Jonah Lehrer, Imagination, and Resignation
Several years ago, I attended the Virginia Festival of the Book. Among the many interesting panels I saw was one that featured two speakers — a crusty old professor of Virginia history and a wunderkind named Jonah Lehrer. It became obvious in about twenty-seven seconds that Lehrer was infinitely more comfortable with speaking to the room — he was charming, humble, witty, and entertaining. (He was speaking about the French chef Escoffier, and the notion of umami as a fifth basic taste; in a broader sense he was promoting his book, PROUST WAS A NEUROSCIENTIST.) After the prepared comments, the audience asked questions, and Lehrer was a genius at answering the queries — 100% of which were directed to him — and he found ways to include his co-speaker.
I was impressed.
I’ve read numerous essays by Lehrer since then, and I noted with interest that he left Wired to become a staff writer for the New Yorker a few months ago. Like many, I was surprised when his arrival at the New Yorker was marred by scandal — Lehrer drew from some of his earlier texts in blog posts that were presented as new. While there were many who said the man had no morals, I was in the camp that believes one cannot plagiarize oneself. I think he should have been clear that some of the columns had been published in a different form previously, but I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Until today. Today, Lehrer resigned from the New Yorker, after admitting to fabricating quote from Bob Dylan in Lehrer’s most recent nonfiction book, IMAGINATION. (Ironic title?) Lehrer essentially says that he made minor mistakes, was called on it by another journalist, panicked, and lied (saying that he had tapes containing the fabricated quotations.)
I understand panic. I actually am amazed that more good people don’t make bad mistakes in moments of panic — fleeing the scenes of accidents, lying outright to police during the investigation of crimes major and minor. Some of my strongest memories from childhood are the times I got caught telling lies; it’s the panic that cemented those moments in my brain cells.
And yet, I think that even “panic” is a bad excuse here. Lehrer knew that he created quotations (among other failures of reporting). The instant he chose to create a quotation, he must have wondered if he’d be caught. He’s had months and months to think about this moment; “panic” shouldn’t apply.
I was overwhelmed by Lehrer’s poise and erudition when I saw him in Charlottesville. Now, I wonder if his career is over, if he’s followed in the footsteps of Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, and other brilliant young journalists who were long on talent but way too short on ethics.
The entire situation depresses me. (It also worries me about the effect it has on publishing in general — when bestsellers are declared lies and have to be recalled, everyone in the publishing chain suffers.)