One journalist’s take on another’s folly: The Jonah Lehrer Conundrum

A writer’s integrity serves as both flak jacket and silver bullet. Without it, what’s left?

It can sometimes be a fine line. Bob Dylan has this great line when someone asked him where his songs come from, he said they begin with “acts of love.” You fall in love, and then you steal it … you make it your own, you reinvent it. You, in a sense, misremember it, and that’s an important part of creativity. Which is why it’s so important to create a culture where people can liberally borrow from the ideas of others.  – Jonah Lehrer on The Colbert Show (April 17, 2012)

I’ve read them all. Every one. Forbes. Poytner. The New York Times. Global Post. I’ve even read the personal statement issued by Lehrer’s publishing house, Houton Mifflin Harcourt. The die is cast. Lehrer is done.

Ok. Perhaps not finished, but certainly scarred. After all, a writer’s integrity serves as both flak jacket and silver bullet in this industry. Even the suggestion of falsity in journalist circles can undo a personality, upset a career and upend a reputation.

At 31-years-old, the recently anointed New Yorker staff writer had already published three books, penned innumerable long-form articles published everywhere from Wired to the Washington Post, The New York Times Magazine to The New Yorker. He was, at such a young age, a literary treat: weaving the most rigid of facts into the smoothest of manuscripts. Lehrer, to many —and for lack of a better comparison—  the Michael Lewis of science writers, extolling the wonders unseen to an audience unread. And he was, in the end, too good to be true.

One has to wonder why such a talented writer would opt for convenience over conscience —risk a career over a few re-constructed, misconstrued or fabricated quotes. In part, I have to believe that it was driven by the aesthetic —the desire to hammer home one’s point most eloquent and with impact: the want to, as he argues in his own book, streamline and recombine the ideas of old to make something new again.

But his miscarriage of trust can’t be overlooked, not if his audience demands both the authentic and the intelligent. If a journalist is a painter responsible to facts un-glossed, then the aesthetic provides no respite. And neither should his readers.

Most unfortunate for us, his audience, is the mere introduction of suspicion: the soon-rotten seed of doubt which will (and should) lead many to cast critical eyes on Lehrer’s body of work. For those who value the trade, we can only hopeful that —as his parting words suggest— “the lies are now over.” But even a sinking ship, patched and repaired, might still rot if the water is not bailed out.

Lehrer would certainly be wise to come forward now if additional professional ulcers exist Confessions, before the accusations, are usually preferable to the scrutiny of public opinion when that public feels duped. But Lehrer might also chime in on what forces (internal or external) led him to make such compromises in an otherwise charmed early career.

Certainly (as a writer and journalist myself) I recognize the strains created by a professional life reliant on the witty or alluring combination of 26 letters, but the nature of his responsibility (mostly for long form, ostensibly original magazine material) was not subject to the same break-neck, second-counting pace of daily news, even though that, too, would be little excuse.

In a fitting coincidence, an article (by David Carr) on the necessity for journalists to take stock of their work (to hold themselves to account more thoroughly) was inked the same day  —prior to the announcement. In that piece, Carr notes that “the reason the public has lost confidence in our product [journalism] is that it sometimes does not merit it.”

While Lehrer’s revelation will only diminish the public’s trust, the saddest coda to this story is that Lehrer could have avoided his mistake if he’d only read his now-tarnished book:

When stuck, out of ideas, or when the answer appears far from reachable, Lehrer argues that time to reflect calmly —the antithesis of stubborn or panicked folly [or in this case, the use of inappropriate and damaging shortcuts]— can be the creative type’s greatest asset. A moment of respite refreshes the brain, provides space to think, and the solution —creative at its core— is more apt to reveal itself.

Perhaps Lehrer should have re-read that section one more time. His readers —current and former— expected it of him.

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