At the New Yorker, star writer Jonah Lehrer has resigned after it was shown that he fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan for his well-reviewed book “Imagine: How Creativity Works.”
This was the final shoe dropping that began with one untied shoelace, the discovery in June that Lehrer had plagiarized from himself, lifting a section of a piece published earlier in one publication to include in a piece written for The New Yorker. This is a minor ethical incursion—-Lehrer had represented the second essay as original, so using prior published material was dishonest even if he was the author—but it launched his employers on a mission of scrutiny, investigating to see if the one transgression was part of a trend.
When it comes to professional ethics, you see, it often is. The principle of signature significance holds that in some pursuits just one episode can be enough to make certain conclusions. A writer of true integrity never borrows from his own published work without flagging the fact. Doing so even once indicates shaky integrity, and a willingness to cut corners. It may well indicate a proclivity to cheat in more egregious ways.
This proved to be the case with Lehrer. Sure enough, he had made a habit of re-cycling his words. Then a reporter for Tablet, an online magazine, got the scent of a more sensational deception, one that involved Lehrer using phony Bob Dylan quotes in his book. When he was confronted, Lehrer lied…another predictable part of the package. Eventually, all the excuses and deflections collapsed, and the New Yorker forced him to quit.
The question is, of course, how unusual is Jonah Lehrer? We have no idea at all, and the ephemeral nature of ethics in the journalistic field today leaves us with no confidence that he is the right kind of aberration—a rare journalist who cheats, rather than a rare journalist who is caught cheating. Washington Post blogger Eric Wemple closed his article about Lehrer this way, which I found a bit unsettling:
“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.”
Is Wemple saying that the truly smart journalists can mislead and get away with it? Whether that was his intent or not, I fear he might be right.
Graphic: Jewish Journal
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