The news today that Jonah Lehrer resigned from The New Yorker following reports that he fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan in his bestselling book Imagine has to be devastating to him and his family, friends, and colleagues.
I know. Nine years ago, I was Jonah Lehrer.
His story is familiar to me in many of its details. A promising young journalist working at one of the most prestigious publications in the world heads down a slippery slope that starts with sloppy corner-cutting and leads to all-out fabrication. The lies are blatant and remarkably foolish, and yet go undetected by a profession that prides itself on truth but ultimately must rely on trust. He admits to his minor sins while denying the major ones, until the house of cards collapses at last around him. He resigns in disgrace.
That’s the public side of a story, anyway. The personal tale is filled with renunciation, apologies, and agony for us and those who gave us a chance; humiliation, heartache, and the immeasurable loss of no longer being able to participate in a profession in which we had invested so much, and which had invested so much in us.
It’s remarkable to me that someone who grew up professionally in the context of my scandal could make such a similar set of colossal mistakes. But I am sure Janet Cooke would have said the same thing to me.
Part of Jonah Lehrer’s problem had to be his success. At 31, he already has three popular books to his name, and countless articles and a prestigious Rhodes scholarship; it would have been difficult for anyone to doubt his journalistic integrity. But success, of course, brings with it the pressure to make each new publication better than the last. It is a pressure that exists in few places as intensely as it does in a newsroom. Like a Wall Street trader who is only as good as his last deal, a journalist is often measured by the breadth, exclusivity, eloquence, and reportage of his last story. Surely it is no different when writing bestsellers.
The original revelation last month, that Lehrer had reused his own material in his New Yorker column without acknowledgment, was the first drop of blood in the water. For me, it came when a former colleague, Macarena Hernández, made a call to my editors at The New York Times alerting them that she believed I had plagiarized one of her articles. The plagiarism was blatant, but just as Lehrer said he regretted the duplication of his own copyrighted material, I tried to minimize what I’d done by saying that I had accidentally mixed my notes up with an article by Hernandez that I had copied into a Word file off the Internet.
I can remember my heart pounding like it never had before, panic setting in, and then sheer terror at the thought that I had violated the trust of my family and the sine qua non of my beloved profession.
But once Lehrer owned up to that first revelation, everything else that he did came into question. Facts, attribution, and quotations are looked at with jeweler’s eye rather than reading glasses. That’s what happened in 2003, when then-Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz (now the Washington bureau chief at The Daily Beast) began to dig.
As Lehrer did, I used smoke, mirrors, and deflection, but eventually my defenses collapsed as the additional allegations rolled in. It may sound funny coming from me, but I have to say fabricating quotes by Bob Dylan, who barely speaks publicly, was about as foolish as my fabricating quotes from prominent figures such as Jessica Lynch’s father.
Some might say our offenses are not comparable, but remember that nine years ago, the Internet was not as powerful a resource—or temptation—as it is today. It’s so much easier to plagiarize under pressure today, and so much easier to catch people doing it. Perhaps, if Lehrer had being doing this in 2003, he could’ve gotten away with it for much longer. (And we still don’t know the full scope of what he’s done.)
I still don’t understand how I could have been so foolish (my undiagnosed manic depression probably played a minor role in that equation), but I can understand Lehrer’s desperate attempts to cover for himself: it’s hard to face the prospect of your professional reputation crumbling, and it’s hard to let go even when you know the whole thing is coming down.
At The New Yorker, where editors and fact-checkers are no doubt combing through all of Lehrer’s work, there is probably a wrenching amount of soul-searching going on. In a profession built on trust, no one wants to believe that their colleague and friend could have betrayed them like this. But however often it happens, journalists still seem to think it won’t happen to them. As I said in a 2009 speech at Washington and Lee University, “As FBI profilers and forensic psychiatrists will tell you, recognizing that anyone is capable, under the right circumstances, of anything, is the first step to guarding against the evil from within.”
It’s remarkable to me that someone who grew up professionally in the context of my scandal could make such a similar set of colossal mistakes.
We make the mistake of believing, as I said then, that “if we merely believe that only bad people do bad things, then you good people have no reason to learn ethics at all, for you are destined to do good no matter what happens. This seems contrary to everything we know about the human condition.”
Lehrer has taken the honorable way out by falling on his sword, sparing the magazine from much additional trauma that is largely connected to him. Lehrer now has a lot of explaining to do to his colleagues, friends, and family, tears to shed, humility to absorb, and he now must enter the strange land of going from the journalistic hunter to the hunted. Perhaps most difficult, he will have to come to grips with the self-inflicted wound that removes him from a profession that by all accounts he loved.
Of course I am biased on this topic, but I believe he deserves a shot at redemption. I work now as a life coach in Northern Virginia, putting the lessons I learned to use in helping others. I hope Lehrer gets a second chance somewhere, but for now he needs to reflect on what he has done and how he can repair the damage.