Wow! Jonah Lehrer resigns from New Yorker, admits to fabricating quotations
This report took me totally by surprise. I’ve really liked Lehrer’s writing: a very bright guy who seemed to be moving rapidly up in the world of writing. It looks as though he cut some crucial corners on the way. Julie Bosman reports in the NY Times:
Jonah Lehrer, the staff writer for The New Yorker who apologized in June for recycling his previous work in articles, blogs and his best-selling book “Imagine,” resigned from the magazine, he said in a statement.
Mr. Lehrer faced new questions about his work on Monday in an article in the online magazine Tablet that reported that he had admitted to fabricating quotes attributed to Bob Dylan in “Imagine,” a nonfiction book published in March by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
“Three weeks ago, I received an email from journalist Michael Moynihan asking about Bob Dylan quotes in my book ‘Imagine,’ ” Mr. Lehrer said in a statement. “The quotes in question either did not exist, were unintentional misquotations, or represented improper combinations of previously existing quotes. But I told Mr. Moynihan that they were from archival interview footage provided to me by Dylan’s representatives. This was a lie spoken in a moment of panic. When Mr. Moynihan followed up, I continued to lie, and say things I should not have said.”
“The lies are over now. I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologize to everyone I have let down, especially my editors and readers. I also owe a sincere apology to Mr. Moynihan. I will do my best to correct the record and ensure that my misquotations and mistakes are fixed. I have resigned my position as staff writer at The New Yorker.” . . .
Continue reading. This seems terribly sad. It strikes me as different, somehow, from Stephen Glass‘s serial fabrications at The New Republic or Jayson Blair‘s at the NY Times, or Janet Cooke‘s in the Washington Post (which won a Pultizer prize). Not to excuse or condone Lehrer’s bad choice, but it doesn’t seem like the sort of wholesale fabrication committed by the others. But he did it, and I think his life will now change dramatically.
Oddly, I was just about to blog a link to this Lifehacker post on making mistakes in the Internet age—when the record of the mistake seems to live on. Since we all do make mistakes—perhaps not so grave as those listed above, but mistakes nonetheless—the article is worth a look. And the point is well taken that mistakes are how we learn. As I once said to someone, “If you’re batting 1.000, you’re playing in the wrong league.” A record of perfection is not a good sign, overall. Growth involves mistakes.
UPDATE: Roxane Gay has an interesting take at Salon.com on the Jonah Lehrer incident, with a focus on the system that produced and promoted him and that (she believes) will protect and reinstate him. We’ll see, but in the meantime her column is worth reading.