On a June day four years ago Jonah Lehrer, the brilliant – and seemingly nervous – young writer, stood before an audience at Google’s Boston headquarters to discuss his acclaimed first book, “Proust Was a Neuroscientist”, which linked neuroscience with literary brilliance.
“As a writer,” Lehrer began, “I am vaguely aware that people wrote books before Google existed, but I have no idea how. And I certainly have no idea how people existed before people could Google themselves.”
In light of Lehrer’s plummet from the pantheon of literary pop stars to the dungeon of fallen stars such as Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass and Janet Cooke – young journalists whose bylines are now forever linked to fabrication and plagiarism – the irony of those sentences is inescapable.
Lehrer, now 31, clearly found it all too easy to Google himself and to do with the material he found what most of us do. He recycled it. Again and again, in different publications. When his own words seemed inadequate to make a point in his latest book, one reviewer accused Lehrer of “borrowing (heavily)” the ideas of another writer as if they were his own. And when even that wasn’t quite enough, he made up words and put them in the mouths of others’ – or at least in the mouth of one particular person, Bob Dylan.
Lehrer stepped down Tuesday from his new, high-profile perch at The New Yorker magazine, barely hours after confessing that he had fabricated the quotes he attributed to Dylan in his best-selling book “Imagine: How Creativity Works.” The book’s publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, asked that it be pulled from bookstore shelves; e-book releases were also spiked.
It was the knockout blow to the shooting-star career (if you can call it that) of a journalist (if you can call him that, which I no longer do) who seemed destined for decades of greatness. The speed of Lehrer’s fall is even more stunning than his rise. He had barely joined the fabled New Yorker’s staff in June when questions arose about his grasp of journalistic ethics. The first came from influential media blogger Jim Romenesko, who reported that Lehrer’s blog posts on The New Yorker’s site had been copied – nearly word for word – from previous articles he’d written for other publications, including the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, and Wired. Embarrassed, Lehrer’s New Yorker editors slapped a note on the postings saying, “We regret the duplication of material.”
This journalistic sin of “self-plagiarism” is puzzling to many readers who don’t fathom how recycling your own work can be wrong. But it is, and I’ll explain why in a moment.
Easy to explain is the fatal mistake in the “Imagine” article, where Lehrer quoted extensively from Dylan – which would have been an amazing scoop.
When Michael Moynihan, a skeptical reporter for Tablet and a self-described Dylan fanatic, set out to check the quotes, he quickly uncovered the fraud. Initially Lehrer lied, but the lies collapsed under Moynihan’s relentless digging. Confronted anew – and hearing the baying sounds of other journalists on the chase – Lehrer fessed up: “I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologize to everyone I have let down.”
His resignation was inevitable. Fabrication and lying for journalists invoke the death penalty. From this day forward Lehrer’s work—assuming more is published—will carry a scarlet letter or be shelved under fiction.
But many important questions remain. The first is the aforementioned sin of self-plagiarism. What’s the big deal, many people asked in the wake of the controversy ignited by Romenesko’s findings. One critic compared it to being punished for eating out of your own refrigerator. Aren’t lecturers well-paid to repeat the same speech time after time? Countless words are shared as tweets and retweets. So why was it wrong for Lehrer to recycle his own work from one publication to another via the magic of Google?
For at least two reasons. First, readers expect the words they are reading are written specifically for them unless they are informed otherwise. To give them words written for another publication cheats them. It’s the same way that a student is considered a cheat who submits the same paper to satisfy the requirements of different classes. It’s wrong – and grounds for an “F.”
Lehrer, an honors graduate of Columbia and a Rhodes Scholar, surely understood that stricture as it pertains to academia. Yet he blithely submitted the same work to several different publications. Who can know that his success in getting away with that transgression may have tempted him to try to get away with the far greater one of outright plagiarism and, ultimately, fabrication?
The second reason this is wrong is legalistic, but important: copyright laws. Virtually every issue of every newspaper and magazine published is copyrighted by the publisher, typically a corporation. The articles belong to the publisher, not the writer; for a writer to recycle those words in another publication amounts to theft from the first.
Finally there’s the elephant-in-the-room question. Why would Lehrer do this? Cheaters such as Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass and Janet Cooke claimed to have caved under the pressure to perform on a big stage. Lehrer, the boy wonder who’d become a media darling, highly paid keynote speaker, The New Yorkers’ next star, likely felt the same. There’s a bit of the old Peter Principle involved here, where people like Lehrer fear they’ve been promoted beyond their levels of competence and must cheat to stay there.
But I think that Hamilton Nolan had it right in Gawker when he said the primary explanation is simply that “Jonah Lehrer doesn’t know how to do journalism.” Put bluntly, Lehrer isn’t a journalist. Yes, the publications where his work appeared employed journalists. And what he wrote most of the time looked like journalism. But he wasn’t a journalist. And despite his years of elite education, he didn’t learn the most fundamental lessons of journalism.
Which gets me back to Lehrer’s talk to the audience at Google’s local office four years ago where he said he was “vaguely aware that people wrote books before Google existed, but I have no idea how.” In those words he essentially admitted his ignorance of journalism. A journalist gets quotes by actually interviewing people, not Googling them. A journalist credits others for finding information that the journalist didn’t get directly. A journalist doesn’t consider Google to be a primary source. Journalists don’t “Google themselves” to find material to recycle, as Lehrer may have done.
Jonah Lehrer is an extraordinarily talented young man who has a teacher’s gift for making complex scientific knowledge comprehensible. It’s a gift I hope he can continue to develop somewhere, somehow.
But not in journalism.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this piece mistakenly stated that Lehrer was fired from his position at The New Yorker. In fact, he resigned. In addition, Lehrer has never delivered a TED talk.