Jonah Lehrer: A little too much Imagination

I understand the temptation.

It is so much easier to make stuff up than to do the research, do the interviews, dig up the documents, and then reference all those.

This last book was five years in the making. Five years of writing, re-writing, interviewing and re-interviewing. Fact-checking and double-fact-checking.

Someone recently asked me what is the ugly part of my job. “Getting paid so little for all the work I put into writing,” I said.

I should have said the really ugly part of this work is when people cheat their way to the top.

Jonah Lehrer‘s book Imagine: How Creativity Works was released about the same time A Silence of Mockingbirds was released. His sold 200,000 copies. I’d be thrilled if mine sold 20,000 copies.

They are both non-fiction titles.

Granted I’ve had to yank my audience kicking and screaming to the topic matter — who wants to read about child abuse?  While, Mr. Lehrer wrote about the the process of creativity, something most of us want to understand better.

The problem is that Mr. Lehrer took a little too much creative license in writing his book. Headline news stories report that he simply fabricated quotes attributed to Bob Dylan. Lehrer employed a little too much imagination.

As a result, Mr. Lehrer has lost a very prestigious job with The New Yorker and his publisher has yanked a rather successful book from the shelves.

Not only did Lehrer make up quotes by Dylan, an oddly risky thing to do given that Dylan is alive and could dispute the quotes himself, but when questioned by another journalist about the authenticity of the quotes, Lehrer continued his fabrications.

That’s the modern day terminology for saying that Jonah Lehrer is a liar-liar-pants-on-fire sort of fellow.

It makes absolutely no sense really. It’s not like Mr. Lehrer isn’t a learned fellow. He majored in neuroscience at Columbia, gained a lofty reputation for writing about science, in addition to his enviable positions as a writer for The New Yorker and handsomely rewarded public speaker.

He has the chops to do the job the right way. But for whatever reason — boredom, laziness, or just simple arrogance — Mr. Lehrer decided at some point that he didn’t have to abide by some very basic journalist ethics — most notably the rule everyone learns in Journalism 101: Don’t make shit up.

Oh. I’m sure he’s going to come out out of this unscathed. He’s probably already fielding lucrative offers to write a memoir about all his lying.  After he was caught with his lying pants down, Mr. Lehrer 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.”

If you believe that he really understands the gravity of his fabrications, then I have some wheatland in Louisiana I’d like to sell you.

What he’s really sorry for is getting caught.

It’s not like he came clean the minute another journalist questioned him about the authenticity of the Dylan quotes. Indeed, according to most accounts, Mr. Lehrer lied for three consecutive weeks before realizing that he couldn’t get out of the fix he’d put himself in because he’d come up against a journalist who valued veracity. The Wrapreported:

Michael C. Moynihan, a writer for the Jewish magazine Tablet revealed that Lehrer concocted Bob Dylan quotes and later lied to Moynihan because he “panicked.”

“Three weeks ago, I received an email from journalist Michael Moynihan asking about Bob Dylan quotes in my book ‘Imagine,’” Lehrer, 31, 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.”

I’m not going to lie to you. It hurts my heart to see all the ways in which cheaters are lauded in this country.

I appreciate that David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, took such a strong position on this matter:  ”This is a terrifically sad situation, but, in the end, what is most important is that the integrity of what we publish and what we stand for.”

I wish every writer would take seriously the admonishment from author Garrison Keillor: Be well. Do good work. 

Honest work.

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