Late last night, New Yorker Editor David Remnick learned that Tablet magazine had the goods on one of his writers. Staff writer Jonah Lehrer, Tablet was ready to report, had fabricated quotes that had allegedly come from Bob Dylan for his celebrated book “Imagine: How Creativity Works” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Remnick had a conversation with Lehrer; Lehrer resigned. Harcourt announced it would stop shipping “Imagine” and delete the availability of the e-book.
Statements ensued. Remnick: “This is a terrifically sad situation, but, in the end, what is most important is the integrity of what we publish and what we stand for.”
Lehrer, in part: “The quotes in question either did not exist, were unintentional misquotations, or represented improper combinations of previously existing quotes.”
The Tablet story, by reporter Michael C. Moynihan, puts to rest the notion that Lehrer’s most egregious literary sins were a matter of the inaptly titled “self-plagiarism.” That’s the offense that the New Yorker uncovered in June, after Jim Romenesko reported that one of Lehrer’s posts for the New Yorker repeated material that he’d written in the Wall Street Journal.
Following that episode, the New Yorker got busy, reviewing all the work that Lehrer had written for the magazine. Up went editor’s notes on five of Lehrer’s contributions for the magazine’s Frontal Cortex blog. A sample:
Editors’ Note: Portions of this post appeared in similar form in a December, 2009, piece by Jonah Lehrer for Wired magazine. We regret the duplication of material.
“Duplication of material,” decided the magazine, wasn’t an offense worthy of dismissal. So Lehrer stayed.
Then Moynihan started pelting Lehrer with questions about quotes attributed to Dylan in “Imagine.” As the story narrates, Lehrer said he’d gotten some rare Dylan quotes because the singer’s manager, Jeff Rosen, had provided some unreleased interview that was conducted for Martin Scorcese’s documentary No Direction Home. Though Lehrer makes every attempt to shake Moynihan from his pursuit, the reporter notes the upshot of this chase:
Lehrer finally confessed that he has never met or corresponded with Jeff Rosen, Dylan’s manager; he has never seen an unexpurgated version of Dylan’s interview for No Direction Home, something he offered up to stymie my search; that a missing quote he claimed could be found in an episode of Dylan’s “Theme Time Radio Hour” cannot, in fact, be found there; and that a 1995 radio interview, supposedly available in a printed collection of Dylan interviews called The Fiddler Now Upspoke, also didn’t exist.
In light of those revelations, the New Yorker is going to do more due diligence, according to spokeswoman Alexa Cassanos. “We had done a thorough investigation six weeks ago,” she says. “We covered our own material. Now we’re going to go back and go through any quotes.”
The bright light in this depressing story of deception comes from Moynihan, who describes himself as “something of the Dylan obsessive — piles of live bootlegs, outtakes, books.” As he hunts Lehrer and the provenance of his bogus quotes, Moynihan shows us just how steeped in Bob Dylan he is. For example:
Further explaining Dylan’s creative process, Lehrer writes that the songwriter “begins when he finds a sound or song that ‘touches the bone,’ ” attributing the quote to Dylan’s 2004 memoir, Chronicles. But a thorough rereading of Chronicles—along with a text search of the eBook—turned up nothing of the sort. When I pointed this out, Lehrer conceded that his sourcing was wrong but claimed that I could find the “touches the bone” quote in an episode of Dylan’s “Theme Time Radio Hour” program, which runs 1,000 hours and doesn’t exist in transcript form. What specific program, what season (three were produced), at what point in the broadcast, Lehrer never specified. But this too seemed an unlikely citation: “Theme Time Radio Hour” isn’t an interview program and doesn’t feature Dylan providing expansive commentary on his career.
Lehrer sold himself to the public and to editors as a smart fellow, a student of the brain who could think his way to a nascent literary fame. He just wasn’t smart enough to mislead.