On June 5, bestselling pop-neuroscience writer Jonah Lehrer announced that he was leaving Wired, where he was a contributing editor, and moving his Frontal Cortex blog to The New Yorker, where he would be a staff writer. Only two weeks later, his career at the most august title in American journalism may be in doubt.
The contretemps started the morning of Tuesday, June 19, when media critic Jim Romenesko posted an item in which he showed that Lehrer had published pieces in the Wall Street Journal and on NewYorker.com whose first three paragraphs were nearly identical. The former was published in October, the latter only last week, and Lehrer had apparently pilfered from himself—an offense bound to be discovered, particularly when, thanks to the all-seeing eye of Google, a clutch of notable journalists have been outed in recent years as plagiarists.
Romenesko is the reigning doyen of media gossip, which put an extra push behind the story, but it’s one that would’ve snowballed anyway, for Lehrer, at only 30 years old, had already been tapped as Malcolm Gladwell 2.0—a writer who combines an innate scientific literacy, a lust for the latest expert studies, and a nose for the zeitgeist to explain the mysteries of the brain. Despite occasionally scathing reviews, his three books, including his most recent, Imagine, had all been enormous successes, and Lehrer became in demand on the corporate lecture circuit, where his business-friendly talks about creativity and decision making found a ready, highly remunerative audience. But with this armor now pierced, Twitter soon was abuzz with discussions of Lehrer, his future at the magazine, and other cases of what had been dubbed self-plagiarism (New York’s Joe Coscarelli uncovered a couple).
The strange thing about finding these duplications is that it’s rather easy, as I discovered: take passages from Lehrer’s work—focus on famous quotations, distinctive anecdotes, or proper names—and paste them into Google. Useful results rise to the top, and it quickly becomes clear that, for Lehrer, this self-plagiarism is a habit, if not an explicit methodology. (Lehrer did not respond to an email request for comment.) The list of publications involved includes The New Yorker, Wired, the New York Times Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, and the Guardian; some of the material in question also appeared in Imagine.
Lehrer is known to recycle material for his paid lectures—he gives dozens every year, maintaining a packed schedule that he’s described as “existentially sad.” Yet representing that material as original in blog posts and newspaper articles is another matter, one that few editors—or competing writers—are likely to countenance. Upon hearing the news, more than one journalist friend confessed to feeling some schadenfreude, thinking that Lehrer, whose rise had been vertiginous, had it coming. Moreover, there was a sense that Lehrer’s behavior reflected a disregard for blogging—a medium that now serves as a proving ground for many Web-native journalists—and that he used his high-profile platforms at Wired and The New Yorker to push his books and burnish his reputation without doing sufficiently original work.
From the beginning, there’s been some debate about whether Lehrer committed an offense at all. Is it plagiarism when you’re copying from yourself? Can’t a journalist repurpose material from a long-form print article into a blog post? And yet, the proof may be in the response from Lehrer’s new boss, NewYorker.com editor Nicholas Thompson. Thompson told Romenesko that he was displeased with the revelation, and by the late afternoon, the site had appended notes to all five of Lehrer’s posts on the site, noting where information had been pilfered from and adding, apologetically, “We regret the duplication of the material.” Another note was appended to Lehrer’s January 2012 article on brainstorming—which appeared in the print edition of the magazine—informing readers that Lehrer had implied that a comment by Noam Chomsky had been told to him directly, when in fact the comment had originated in another journalist’s article published in the Technology Review.
I spoke to Thompson on the phone last night, and while he couldn’t comment on Lehrer’s future at the magazine, Thompson made it clear that the issue was considered serious and had been expressed as such to Lehrer.
“We’ve been on the phone back and forth throughout the day,” Thompson said. “He understands he made a serious mistake. He understands the rules. It’s definitely not going to happen again.”
Searching for a silver lining, Thompson said, “I think the one good thing that will come out of it is making it very clear is that this is unacceptable.”
For a publication not long ago considered firmly, even proudly, out of step with the digital age, The New Yorker has made tremendous progress in the last year. It has a gorgeous iPad app and a raft of blogs and podcasts; its writers tweet and hold online chats with readers; and nearly every magazine article is complemented by exclusive Web content. More importantly, Thompson has spearheaded the expansion of NewYorker.com, which has taken to publishing the breaking news and clever cultural think pieces expected of an online publication. Proof of the strategy’s success is in the numbers: May traffic was up 50 percent over the previous year. L’affaire Lehrer casts an unfortunate pall over this shifting editorial strategy.
When asked whether NewYorker.com writers would be warned not to follow a similar path, Thompson was unequivocal.
“I think everybody knows that,” he said. “Everybody knows that they can’t do this.”