nearly all instances) stay on the shelves. Books by Dinesh D’Souza and Ann Coulter have been full of demonstrable falsehoods for years, and what do these authors get? Another six-figure book contract, that’s what. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s and Amazon’s actions to erase Imagine from the market are cowardly, seen in this light.

And what of the politicians’ lies? Sad to say, but the only explanation is that we expect it of them, and hold our writers to a higher standard than our policy makers.

Dylan himself has not been immune to borrowing, appropriation, theft—Jonathan Lethem would know what to call it: Dylan’s artworks displayed at Gagosian Gallery last year included an image that appeared to be mimicry of Henri Cartier-Bresson; he was accused of appropriating lyrics from a Civil War-era poet; and his album “Love & Theft” contains melodies and chord progressions that sound remarkably similar to earlier songs, including one from his own album, “Oh Mercy.”

The fact is that the reporter at Tablet who busted Lehrer; most of the bloggers who’ve recycled the Tablet article and make a living as parasites on the work of better reporters than themselves (the twit at FishbowlNY can’t even bother to spell Jonah’s name right); and this reporter, too, couldn’t hold a candle to him as a writer or original—yes, original—thinker. (He’s also a hell of a nice guy.)

People will point to Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass (whose articles I ex post facto fact-checked, with Lorne Manly, for Brill’s Content) as evidence that Lehrer’s career as a journalist is over. But, while the editors of The New Yorker and Wired will argue the point, Lehrer has become less a journalist and more of a purveyor of ideas. He’s much higher on the media totem pole than Blair or Glass ever were, and he can come back as an author of books, public speaker, TV commentator, screenwriter.… David Remnick’s distancing statement notwithstanding, Lehrer doesn’t need The New Yorker anymore (not that they would take him).

I hope Jonah relaxes and spends a lot of time watching his child grow for a couple of years until this sad, stupid affair blows over and he goes back to earning a fortune by helping us understand ourselves better. I wonder where the people talking smack about him now will be then.

Paul Tullis has written for New York, Businessweek, Scientific American Mind, Fast Company, Los Angeles Times Magazine, Bon Appetit, Radar, and more than 50 other print, digital, and broadcast media outlets. He lives in Los Angeles.

L’Affaire Lehrer: In Defense of Jonah