The Jonah Lehrer Story is Not Sad
Published on July 31, 2012 by Sara Foss

After the Jonah Lehrer quote fabricating scandal came to light, my friend Hanna emailed me. "Question, journalist-to-journalist: Why is everyone on my Twitter feed calling the Jonah Lehrer story 'sad'?" she asked. "Sad for Bob Dylan? Is it sad when a reporter makes up quotes, or just embarrassing?"

I speculated that people were sad about the incredible waste of talent, the shocking downfall of a gifted young writer. But I agree with Hanna's overall point. When I think of Jonah Lehrer's quote fabrication (and his self-plagiarism), the word sad isn't what comes to mind. The word pathetic is. Honestly, what other word is there for someone who makes up Bob Dylan quotes? The guy is still alive! With a legion of obsessive fans!

I've been suspicious of Lehrer since his self-plagiarism scandal, in which he was found to be re-posting essays and blog posts that he'd written elsewhere, and passing them off as new work in his blog at The New Yorker. This isn't as terrible a journalistic sin as plain old plagiarism, but come on! A blog is a place where you comment on what's going on, flesh out new ideas, engage with readers, voice the occasional opinion and tell interesting stories. For whatever reason, Lehrer didn't feel like doing that.

At the time, Josh Levin at Slate wrote an interesting piece suggesting that Lehrer had transformed from a journalist to an idea man. "This is the world of TED talks and corporate lectures, a realm in which your thoughts are your product," Levin writes. "For the idea man, the written word is just one of many mediums for conveying your message and building your brand."

At Gawker, Hamilton Nolan took a less charitable view, in a post titled "Jonah Lehrer Just Does Not Know How To Do Journalism," writing, "So—being charitable—Jonah Lehrer fancies himself a thinker rather than a journalist, and he concentrated on the ideas to the exclusion of basic journalistic rules of disclosure and citation and originality and other important things like that. Okay. So why is he working for the most rarefied journalistic magazine in America? You know? Send him down to the minors. A few years rewriting scientific press releases for could probably do him a world of good. If The New Yorker keeps Lehrer on, at this point, it's quite hard to not scoff at the idea that The New Yorker takes basic rules of journalism very seriously. This shit would get you canned from the average community newspaper."

Yup, it would. That's what's so incredible about it. Lehrer was writing for The New Yorker! The guy might be a fraud, but he managed to fool a lot of very bright people. His downfall has sparked some hand-wringing about the pressure and stress of being an ambitious young writer. "Lehrer may be a brilliant talent, but we’re unlikely to discover many more of his insights, since he is now unlikely to find a publisher of note to take him on," Sharon Waxman writes. "What a waste. Talent combined with ambition, mixed with the ravenous maw of internet-era publishing, the impossible margins of publishers who value profit over accuracy and the path to fame paved with all the right credentials. Just not enough experience."

Frankly, this is a bunch of nonsense. The rules of journalism are not terribly complicated. And the most important rule is "don't make stuff up." Children understand this. And it's nothing you can blame the internet for, either. Lehrer, frankly, is an aberration. Don't feel sorry for him. Or sad. He is not a victim of the Internet age, or the pressures of the publishing industry.

Of course, Lehrer's fellow hacks would have you believe that not making stuff up is a really hard thing to do. In an interview about Lehrer, disgraced former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair remarked, "I think when you’re young and you’re immature — well, I’m unclear on why he did it, but when you’re young and immature, it’s just very difficult, I think, to resist temptation."

Thankfully, David Weigel at Slate has written a post explaining that this is just not true, for the vast majority of people. "I used to be young, so I can say with certainty that it is not that that hard to resist this temptation," he writes. "It's actually pretty rare for someone to write non-fiction and feel this temptation at all. Very few journalists become as successful as Lehrer, let alone release hot-selling pop science books in their late 20s, so any criticism of his mistake is going to read like jealousy. But forget jealousy! Pity Lehrer for not paying a few more dues early on and having to live through the dull, rewarding agony of fact-checking."

The best commentary on Lehrer has come from Ta-Nehisi Coates, at the Atlantic, who writes: "My thoughts on Lehrer are unchanged from a few weeks ago, when he was caught republishing his own material as though it were new. Great long-form journalism comes from the author's irrepressible need to answer a question. Fictional long-form journalism comes from the writer's irrepressible need to be hailed as an oracle. In the former fabulism isn't just wrong because it cheats the reader, it's wrong because it cheats the writer. Manufactured evidence tends not to satiate an aching curiosity. But it does wonders for those most interested in oraculism.

This dichotomy is a bit unfair. Some part of all of us wants to be credited and enjoys the acclaim. And a big part of all of us likes getting answers. But we now live in a world where counter-intuitive bullshitting is valorized, where the pose of argument is more important than the actual pursuit of truth, where clever answers take precedence over profound questions. We have no patience for mystery. We want the deciphering of gods. We want oracles. And we want them right now."

Also, I can't believe how many credible organizations are running out to get Jayson Blair's comments on this. Why would any self-respecting journalists take anything Blair said at all seriously? The guy is a liar!

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