08.01.12

How a Freelance Journalist Unraveled Jonah Lehrer’s Lies

In exposing a prominent writer’s bogus quotes from Bob Dylan, Michael Moynihan had to overcome stonewalling and lies. Howard Kurtz on why journalists keep self-destructing.

There is a relationship that develops, tense and often testy, between a journalist and his quarry.

The journalist is focused on peeling away the layers and getting at the damaging truth. The target is determined to protect his reputation by denying, distracting, defusing. And yet, for a short and uncomfortable time, they must engage, like prosecutor and defendant, in a delicate dance.

Michael Moynihan, a freelance journalist who fairly bursts with enthusiasm, insists he took no pleasure in exposing the fabrications that cost Jonah Lehrer his job at The New Yorker. “Our conversations were incredibly cordial,” Moynihan says. “Dare I say, I liked the guy.”

Of course, in their last conversation, “he told me he’d been lying to me for two weeks. He was spinning me the whole time,” Moynihan says. Still, “I felt bad for him.”

He discovered, among other things, that they both have 15-month-old children.

Moynihan does not style himself an investigative reporter. He often plumbs the depths of history and writes book reviews. But like all good diggers, Moynihan is something of an obsessive, and he is particularly fixated on the life and times of Bob Dylan. That was unfortunate for Lehrer, who included in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works seven quotes from the singer that Moynihan just knew didn’t sound right.

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Some of the quotes turned out to be invented, and some were what Moynihan calls “Frankenquotes”—cobbled together from different sources, uttered at different times, warped beyond recognition. For instance, Lehrer quotes singer Marianne Faithfull as saying that Dylan’s songwriting process amounted to “tantrums of genius.” In fact, says Moynihan, Faithfull accused Dylan of a “tantrum of genius” when he came on to her and, rebuffed, tore up many pieces of paper.

At first, Lehrer put Moynihan off, saying he was on vacation and didn’t have his material with him. (“A tiny red flag,” Moynihan says.) In subsequent conversations, Lehrer stonewalled, saying he had been given access to archival material by Dylan manager Jeff Rosen. Soon Lehrer was owning up to what he claimed were inadvertent errors.

“One of the things that really pissed me off is I was very generous to him,” Moynihan says. “I gave him a lot of time. There’s a possibility he mistook that patience for weakness and stupidity.”

“It’s unfortunate that in the course of doing my job, someone lost theirs.” – Michael Moynihan

The Daily Beast faced its own scandal in 2010 when chief investigative reporter Gerald Posner offered his resignation  after repeated instances of plagiarism were discovered in his stories. Posner insisted to the end that the mistakes were inadvertent.

One thing I have learned over the years is that fabricators and plagiarizers always try to charm or argue their way out of the situation. When I first called Jayson Blair nine years ago about a single suspicious story that looked cribbed from another paper, The New York Times reporter claimed he had mixed up his notes with that story, though I soon discovered he had lied again and again and never been to the cities he had claimed. When I first called Jack Kelley months later about a story that was falling apart, the USA Today reporter passionately insisted there was a logical explanation, though the evidence of his globe-trotting falsifications quickly mounted.

Thus it was with Jonah Lehrer, who had already admitted plagiarizing his own work in posts for The New Yorker.

Last Sunday evening, during a 45-minute conversation, Lehrer admitted to Moynihan that he had lied about some of the details. Having learned that Moynihan had reached Jeff Rosen, Lehrer admitted he had never spoken to Dylan’s manager. But even then, as Lehrer claimed to have talked to a source who doesn’t exist, Moynihan realized he wasn’t completely coming clean.

"You’re still lying, aren’t you," he asked.

There was a pause. "Yes," Lehrer admitted.

“I can only imagine the level of panic,” Moynihan says. “You’ve reached the heights of journalism at 31, and you’re 12 hours away from having it all taken away from you.”

There was one last, businesslike conversation on Monday morning, when Lehrer realized that Moynihan was about to publish his findings in Tablet magazine. Lehrer later put out a statement of apology, acknowledging that he had made up quotes—something he never admitted to Moynihan—and resigning his New Yorker post. His publisher, Houghton Mifflin, stopped shipping copies of his book.

Why did Lehrer do it? Why do journalists of talent and ambition take shortcuts that ultimately derail their promising careers? “I’m a journalist, not a psychiatrist,” Moynihan says. But it’s safe to say the transgressors feel emboldened when they are not caught, that the easy path proves too tempting, that they come to feel the normal rules don’t apply to them.

And today’s fakers and plagiarists inevitably leave a trail of digital breadcrumbs that proves their undoing. “We’re in a technological culture where it’s much easier to catch,” says Moynihan. “Had one tried to expose Jonah Lehrer’s quotes in 1925, good luck.”

Not that he’s declaring victory over his scoop.

“It’s unfortunate that in the course of doing my job, someone lost theirs,” Moynihan says. “It upset me.” But, he says, “there was no question I was going to report this.”