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Jonah Lehrer’s Deceptions

The celebrated journalist fabricated Bob Dylan quotes in his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works

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Jonah Lehrer at the Aspen Ideas Festival on July 1, 2012. (Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis)

“It’s a hard thing to describe,” Bob Dylan once mused about the creative process. “It’s just this sense that you got something to say.”

The sense that one has something to say, some story to relate, is the stuff that fuels all writers. That Dylan observation can be found in the first chapter of journalist Jonah Lehrer’s best-selling new book Imagine: How Creativity Works, an exploration of how neuroscience explains creative genius. Lehrer has much to say on the matter, from a meditation on the inventor of the Post-It note to an investigation into the way Bob Dylan’s mind works, which included the quote above.

The problem, though, is that there is no proof that Dylan ever said this.

Last month, Lehrer was accused of a curious journalistic offense: the act of “self-plagiarism.” Lehrer, a staff writer at The New Yorker and celebrated author of three books, cannibalized his own work, posting often word-for-word excerpts from Imagine on The New Yorker’s blog without noting that it had been published elsewhere. To some, it was a tenuous charge—as one journalist commented to me, this was like “being accused of stealing food from your own refrigerator.” Others highlighted the pressures brought to bear on young writers to produce more and more content.

It wasn’t the first time Lehrer’s fellow writers had raised questions about his work. Reviewing his first book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, philosopher Jonathon Keats upbraided Lehrer for a narrative larded with examples that “arbitrarily and often inaccurately” supported his thesis. The writer Edward Champion, who catalogued Lehrer’s recent recyclings on his blog, stated baldly that Lehrer was guilty of “plagiarizing” a paragraph from fellow New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell. A New York Times reviewer catalogued the “many elementary errors” in Imagine. And the New Republic’s Isaac Chotiner, in a devastating review of Imagine, chided Lehrer for “borrowing (heavily)” from economist Edward Glaeser and claimed that “almost everything” in his exegesis of Bob Dylan’s song “Like a Rolling Stone” was “inaccurate, misleading, or simplistic.”

As it turns out, Chotiner may have been onto more than he understood. I’m something of the Dylan obsessive—piles of live bootlegs, outtakes, books—and I read the first chapter of Imagine with keen interest. But when I looked for sources to a handful of Dylan quotations offered by Lehrer—the chapter is sparsely and erratically footnoted—I came up empty and in one case found two fragments of quotes, from different years and on different topics, welded together to create something that happily complemented Lehrer’s argument. Other quotes I couldn’t locate at all.

When contacted, Lehrer provided an explanation for some of my archival failures: He claimed to have been given access, by Dylan’s manager Jeff Rosen, to an extended—and unreleased—interview shot for Martin Scorsese’s documentary No Direction Home. Two of the quotes confounding me, he explained, could be found in a more complete version of that interview that is not publicly available. As corroboration, he offered details of the context in which the comments were delivered and brought up other topics he claimed Dylan discussed in this unreleased footage.

Over the next three weeks, Lehrer stonewalled, misled, and, eventually, outright lied to me. Yesterday, Lehrer finally confessed that he has never met or corresponded with Jeff Rosen, Dylan’s manager; he has never seen an unexpurgated version of Dylan’s interview for No Direction Home, something he offered up to stymie my search; that a missing quote he claimed could be found in an episode of Dylan’s “Theme Time Radio Hour” cannot, in fact, be found there; and that a 1995 radio interview, supposedly available in a printed collection of Dylan interviews called The Fiddler Now Upspoke, also didn’t exist. When, three weeks after our first contact, I asked Lehrer to explain his deceptions, he responded, for the first time in our communication, forthrightly: “I couldn’t find the original sources,” he said. “I panicked. And I’m deeply sorry for lying.”

***

I asked Lehrer about seven Bob Dylan quotes in the chapter—three of which aren’t detectable anywhere else, at least not in the forms in which they appear in the book; three others of which include portions of real Dylan quotes; and one that is dramatically removed from its original context to conform to the narrative of Imagine. Lehrer claims that some of these anomalies can be attributed to the editing process—he told me he excised 10,000 words from his original draft of the Dylan chapter—and insists that all of the unattributed quotes do come from somewhere; he simply cannot find their sources.

It is, though, difficult to imagine that there exist Bob Dylan quotes discovered and revealed by Jonah Lehrer, given the singer’s reclusiveness—journalists are rarely granted access, and Lehrer hasn’t claimed to have interviewed Dylan—and the deep fanaticism of his fan base, who treat his every utterance as worthy of deconstruction and analysis. After significant archival digging, with assistance from a historian deeply versed in all things Dylan, I haven’t been able to locate a number of the quotes cited in Imagine.

I was first troubled by Lehrer’s handling of a rather well-known Dylan remark, recounted in countless biographies and websites. Lehrer writes, “Whenever Dylan read about himself in the newspaper, he made the same observation: ‘God, I’m glad I’m not me,’ he said. ‘I’m glad I’m not that.’ ” But in his classic documentary of Dylan’s 1965 tour of the United Kingdom, Dont Look Back, D.A. Pennebaker’s camera catches the singer peering at a newspaper story about a recent concert and muttering, “God, I’m glad I’m not me.” Where the utterance used by Lehrer—“I’m glad I’m not that”—comes from is unknown, as there is no verifiable reference to Dylan ever saying this. (And it’s not clear how Lehrer divines that Dylan said this “whenever” he read about himself.) When I asked Lehrer about this, he admitted that he didn’t know either, promising it would be corrected in future editions of the book.

But then other, more troubling anomalies began to emerge. In another quote mined from Dont Look Back, in which Dylan is asked by a pestering Time magazine journalist about the inspiration for his songs, Lehrer quotes Dylan as saying: “I just write them. There’s no great message. Stop asking me to explain.” The last sentence sharpens and simplifies Lehrer’s point—that Dylan’s brilliance isn’t easily explicable. But it doesn’t appear in Dont Look Back.

When I questioned Lehrer about where this added sentence came from, he claimed it was a hybrid quote, with the first two sentences appearing in Dont Look Back and the admonition to “stop asking me to explain” from a 1995 radio interview included in The Fiddler Now Upspoke. According to Lehrer, in 1995 Dylan told an interviewer, “Stop asking me to explain. Those songs weren’t about anybody.” But I couldn’t find this either, and the only radio interview Dylan gave in 1995 doesn’t include these lines. When asked for a more specific citation—a page number, a photo of the passage, more information about who conducted the interview—Lehrer ignored the request.

Further explaining Dylan’s creative process, Lehrer writes that the songwriter “begins when he finds a sound or song that ‘touches the bone,’ ” attributing the quote to Dylan’s 2004 memoir, Chronicles. But a thorough rereading of Chronicles—along with a text search of the eBook—turned up nothing of the sort. When I pointed this out, Lehrer conceded that his sourcing was wrong but claimed that I could find the “touches the bone” quote in an episode of Dylan’s “Theme Time Radio Hour” program, which runs 100 hours and doesn’t exist in transcript form. What specific program, what season (three were produced), at what point in the broadcast, Lehrer never specified. But this too seemed an unlikely citation: “Theme Time Radio Hour” isn’t an interview program and doesn’t feature Dylan providing expansive commentary on his career.

I did manage to locate some of the unfootnoted material. Here is Lehrer, again, quoting Dylan on the supposedly chaotic process of writing “Like a Rolling Stone”: “ ‘I don’t think a song like ‘Rolling Stone’ could have been done any other way,’ Dylan insisted. ‘You can’t sit down and write that consciously. … What are you gonna do, chart it out?’ ” But this is actually comprised of two quotes, grafted together from two separate interviews: one conducted in 1984, in which Dylan discusses the process of recording (not writing) the song, and one from 1976, which doesn’t specifically mention “Like a Rolling Stone.” Lehrer admitted this, promising to correct this too in future editions of Imagine.

But even the Dylan quotes in the book that are accurate are contextually problematic. Here is Lehrer explaining Dylan’s allegedly frantic process of songwriting:

He packed a typewriter in with his luggage and could turn anything into a desk; he searched for words while surrounded by the chaos of tour. When he got particularly frustrated, he would tear his work into smaller and smaller pieces, shredding them and throwing them in the wastebasket. (Marianne Faithfull referred to such moments as “tantrums of genius.”)

The source for singer Marianne Faithfull’s “tantrum of genius” quote is the book Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades, by Clinton Heylin, a British author of seven books on Dylan. For starters, tantrum is not, as Lehrer has it, plural. Second, it does not describe how the singer constructed songs, but how he reacted to being spurned by beautiful women:

A nervous young Faithfull, in awe of Dylan, just didn’t know how to deal with the situation when he finally came on to her. Stoned, and equally uncertain, Dylan’s reaction to her gentle rebuff smacked of a man in permanent arrested adolescence, unused to hearing the word no—i.e. a rock star.

Marianne Faithfull: Without warning he turned into Rumpelstiltskin. He went over to the typewriter, took a sheaf of papers and began ripping them up into smaller and smaller pieces, which he let into the wastepaper basket. ‘Are you satisfied now?’ he asked. I was witnessing a little tantrum of genius. With that he stormed out in a rage. I sat there pinned to my chair. He returned a moment later with renewed fury and threw me out.

The fury, the pieces of typing paper, reduced to small squares by an angry, brilliant troubadour, the sarcastic reference to a “little tantrum of genius,” are all manifestations, according to Faithfull, of Dylan’s sexual frustration—not frustration over the process of writing or recording music. As Lehrer acknowledged when confronted with the context of this passage, there is a rather large difference.

But the most troubling citations relate to one of Dylan’s most famous compositions. According to Lehrer, here is Bob Dylan on his 1965 song, “Like a Rolling Stone”: “[Dylan] would later say it was his first ‘completely free song … the one that opened it up for me.’ ”And these ruminations on where the song came from: “ ‘It’s a hard thing to describe,’ ” Lehrer claims Dylan said. “ ‘It’s just this sense that you got something to say.’ ” Lehrer does not provide citations for either of these, and after a deep excavation of the Dylan record I was unable to locate them. In a phone call and subsequent emails, Lehrer told me these quotes were a result of his research at “bobdylan.com headquarters” and that he had access to the uncut version of No Direction Home provided by Dylan’s manager Jeff Rosen.

When I asked about aspects of his interactions with Rosen, Lehrer provided a sketchy time frame and contradictory specifics—he first told me that he had personally exchanged emails with Rosen, then attributed this supposed email exchange to his literary agent—then further claimed that Dylan’s management had approved the chapter after being sent a copy of Imagine. He added that Dylan’s management didn’t want their cooperation sourced in the book. But when I contacted Dylan’s management, they told me that they were unfamiliar with Lehrer, had never read his book, there was no bobdylan.com headquarters, and, to the best of their recollection, no one there had screened outtakes from No Direction Home for Lehrer. Confronted with this, Lehrer admitted that he had invented it.

A month ago, when Lehrer’s self-plagiarism scandal emerged, some supporters argued that it was simply the misstep of a young journalist. But making up sources, deceiving a fellow journalist, and offering accounts of films you have never seen and emails never exchanged, is, to crib Bob Dylan, on a whole other level.

***

CORRECTION, July 31: A previous version of this story reported that the “Theme Time Radio Hour” program runs 1,000 hours. In fact, it is 100 hours long.

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James Winchell says:

Sad, devastating . . . the kind of careerism that creeps up on an overwrought ego and destroys a self. Michael Moynihan’s reportage and research inspire; Lehrer’s mistakes evoke a strange kind of pathos. Beware.

James Winchell says:

Sad, devastating . . . the kind of careerism that creeps up on an overwrought ego and destroys a self. Michael Moynihan’s reportage and research inspire; Lehrer’s mistakes evoke a strange kind of pathos. Beware.

Natidread says:

Great article. Not only called out a really poor journalist for crimes against journalism, but also showed him how proper research for writing is done. Nice job.

We do this type of stuff every day at the Pundit Pete Press Service, except that we are proud of it. We even have a staff plagiarist, Pilferer Pete.

Our editorial policy: “We may make stuff up, but we’re always accurate.”

Kinda of like the mainstream media, except for the accurate part. Check out Pundit Pete (satire). http://www.punditpete.blogspot.com

sunstroked says:

I want those 5 minutes back.

Charlie Mandell says:

Wonderful. Just great. Very courageous work. For an encore, why don’t you go after after ‘journalists’ who lie every day, like say, Rupert Murdoch’s entire programming roster.

Aaron Barlow says:

I can’t ‘imagine’ that nobody pointed out the absurdity to Lehrer, the absurdity in calling “Like a Rolling Stone” some sort of “first completely free song.” Certainly, Dylan would never had said that. I mean, just think of “Darkness at the break of noon, Shadows even the silver spoon, The handmade blade, the child’s balloon, Eclipses both the sun and moon, To understand you know to soon, There is no sense in trying.” That, and many other ‘spontaneous overflowings’ (a little Wordsworth, anyone?) preceded “Like a Rolling Stone.” No one at the publishing house noticed that there was something wrong with Lehrer’s work?

corey949 says:

I so liked what Lehrer said about creativity in “Imagine” that I quoted it on my blog, including what is now revealed as faux-Dylaniana. What I don’t understand is why Lehrer though he needed to make up those quotes. Does that mean his account of Dylan writing the lyrics of “like a rolling stone” in one trance-like eruption in Woodstock is also suspect?

TT1GG says:

Love this kind of piece – it’s like the writing equivalent of a detective drama. And there are likely few readers who would be able to recognize the fabrications. Nonetheless, it’s incredible that Lehrer tried to get away with it. It must be strange to be so full of lies.

James Hall says:

Steve Glass redux…no?

Gary Lander says:

Having retired a year ago at age 65 and having tried since then to avoid spending an inordinate amount of time on the ‘Net, I am fairly new to Tablet, but I confess both an interest in this article and curiousity about why it was chosen for publication on Tablet. The link to the review in TNR of Lehrer’s book reminded me how far behind I am in reading my print edition of that magazine. I am also reminded of my undergraduate days
(’63–’67) when classmates poured over Dylan lyrics searching for meaning. The spate of articles on the recent anniversary of his going electric at Newport, like this latest article, shows that Dylan created an industry of both criticism and hero worship in addition to his music. What, however, is the Jewish connection to the article here, other than a Jewish(?) writer has been revealed as less than trustworthy in a field of what may turn out to be pop psychology. Some commentators have said the same about Dylan’s own autobiographical writing and musings, as if they want to believe that it is all a carefully crafted fabrication of a persona of a young Jewish man from Minnesota who reportedly invented a performing guise for himself when he hit NYC and the folk scene with a big bang in 1964. I haven’t read the many sources on Dylan but have noted with passing interest over the years stories about Dylan’s own comings and goings with his Jewish heritage. Maybe I’ll do a Google search on that subject unless another comment points me to a good source..

James Hall says:

Jim: I’d call it “careerism” if JL was in his 50′s, 40′s tops…and could use a body of work to claim he was burned out. He’s a kid to me…and disingenuous or lazy or worse…someone who has no credible relationship with facts or the truth.

You are “something of a Dylan obsessive”? Holy shit, how sad is this article- I think even Dylan, maybe especially Dylan, would be creeped out by how much time you have devoted to him. Whoa, I grew up with his music, but holy cow guys, get a life.

You note that Lehrer did not correctly quote other sources. Funny that you don’t even know if those other sources were accurate either.

Well, if we can’t trust the New Yorker… then… er, never mind.

Well, if we can’t trust the New Yorker… then… er, never mind.

Off the topic, but “is …comprised of” is an incorrect grammatical construction. Correct: “this actually comprises two quotes.”

Off the topic, but “is …comprised of” is an incorrect grammatical construction. Correct: “this actually comprises two quotes.”

EastVillageDavid says:

Deeply sad, as I really loved Lehrer’s first two books and avidly followed his blog. The opposite of Gladwell, Lehrer’s writing felt like more real science and less pop, a proportion I prefer. But this calls into question everything he has ever written. It is ironic that he couldn’t even copy a Dylan quote correctly, as Dylan has been effectively copying people for 50 years (I say as a big, big fan).

Sorry, but I have to say this: I’m happy he won’t be writing for the New Yorker anymore. He has seemed sloppy and glib to me ever since his book _Proust Was a Neuroscientist__. (No, Jonah, he wasn’t, and neither was Stravinsky or Whitman, and to those of us who live our lives by these great artists, your observations are hopelessly armchair-ish and banal.) My negative feelings on his work were reinforced with each subsequent piece.

Maybe this will give him the opportunity to regroup and get more serious.

What exactly is at stake here?

microphactchecka says:

From the American Heritage Dictionary (the quickest reference I could find): “Even though careful writers often maintain this distinction, comprise is increasingly used in place of compose, especially in the passive: The Union is comprised of 50 states. Our surveys show that opposition to this usage is abating. In the 1960s, 53 percent of the Usage Panel found this usage unacceptable; in 1996, only 35 percent objected.”

Language changes!

Alan Wizntzer says:

Dear Leader should employee this man after re-education. A fit for campaigning is good with him.

chrisdorr says:

This is very sad, I have enjoyed Lehrer’s books, including Imagine and find them insightful. Hopefully you have provided an important service not only to us (as you have) but also to Lehrer, who now must dig into himself and find the resources to write something that does not cut corners and make up quotes to fit a pre ordained narrative. He certainly has talent–hopefully he will use it properly in the future.

gwhepner says:

BOB’S TANTRUM

Coming on to Marianne

stoned, Bob Dylan was rebuffed,

not the first time that
the music man

being somewhat
faithless gaffed.

She says that his next
step was turning

into Rumpelstitskin, shredding

sheaves of paper,
clearly burning,

the lady not for Dylan’s
bedding.

Marianne described the
fury

as a tantrum like the
tantra

geniuses have, his jury

sympathetic with her
mantra.

Frustration’s not what
we assoc-

iate with Bob, but it’s
nice

to know that when he
suffers from a dose,

shredding paper cures
his vice.

gwhepner@yahoo.com

This is terribly disappointing, and calls into question virtually everything else in Lehrer’s book. Good piece of investigation to expose this.

moderate Guy says:

Ooooh, I am sure he “meant well”…..

FreedomFan says:

Jonah Lehrer: The white Jayson Blair.

Is this guy related to Mike Daisy?

dsjoerg says:

I have never read any of Lehrer’s books. Should I? That is what is at stake. (Not much, I grant you.)

dsjoerg says:

I have never read any of Lehrer’s books. Should I? That is what is at stake. (Not much, I grant you.)

zaki says:

Good article, but “1,000 hours” of Theme Time Radio? It’s 100 episodes @ 1 hour each (plus a few specials). If you have the missing 900 hours, let me know.

zaki says:

Good article, but “1,000 hours” of Theme Time Radio? It’s 100 episodes @ 1 hour each (plus a few specials). If you have the missing 900 hours, let me know.

zaki says:

Good article, but “1,000 hours” of Theme Time Radio? It’s 100 episodes @ 1 hour each (plus a few specials). If you have the missing 900 hours, let me know.

Dick Stanley says:

Is reaction to this piece in some way responsible for how hard it has been today to access Tablet’s web site?

Dick Stanley says:

Is reaction to this piece in some way responsible for how hard it has been today to access Tablet’s web site?

Dick Stanley says:

Is reaction to this piece in some way responsible for how hard it has been today to access Tablet’s web site?

Dick Stanley says:

Is reaction to this piece in some way responsible for how hard it has been today to access Tablet’s web site?

Dick Stanley says:

Is reaction to this piece in some way responsible for how hard it has been today to access Tablet’s web site?

Dick Stanley says:

Is reaction to this piece in some way responsible for how hard it has been today to access Tablet’s web site?

Dick Stanley says:

Is reaction to this piece in some way responsible for how hard it has been today to access Tablet’s web site?

I knew this schmuck was a plagiarist when the title of his next book after “Imagine” was “Some Time in New York City,” followed by “Mind Games.”

xavierriley says:

I read Imagine and came here out of curiosity – I’ve liked Lehrer’s previous books. “How we decide” was excellent even if it was probably full of tenuous half-truths, that didn’t really matter because the book did achieve something, namely that our decision making process is not just rigid logic (as many believe) but one of many neurological moving parts. I remember the discussion of moral decision making to be particularly illuminating.
Enough singing praises, I would say that Moynihan has done an excellent job here and this is a great example of investigative journalism, but…
Let’s think about the context. In a book that Lehrer would have been under huge pressure to write (as Gladwell has seemingly left the building from a publishing perspective) he has forged/fabricated some quotes, in order to try and strengthen his chapter on Dylan. In the *context* of writing a book, not on Bob Dylan but on Imagination, I’m sorry to the army of truth and science but I have to say I forgive Lehrer on this one. If he’d written an article on purely fabricated quotes, or dubious sample data then that would be a greater crime of integrity, but I feel in this case it’s only a crime of being a human being under pressure.
I applaud the effort by Moynihan, but I would encourage compassion or at least some sense of balance for judging Lehrer too. He’s a good writer, and I for one would like to see him continue publishing.

Excellent article. But since it seems to be ok for Dylan to lie about himself, why can’t anybody else do it?

mouskatel says:

I think I’d be on board with you if he was a fiction author. But, if you’re in the business of writing non-fiction, well… That just just a whole nother kettle of stringent fish. If you’re going to the trouble of writing a fact-based work, then all the facts needs to be true. It’s a shame all around.

Excellent journalism. Sad story. Thank you for writing this.

ILL TROOPER says:

Think of the many who spent days or weeks reading Imagine! We got off light.

Carmen says:

In case you didn’t notice, “Imagine”
is not a new biography of Bob Dylan it’s a book about cognitive science. Lehrer’s
work consists in reading most important publications on this topic and present
interesting results to his readers in easy-to-understand way.

He usually uses anecdotes about
famous people to introduce the point and then offers more rigorous details about
publications.

It’s a really stupid mistake to make
up words of such a popular singer, who has fans who know by heart every single
word he pronounced, however his reputation of Johnah Lehrer as neuroscience writer
is intact. Citations from scientific works are correct and that’s what it’s
important to me.

ajweberman says:

FROM LIKE A ROLLING STONE: “You
used to ride on” you used to let it ride,
you allowed something to continue without interference, you once voted for “the
chrome horse” American political candidates who supported regimes that
practiced apartheid such as the Republic of South Africa (South Africa is the
world’s biggest producer of chrome) “with your diplomat” and the State
Department maintained diplomatic relations with South Africa while the South
Africans “carried on his shoulder” shouldered a burden, as in the White Man’s Burden of having to uplift
inferior races and cultures such as “a Siamese” a closely connected or very
similar; twin “cat” slang for a Black
man, the South Africans also had to deal with the burden of living with niggers
“Ain’t it hard when you discovered that” ain’t it hard for Whites to really
believe “He really wasn’t where it’s at” that apartheid was an evil system and
was worthy of economic and political sanctions “After he took from you
everything he could steal” after you learned that apartheid was “stolen” from
Jim Crow, a practice that originated with Whites in America. “Steal” to use,
appropriate, or preempt the use of another’s idea. In other words, apartheid is
as American as apple pie.

ajweberman says:

FROM I MARRIED ISIS:

“I was thinkin’ about turquoise” I was thinking about a gemstone that
is produced in South Africa “I was thinkin’ about gold” I was thinking about
South Africa, the largest producer of gold “I was thinkin’ about diamonds” I was thinking about DeBeers
diamonds, Dylan’s symbol for South Africa and apartheid “and the world’s
biggest necklace” and the South African n-worders who put burning tires around
the necks of informants working against the African National Congress “As we
rode” as we were sustained and supported “through the canyons” by the crater, the emptiness of Al’s mind “through the
Devilish cold” through the fact that
he had not gotten a clue to my views of race and twisted my thoughts around to
support race mixing “cold” as informal (of a seeker) far from the object
of a search “I was thinkin’ about Isis, how she thought I was so reckless” I was thinking about the Left
and how it would have labeled me the same way it did Barry Goldwater. Goldwater
was characterized as being reckless in regard to United States – Soviet
relations. Dylan would be labeled as being “reckless” when it came to race
relations.

Craig Simpson says:

sorry, but this is not ‘talent’..its above average creative writing that fills a niche in a market that craves an accessible form of academic literature as well as one that, even if tenuously,manages to bridge the gap between the arts and the sciences.

Democracy_of_One says:

Imagine – What’s wrong with this picture? Jonah gets more scrutiny over his claptrap book than Barry.

BoDeen says:

I thought Romy and Michelle invented Post-its!

Zed75 says:

You can forgive him all you like. But nobody, including Lehrer, would have been served by letting this go. Better for him to be chastised now while he still has time to revise his “research” process and restart his career.

Zed75 says:

You can forgive him all you like. But nobody, including Lehrer, would have been served by letting this go. Better for him to be chastised now while he still has time to revise his “research” process and restart his career.

Zed75 says:

You can forgive him all you like. But nobody, including Lehrer, would have been served by letting this go. Better for him to be chastised now while he still has time to revise his “research” process and restart his career.

Brian Hurley says:

I can’t help but think it’s somehow redundant to find specific errors in Lehrer’s work, when his whole style of popular science writing is filled with iffy evidence and faulty conclusions.
http://fictionadvocate.com/2012/07/30/how-creativity-works-too-much/

Good Article.. but nothing surprises me anymore. At every turn Journalistic and creative twists are placed on the facts, but this has always been the case. Historical facts since the beginning of time are interpretive viewpoints of the reporters of the day. You tell the story enough times it become fact.

Ethics are a key issue in society, where greed is such a powerful human element which pushes people to step over the line. I never let the truth get in the way of a good story, but intuition and good research usually let me sleep at night…that is the compass that all who set out to inform should use

“zaki • 14 hours ago−Good article, but “1,000 hours” of Theme Time Radio? It’s 100 episodes @ 1 hour each (plus a few specials). If you have the missing 900 hours, let me know.”.. waiting

TypicalWiredReader says:

Bullshit. All a writer has is his or her reputation. Making up quotes kills it. He’s dead in the water.

Lehrer lied and cheated, but he was also writing in the wrong genre. He should write fiction, where making it all up is the name of the game. He should consider leaving the pressure of cranking out non-fiction for the pleasures of being a novelist. Works for me!

The saddest thing is that Lehrer will eventually recover from all this and benefit from the PR to go on to new contracts and new bestsellers while honest and more talented writers labor in obscurity.

orthorim says:

Was going to say – doesn’t he have some artistic license? Do his works count only when all facts are properly researched?

I agree huge mistake – obviously – to use Dylan as an example, also a mistake to put words in his mouth.

I’d still judge the book on merit though. Do the ideas presented make sense? That’s what would interest me much more than whether or not the Dylan quotes, or any quotes, are correct.

I am not sure about the book – maybe it’s sold as an encyclopedia of facts, and then it’s clearly a failure. But if it isn’t, my grandfather may he R.I.P always said there are no true stories or false stories, there are only good stories and bad stories.

Good article… That’s one less career built on pushing the limited brand of emotional science to the numbed down masses. Hollywood or a short lived pop career beckons.

there’s a typo in the first line of the second graph: “The sense that one has something to say1, some story to relate, is the stuff that fuels all”

Very sad. I really thought Imagine was fun to read, and quite helpful from my perspective as a professional musician. Believe it or not, I´d still recommend it to anyone involved in creative thinking.

coupdefoudre says:

I read with dismay the story about Mr. Lehrer and his cock-up with Dylan’s so-called quoted material.

One of the factors that contributes to inadvertent inaccuracy and error in today’s writing is the Internet. In the not-so-long-ago ‘old days’ the only way to get a quote or fact into one’s book was by copying it long-hand or, after the 1960s, to use a photocopy machine. In either case the source was at hand, a source that had usually been vetted through several iterations.

Today, of course, it is easy to cut and paste information directly from a web page. And, through personal experience, much that passes for fact on the Internet is disastrously error-ridden.

I am writing a book on wine and using lots of quotes and birth/death dates. To cross check my work I have turned to the Internet where, to take one prominent example, Wikipedia pops up for almost every ‘factoid’ I am searching. I have been amazed at the frequency at which information there, and elsewhere, varies from what I have found in book sources. Being a good Internet citizen, I started keeping a log of mistakes I found in Wikipedia with the intent of eventually going back to it to enter corrections. I have given up. I began to see it would take me hours, maybe days, to do this with all the errors I have come across.

If one values accuracy, to speak nothing of truth, it behooves writers to track down the original source of attributed material if they are using it in anything more than vacuous talk at a cocktail party. It has often taken me hours to find information from the original source, or something close to it, for little details. Were I working on someone else’s clock I would surely be tempted to settle with ‘make-do.’

Passing along errors of this sort for posterity is different from purposefully creating your own quotes from scratch (or through agglomeration) and jamming them into the mouths of others, but I suspect much of the impulse is born in the same bed – the felt need to produce lots of ‘product’ on time and in quantity. It’s a competitive and cold world at the writer’s table (sometimes with a sense that others are on your heels with their good ideas) and while text may feed the mind, that table is surrounded also by a mouth(s) that needs to be filled.

ahoving says:

that’s from hattie carroll :-)

«following the garden path»
In truth, “is comprised of” has been used to mean the same as “is composed of” for a long time, with an early citation from 1874 listed in the Oxford English Dictionary. (The usage certainly predated that date.)
Calling it “incorrect” is merely stating a preference. You can prefer whatever you wish, but it’s not meaningfully describing the structure of actual usage in fluent english. Language is ruled by convention. Not fiat.
You can of course claim the writer is doing something you don’t like. But that doesn’t make it a mistake, unless the writer was trying to please you according to your whims.

PierrePendre says:

What you’re condemning here is not Lehrer but all of biography and autobiography, surely the least credible form of literature ever devised. Half of it is made up.
All those subjunctives, hypotheses, imaginings and outright lies piled up on each other like the layers of soggy club sandwiches. Talk about ersatz fiction.
As the French say, promises are binding only on those who believe them. Same thing goes for biography, auto or perpetrated by a third party, and its readers.
Who cares what Dylan, who will be forgotten as soon as he and his boomer groupies die, said or thought about anything?

you’re an excellent investigative reporter… a species sadly lacking in these times… we used to have more of them…

Vy Dao says:

What Lehrer did was wrong, but I have to say, every time I hear Moynihan speak he just annoys me–smug, condescending and self-important. But, I guess he did his job.

Is it OK to quote Morrissey?
“… there’s always someone, somewhere With a big nose, who knows
And who trips you up and laughs
When you fall “.

Love the entire piece and the “Hattie Carroll” jab in the last sentence is brilliant.

samuelmwc says:

This just makes me sad. I understand how Mr Moynihan got pulled into investigating this further, but I frankly don’t get the purpose or pleasure in this sort of takedown. An example or two, along with Lehrer’s admission of guilt were enough for me. The blow-by-blow doesn’t fill me with admiration for Mr Moynihan’s skills nor with a view of Lehrer reduced any more than it already was.

Torbjörn Larsson says:

Journalists loves this. It is first page material here in Sweden.

The book also claims that the full, unedited version of “Like A Rolling Stone” can be found in “Tarantula”, Dylan’s book of poetry. I bought the book; Like A Rolling Stone isn’t in it (it has, in fact, never been published).

There’s a flip side regarding the role of Internet though. The availability of so many of the texts that are quoted by journalists, researchers and academics online – in particular in Google Books – also makes it easier to doublecheck facts and, in particular, plagiarism.

I myself discovered that an article submitted to our online journal, written by someone who should know better, included whole segments of text that were copied from an EU publication and a couple of other documents. And I was not experienced and am no genius – all it took was for a turn of phrase to strike me as odd, and for me to paste the sentence into Google, and then start pasting in further sentences to see if they would show up, verbatim, in previously published material as well. Imagine how much intuition and research it would have taken to detect all those instances in a pre-Internet age.

I think it’s not a coincidence that two major politicians in Europe – German ex-defense minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg and Hungarian ex-President Pall Schmitt – were brought down by scandals over plagiarism they committed in university. In fact, the extent of zu Guttenberg’s plagiarism was uncovered thanks to a crowdsourcing project, where the full text of his thesis was uploaded and volunteers could scrutinize and annotate bits and pieces – a massive research undertaking that would never have been possible before the Internet. It’s a fair bet to say that those cases or at least their full extent would never have been cleared up in a pre-www era.

James Kimbell says:

Speaking of misleading quotations, I see one in front of me right now. On the right of this page there’s a link to a book “When General Grant Expelled the Jews” by Jonathan Sarna, and under this link it says “A reviewer comments, ‘Supposedly, the drunken, bloodthirsty crook was also an anti-Semite!’”

This implies that the book treats Grant negatively, and that the reviewer accepts this attitude. In fact, the opposite is true. The “drunken, bloodthirsty crook” line was meant by the reviewer as an example of a prevailing view of Grant, but the reviewer says that this view is incorrect – and that Sarna’s book helps correct it.

janesoutham says:

Fabulous work, Mr. Moynihan. I am a journalist who has caught my interviewees lying. It is astounding to me that they will keep spinning lies on top of lies on top of more lies.

I used to be a fact checker at the New York Times Magazine and I know how to nail a fact to the wall. I don’t understand why Lehrer thought he would get away with saying that Dylan’s people gave him access to unpublished quotes from Dylan. Lehrer worked for the New Yorker- hadn’t he heard of fact checkers?

Which reminds me. I sure hope the New Yorker and other magazines are fact checking each and every one of Lehrer’s pieces as we speak. I believe this not the first time he has pulled this stunt. Not by a long shot.

janesoutham says:

Huh? Moynihan was pursuing the truth, and trying to determine whether someone has lied. That’s what journalism is largely about. It’s not about the takedown: it’s about making sure that scam artists are called on their b.s.

Thank you, Mr .Moynihan. I know how hard it is to pin people like Lehrer down.I don’t know how old you are, but I suspect you have a long and illustrious career ahead of you.

janesoutham says:

What does the way Moynihan speak have ANyTHING to do with Lehrer’s lies? Trying to deflect attention, much? And if you’re going to do engage in this kind of criticism, you might want to check out the comments in the New York Times story about this. A reader says that Lehrer’s voice on an NPR interview recently grated on him and seemed self important.

This is about a “journalist” who lied and lied again. Kudos to Mr. Moynihan.

janesoutham says:

Sorry, no, he broke the cardinal rules of journalism. Made up quotes and then kept lying so he wouldn’t get caught. He’s done.

janesoutham says:

No, he writes for the New Yorker and he is a journalist and journalists – believe it or not- do not have artistic license to make up quotes. How would you like it if someone published “quotes” by you that you never said?

janesoutham says:

No, he writes for the New Yorker and he is a journalist and journalists – believe it or not- do not have artistic license to make up quotes. How would you like it if someone published “quotes” by you that you never said?

janesoutham says:

What has Rupert Murdoch got to do with this? Nothing. Stay on topic.

janesoutham says:

What has Rupert Murdoch got to do with this? Nothing. Stay on topic.

Moynihan should be at The New Yorker Magazine. Truth, transparency and doing what’s right is hard to come by these days and Moynihan has clearly demonstrated that he is a true journalist who seeks truth not to destroy but to keep society, genius, and culture accountable. Carpe Diem Michael. Rock on!

Moynihan should be at The New Yorker Magazine. Truth, transparency and doing what’s right is hard to come by these days and Moynihan has clearly demonstrated that he is a true journalist who seeks truth not to destroy but to keep society, genius, and culture accountable. Carpe Diem Michael. Rock on!

orthorim says:

He didn’t write this in the New Yorker. He wrote it in a book. In my mind, a book is not the same as a magazine article, or a scientific article.

Not researching where these quotes came from – let’s cut him some slack here – was a bad idea, clearly. The book should still be judged on merit though. It’s got the badly researched quotes against it but it’s not wholesale invalid because of that.

It’s hard to create, it’s much easier to criticize.

orthorim says:

He didn’t write this in the New Yorker. He wrote it in a book. In my mind, a book is not the same as a magazine article, or a scientific article.

Not researching where these quotes came from – let’s cut him some slack here – was a bad idea, clearly. The book should still be judged on merit though. It’s got the badly researched quotes against it but it’s not wholesale invalid because of that.

It’s hard to create, it’s much easier to criticize.

orthorim says:

He didn’t write this in the New Yorker. He wrote it in a book. In my mind, a book is not the same as a magazine article, or a scientific article.

Not researching where these quotes came from – let’s cut him some slack here – was a bad idea, clearly. The book should still be judged on merit though. It’s got the badly researched quotes against it but it’s not wholesale invalid because of that.

It’s hard to create, it’s much easier to criticize.

coupdefoudre says:

OK, point taken!

Hey Nimh, which EU publication are you talking about? I’m a journalist and former deputy editor at an EU daily.

nimh says:

The copy/pasted segments were not from a newspaper – they were copied from a European Commission document, among other documents. Of course, once we discovered the plagiarism, we rejected the submission, so the paper was never published.

samuelmwc says:

I’m not saying Moynihan did anything wrong. I’m saying this article and its detail are boring and sad. Lehrer was amply called on his BS by the time we hit the “***” on the first page. Everything that follows from “I was first troubled by…” is just unnecessary to that task. It’s showing off all the work he did. Blah.

If journalism is “about making sure that scam artists are called on their b.s.” then at least pick a scam artist or scandal worth applying one’s prodigious journalistic talents to exposing. What about all the Madoffs and mini-Madoffs (and Stanfords and Rajaratnams, etc…)? There are tens of thousands out there. What about focusing on our politicians and the people they truly serve? What about all the corporations and politicians around the globe who profit from war, terror, and corruption?

I thought journalism was “about” casting a bright light on these things to inform the public. That would be a much better use of Mr Moynihan’s skills. Indeed, I hope he has a long and illustrious career ahead of him, just not doing this sort of stuff.

QuantamPro says:

I’ve tried to read all the comments but have been overawed by their general erudition, fairness and belief in the integrity of real material. I don’t know if anyone has mentioned this but we in the UK have a chap called Johan Hari who is a similar bsitter, and managed to have top newspaper editors defending him until they were shamed into admitting that they had been conned by a plausible wordsmith, who could titillate the readers but not the scholars. Thank you for all the comments.

Ms. Jane, you say in different
comments that you worked as a fact checker for New York Times Magazine
and for “New Yorker.” If you worked for both, why not say that, instead
of telling different stories in different comments?

Your statement: “I know how to nail a fact to the wall,” is completely
counter to the usage and attitude toward this work I’ve ever heard any
genuine copy editor or checker use in 30 years in this business.

It’s also inconsistent to say you worked as a fact checker and that your
“sources” told lies on top of lies, or whatever. Typically, it would be
a front-line reporter who would encounter this sort of serial mendacity. Surely
no reporter at the publications you mention would repeatedly turn in
stories filled with lies upon lies, leaving it to you to ferret the
truth directly from the sources.

In addition, your many posts on this topic have incomplete sentences,
typos and oth
er signs that you’re not the pro you say you are.

Just as an aside, there’s a “Jane Southam” on Facebook whose only wall
posts are from Farmville and whose four friends form an otherwise
friendless circle. None of them display pictures or other information.
They never say or do anything and only claim each other as friends.

jean replicator says:

Aha! The story about Dylan throwing a tantrum when being rejected by Marianne Faithfull might explain the misogyny I felt I heard in some of his lyrics. I heard him at a concert in the early 60′s at my university and was immediately turned off. Never thought that highly of him after that, although I do love some of his music.

JohnDoze says:

What I find interesting is that Dylan himself was caught just last year slavishly copying photographs taken by others, hanging new titles on them, and passing them off as original paintings from his own experience. This fellow Lehrer will never live it down but Dylan, luckily, has some other credits.

JohnDoze says:

Wow, Thomas Goldsmith, you’re a real Mighty Mouse.

Doggyodog says:

“You got something to say”? Dylan doesn’t talk live that. The guy couldn’t even up with something plausible. The quotes are trite cliches that almost no actual creative person would mouth.

New Citizen says:

Michael, you deserve the pulitzer, I have suggested it at the Poynter, http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/mediawire/183978/plagiarism-more-fake-interviews-in-jonah-lehrers-imagine-how-we-decide/. You are a brave soul. You are the reasons the Framers drafted the First Amendment: Freedom of Speech and the Freedom of the Press. This is the best example of how the journalism shines in today’s access-journalism procedures and processes (e.g., contact a politician at a party, write a piece, then a book then have a TV show). Congrats! A question: Will there be another piece? There are many questions: What about Columbia and Oxford? What about Dylan? What about academia’s failure to focus on integrity (both journalistic and scientific)? What about children who are young today? What will there be future like in 2050 when it comes to writing? So many questions. You have started an amazing journey. Hope there are ways to build on your success.

There is something else
here. What do we consider to be a
real book as opposed to a book manufactured to be bought as a holiday gift, or
to get corporate lectures?

A real book represents a
way of knowing and existing: A person with a point of view is interested in
something and wishes to understand it more deeply. From this own point of view,
they research it, think about it, and come to conclusions. They then present
their findings in a book, a medium that communicates with other persons who
invest the time to read it, to follow the presentation and argument, and reach
or not reach the same conclusions from their own points of view.

My thoughts are on my blog
at CreativityDiscourse dot com.

- John Lobell

Michael Brooke says:

having just been a victim of a very sloppy journalists “work” I can tell you that this goes on all the time. It’s now happened to me three times. Lies, misquotes and absolute fabrications. Words have power, and when used to deceive can have massive consequences.

TheVeryBigAl says:

Apparently, there’s no there there. It would be so easy to avoid these sorts of fabrications by taking ownership of one’s own words rather than attributing them to others. And as for Dylan, there’s so much out there that he actually said – or at least that’s attributed to him, with quotation marks around the words – that he’s like the Bible – you can use him to justify almost any idea, especially on creativity.

DDB9000 says:

I know I’m a bit late to this, but…
“Who cares what Dylan, who will be forgotten as soon as he and his boomer groupies die, said or thought about anything?”
Really? What pont did you crawl out from? Dylan has been widely acknowledged (and not just by ‘boomers’) to be one of the greatest songwriters of all time. And while his lyrics are the main thing, that doesn’t mean his opinions and comments should be ignored.
Maybe you don’t like Dylan.
I don’t like Hemingway. All my greatest efforts would never convince others of my opinion of him, nor would they prevent people from writing about what Hemingway said. Haven’t they released shiteloads of his letters? I sure don’t care, but some people do.
And the same is true about Dylan. Period.

Thanks for this investigation, Mr. Moynihan.

I actually thought I might read _Imagine_ as I am intrigued by the cultivation of creativity and am only familiar with Mr. Lehrer’s work through a few of his Wired pieces (and through those, started following him on twitter). What he did was unprofessional and just plain wrong, undeniably. No escaping that. I will, however, give him credit for confessing and calling it what it actually was–lying. Unlike the other fabulist of the year, Mike Daisy, who not only profited a ton off his “half-truths” and made his way round the talk show circuit peddling them as fact, no filler, but who also, when confronted, hemmed and hawed his way through a half-, kinda, sorta, not-really confession. For not coming clean completely, I’ll never want to consume any of his work, ever. Mr. Lehrer, while lacking integrity in the doing, *seems* to have found some in the undoing and the cleaning up. For that he gets some credit with me, and puts him on the road to redemption, albeit the first few baby (fetus) steps.

While I wouldn’t want to read any more journalistic pieces from him, I might give him another go in another genre.

LOL, I love it when people claiming internet credentials get put on blast. Hilarious.

“I started keeping a log of mistakes I found in Wikipedia with the intent of eventually going back to it to enter corrections. I have given up. I began to see it would take me hours, maybe days, to do this with all the errors I have come across.” But perhaps that is the price of good (cyber) citizenship. We all of the ability to pick up a gum wrapper we find on the ground in a public place. Those that have the opportunity to clean up a Wikipedia entry might ocassionally take the time.

Yeah, but is Dylan himself a thief of the works of others, going back to the roots of his career and down the decades? Well, is he? Are all the clever ones who pretend to “understand” his words really a bunch too focussed on the man to see the sources of his thievery? You’d have to know plenty about true early country music and truly old folk music to twig. Who has time for that? Maybe the fans don’t know and the public don’t even ask the question? Or is James Damiano just another NUT?

Wordsworth is cogent. Dylan looks like an accident beside William.

The theft of others work has gone on since pen hit page. They were probably stealing cuneiform.

It’s funny though. The expose contained at least one numerical error (1000 instead of 100), yet the very process of web reiteration saves the writer’s reputation. If you can’t laugh, maybe it’s because Lehrer invented Dylan, not Marc Bolan, or Vivian Stanschell…

ezraproductions says:

Agreed. He contributes to amazing stories on Radio Lab. He should write fiction. Sadly I wonder if this fall from grace will be fodder for his next book, “Why I Said I Was a Neuroscientist..and Other Lies I’ve Told to Keep up With my Public Persona”

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Jonah Lehrer’s Deceptions

The celebrated journalist fabricated Bob Dylan quotes in his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works

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