Disgraced New Yorker journo speaks to LA Magazine

Kari Mozena of Los Angeles magazine says:

This month, Los Angeles magazine tackles the imbroglio surrounding the once-heralded (and now discredited) genius in our backyard: Jonah Lehrer. In the piece, Lehrer speaks (via email) for the first time since issuing a statement about resigning from The New Yorker in July. Lehrer tells editor-at-large Amy Wallace that he is writing his own piece about “the mistake.” He also says many of the accusations against him are false.

Lehrer had a difficult summer. First the prolific author was found to have plagiarized himself in several blog posts for The New Yorker. Then Tablet magazine’s Michael C. Moynihan revealed that several Bob Dylan quotes in Lehrer’s best-selling book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, were either made up or distorted. Finally, an independent investigation commissioned by Wired magazine, one of Lehrer’s other employers, concluded that Lehrer has a history of ethical and factual transgressions.

In her piece, Wallace talks about the affair from the perspective of “those of us who pay our bills writing non-fiction” -- as Lehrer supposedly did. Analyzing the story surrounding the story, she explores what might be called the dark secret of journalism -- the temptation to cut corners when the clock is ticking and a story isn’t coming together as planned (a temptation that Lehrer clearly gave in to). As she laments, his legacy tarnishes everyone who tries to tell the truth. “Now even more readers will believe journalists really are willing—as the saying goes—to make stuff up to sell newspapers, magazines, books. Readers will distrust writers as much as our various detractors say they should. Lehrer’s sins soil not just his own reputation but those of his fellow journalists.”

Caught Getting Creative: The disgrace of wunderkind writer Jonah Lehrer, outed for manufacturing quotes, reverberates worst in the city he calls home


  1. Lehrer tells editor-at-large Amy Wallace that he is writing his own piece about “the mistake.”

    “The” mistake? Like, singular?

    1. It seemed weird, but it’s a fancy way of saying he recycled his past works.  But you know what?  Fuck nonfiction.  Just make everything up, make no apologies, and repeat yourself incessantly. If the vultures come at you, offer your eyeballs and simultaneously pluck theirs out with tongs.

    2. “Self-plagiarism” is a legitimate term for a legitimate transgression. It means you can’t publish old research/writing as new research writing, as that is fraudulent.

  2. You can in fact plagiarize yourself.  I am fairly certain I’ve done it.  For example, on another website I frequently answer questions with fairly specific answers often I will simply look for a previous post I’ve made on a topic and copy and paste the answer in a new post.  

    In the world of Journalism or Academia copy and pasting without the same level of attribution you’d give another source is still considered plagiarism.  

    I have no doubt that Lehrer crossed a line.  Making up quotes is simply beyond the pale, and is cause for him to be fired.  Other criticisms of his writing seem to be more nit picky.  For example, someone who blogs on a frequent basis is likely to repeat themselves quite frequently.  Also, Lehrer seems guilty of quoting press releases without attribution.  This is such a common practice in what passes for journalism today that I am quite willing to give Lehrer a pass on this as well.  Why, because if we fired every journalist who quoted press releases without proper attribution we’d have to fire about 75% of all journalists.

    1. You find me a PR person who wants their words re-written when using a press release and I’ll consider giving them attribution. PR is about gaining exposure and making a journalists life as easy as possible. If they produce content that tailored, fitting and works with the body copy there is no reason not to use it and no sensible reason to break up the narrative with attribution.

  3. Plagiarizing one’s self. As crimes go that’s a pretty nuanced notion.

    I can offer the “some of the greats did it!” justification often served up when someone in popular favor is caught doing something:

    Beethoven more than once sold the exact same composition to different publishers without revealing that to any of them  That sounds like self-plagiarism to me.

    Of course, Lehrer is no Beethoven but he hasn’t gone so far as to sell the exact same entire article to different publications.

  4.  “As she laments, his legacy tarnishes everyone who tries to tell the truth”.

    I don’t understand why this level of drama is being brought to bear on couple of effin Dylan quotes.  I mean, I appreciate that this guy cut corners and behaved unprofessionally, but I don’t get why people are rounding on him like he committed some heinous and hugely consequential infraction in the realm of serious journalism that resulted in reputations ruined and nations going to war and the Superbowl cancelled and an X-Factor hopeful attempting self-immolation.

    1. Integrity is the only thing that distinguishes journalism from gossip. If you’re a liar, you’ve got nothing to offer.

          1. journalism is a form of entertainment. we don’t all sit around in drawing rooms studying the new york times looking for an education. Granted, this guy told fibs but it’s pissed of some muso’s… it’s hardly a war crime.

    2.  For the same reason you’d justifiably heap scorn on someone who cheated at Monopoly, even though only play money is at stake.

  5. I expect there are enough talented would-be journalists that there isn’t any reason to lower the bar for Lehrer. Time for him to find another line of work.

  6. So, to the extent that he replied at all, he deflected questions by saying that he was using his behavior as the grist for another article. I don’t know if he realizes just how badly his reputation was hurt.

    I think that a big part of the backlash can be explained by this: “(it had felt good to say the City of Angels had a resident big thinker, its own Malcolm Gladwell)”. Gladwell isn’t necessarily regarded that well by everyone, either. Counter-intuitive bullshitting (to use Coates’ phrase) is a fairly slender reed to build an entire career on, at best.

    1. its pretty simple. write something, sell it to outlet a. wait n months, sell it to outlet b as new material.

      lehrer’s career is fucked sideways and he doesn’t even seem to know it.

      1.  But surely that’s just garden variety fraud. Plagiarism is ” to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own” (it says right here in the Merriam Webster). In fact, all the dictionaries at OneLook agree on that. So while what he did is certainly unethical, plagiarism seems like the kind of thing that, by definition, one cannot do to oneself.

          1. I’d certainly call it fraud but not plagiarism. Plagiarism involves stealing someone else’s work. You can’t steal something that belongs to you. What you can do is pass it off as new work when it isn’t and accept payment under false pretenses. But that is fraud. You didn’t steal someone else’s work. You just pretended that what you were selling was something it was not. It is more analogous to the guy with the overcoat full of watches than it is to a student copying and pasting from Wikipedia. I’m not saying it isn’t wrong, it just isn’t wrong in that particular way. My institution considers submitting the same paper for two different assignments as a separate type of violation from plagiarism.

          2. You can’t steal something that belongs to you.

            That’s why he’s not being accused of stealing his own work. We have a word for this: plagiarism. You’ve equated plagiarism with theft and then made your argument based on that definition.

          3. Antinous/Moderator Says:”We have a word for this: plagiarism. You’ve equated plagiarism with theft and then made your argument based on that definition.”

            Plagarism IS a form of theft. That’s the only point I was making. According to Mr. Webster plagiarism means:

            1. To use and pass off (the ideas or writings of another) as one’s own. 2. To appropriate for use as one’s own passages or ideas from (another).
            To put forth as original to oneself the ideas or words of another.

            Since the ideas and words came from himself, and not from another person, whatever he did cannot properly be called plagiarism.

          4.  You’re acting like Boing Boing just invented the term “self-plagiarism.” It’s the word for what he did.

            Plagiarism is publishing work without proper attributions. If you publish your own, older work, without the proper attributions/citations, it is plagiarism. The difference is that rather than mistaking your work for someone else’s, people will mistake your old work for your new work. Plagiarism is more akin to fraud than to theft.

          5.  To Girard:

            No, it’s not. That’s the point. Plagiarism involves using the work of SOMEONE ELSE without attribution. If you recycle your own work, attributions or no, that is not plagiarism. Read the dictionary. God, I didn’t think this would generate such a dispute! Words mean what they mean and not something else. Passing off your own thinking as your own is surely a different category of error than passing of someone else’s thinking as your own.

          6. Words mean what they mean and not something else.

            And yet you continue to insist on your own personal definition. You keep calling it theft despite your own dictionary quotes not using that word. As has been pointed out, it’s not theft, it’s fraud.

          7.  Antinous:

            I feel like I’ve walked through the looking glass here. Yes, “As has been pointed out, it’s not theft, it’s fraud.” Indeed.  *I* pointed that out. This has been my entire point from the beginning and it is totally bizarre to find myself taken to task for saying the exact opposite of what I actually said. I quote myself from above “But surely that’s just garden variety fraud.”

            Copying oneself without attribution is not plagiarism. It is fraud. You can think if it as theft if you want (I do) but I’m not insisting on that. What I am insisting on, since my first post above (read them if you don’t believe me) is that plagiarism necessarily involves using *someone elses* words. If there isn’t a second person involved, it isn’t plagiarism. Consequently, self-plagiarism doesn’t exist.

            You said  “We have a word for this: plagiarism.” No, that word doesn’t go with that act. That is what Kant called a category error. Plagiarism means copying someone else, not copying one’s self.

            I give up. It was a small point to begin with and isn’t worth all this effort. I’m going to stick to making jokes from now on. Everyone as you were.

  7. 1) this guy
    2) Mike Daisey 
    3) Paul Ryan

    Folks like this are my #1 pet peeve in the whole world. I can deal with people who have some degree of self-awareness when they lie.

  8. “Now even more readers will believe journalists really are willing—as the saying goes—to make stuff up to sell newspapers, magazines, books.”
    Gasp! Now, at this precise moment in time, I have finally realized that journalists sometimes distort reality in order to produce crap to sell adspace – and may even do so… FOR MONEY! Dum Dum DUM DUMMMM!!

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