It wasn’t just the research that made Michael Moynihan’s gotcha piece on Jonah Lehrer so definitive. Nor was it the evidence that he marshaled against Lehrer for those hard-to-trace quotes attributed to Bob Dylan in his book “Imagine:How Creativity Works.”
What topped the entire presentation was the moment when Lehrer cops to making stuff up: “I couldn’t find the original sources,” he told Moynihan. “I panicked. And I’m deeply sorry for lying.” He made a more complete admission in this statement:
“Three weeks ago, I received an email from journalist Michael Moynihan asking about Bob Dylan quotes in my book IMAGINE. 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.”
Indefensible? No way.
Here comes Paul Tullis, a former editor of Lehrer’s, to fill a void in the ideas marketplace, to do that which hadn’t yet been dared. A full-throated defense of Lehrer, that is. Tullis draws on the facile argument that other authors (specifically, Dinesh D’Souza and Ann Coulter) have propagated falsehoods, but nothing bad happened to them!
The other plank in Tullis’s polemic, when stripped to its grain, is that Lehrer fabricated expertly, and that must serve as a mitigating factor for this young talent. Don’t trust my abridgement, however. Read the original:
Absent further revelations, though, I find it an unfair double-standard that something Lehrer falsely attributed to Bob Dylan — which is essentially accurate, even if it isn’t technically — has cost him his job, and that his publisher is yanking his book. It’s not as if he quoted Dylan as saying, “I’m a Wiccan,” or “Wallace Stevens was a sucky poet.” He wrote, “‘It’s a hard thing to describe,’ Mr. Dylan said. ‘It’s just this sense that you got something to say.’” Here’s Dylan, to Ed Bradley on “60 Minutes” (according to the New York Times’ Media Decoder blog): “It came from, like, right out of that wellspring of creativity . . . I don’t know how I got to write those songs.”
(This isn’t to say what Lehrer did is OK, but as in many cases it seems the attempted cover-up was worse than the misdeed itself; if, say, Lehrer had cut corners in his book proposal’s sample chapter and forgotten or otherwise failed to fix it later, then admitted as much to Moynihan, I venture that he’d still have his cushy New Yorker contract, and his best-seller status.)
It gets even better when Tullis cites Dylan’s own intellectual property transgressions to excuse Lehrer. Send that one to the in-house Relevance Checker.
Tullis’s piece is great entertainment, proof that these days you can get someone to write absolutely anything.