Jonah and the Whale — Not a Bible Story

I’ve been up to my eyeballs in Jonah Lehrer for the last week, so I haven’t been posting regularly. Sorry about that. I’m sorry that I’ve had to be up to my eyeballs in Jonah Lehrer as well, if you want to know the truth.

Are you familiar with this? Lehrer, the 31 year-old author of How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist and former columnist for Wired and the New Yorker, was tagged out for fabricating quotes in his latest book, Imagine: How Creativity Works.

Jonah Lehrer - Pop!Tech 2009 - Camden, ME

Jonah Lehrer at Pop!Tech 2009. Kris Krug/Wikimedia Commons

How did I get mired in this particular swamp? Lehrer was readying for his third annual appearance at the College that employs me to handle its media relations when this story broke. And we happened to be the College that was one of the first to cancel him. And that got little old me in the papers alongside the tarnished (in the public’s eye, at any rate) Mr. Lehrer.

It also got me a lovely “howler” of an e-mail from a relative of Lehrer’s who didn’t take kindly to what I said in the papers. (And by “papers,” obviously I mean those electronic sources of information that Google searches 24/7 for the news we demand instead of waiting for those dying gasps of print on actual paper to arrive on our doorsteps each morning.)

I don’t blame Lehrer’s relative, I’d be pissed if someone called out someone in my family, too. And Lehrer did deserve it. Well, some of it.

This was a one-two punch. The first punch was just before the quote thing. Lehrer was accused of “self-plaigarization” in his New Yorker column. This is stupid. If you have someone writing in a topic area that they have already written on for years, you can expect some recycling. I think the problem is that the New Yorker was expecting 100% new thinking. New words. And I think that’s ludicrous. And it smacks of the pompous self-importance that the New Yorker places on its own value. (That’s conjecture on my part, just so you know; so heel, attorneys.) Still, I think it’s assinine.

Then came the fabricated quote thing. This is the sucker punch to Lehrer AND to his dedicated readers, of which, I count myself as one. This was Lehrer’s big mistake.

For what it’s worth, I’ll interject here that I find it interesting that this story wasn’t broken by a “traditional” news organization, but rather by three-year-old online niche publication.

I quote here from an e-mail sent from a colleague (a professor, you can undoubtedly tell) and a series of questions I passed on to colleagues.

I hope you’re willing to trust that, unlike Jonah Lehrer, I haven’t simply invented the quotation my rhetoric needed. (Speaking of which, when Thucydides tells us in his introduction that he has done exactly this, he seems to feel no shame or even discomfort. Maybe we could spend some time wondering together why Lehrer has to apologize for something Thucydides seems rather proud of — why Lehrer’s admission threatens both his reputation and his career, while Thucydides’ admission refers to just that part of his text — the “set speeches” — that we profs seem to find most interesting and worthy of study.)

Thucydides says: “In this history I have made use of set speeches….my method has been, while keeping as closely as possible to the general sense of the words that were actually used, to make the speakers say what, in my opinion, was called for by each situation.” (History of the Peloponnesian War, Penguin, 1954, p. 47)

This was posited by [name redacted]. It’s a good question to mull over, I think, for all of us who write for publication. My simplistic answer is that Thucydides said up front that he was going to manufacture quotes and Lehrer did not.

We should also be mindful of what the AP has to say under the heading “quotations in the news:”

“Never alter quotations even to correct minor grammatical errors or word usage. Casual minor tongue slips may be removed by using ellipses but even that should be done with extreme caution. If there is a question about a quote, either don’t use it or ask the speaker to clarify.” (AP Stylebook 2011, p.234)

The question of the day, then, becomes: Should Lehrer be held to the same standard as a reporter? Should public relations writers? Think on’t.

What do you think? I believe that my answer to the prof’s question above stands: Lehrer didn’t tell us he was making things up. He could have. It would have been easy. And it wouldn’t have undermined the credibility of his book one iota — especially when you realize that he mostly just reworked knowledge about the subject that we had already and for expediency’s sake made those direct quotations.

One one hand it seems damn silly. On the other, it’s a big giant bother to those of us who are required to fret about this stuff every day.

Do Jonah Lehrer’s “crimes against accuracy” occupy the same world as those perpetrated by Jayson Blair? Or Stephen Glass? Or even Mike Daisey? I say not, but I’m also not beyond changing my mind on this given a compelling argument.

Anyhow, the beast that is the 24/7 content-suck swallowed Jonah. Hopefully it will spit him out again intact. He’s a helluva smart guy — not to mention a great public speaker — and it would be a shame to make him pay with his career for one ridiculous mistake. It’s one of those times where, I believe, second chances are critical.

Here are a few places to read more about what’s gone on.

The original piece that set these dominoes in motion:


Only the first part is relevant:

My addition to the frakas:


3 thoughts on “Jonah and the Whale — Not a Bible Story

  1. Pingback: He’s Baaack. The Ever-Bouyant Jonah Lehrer Bobs Up to the Surface Again | Mark Blackmon

  2. Pingback: Jonah Lehrer Discusses Scandals, Career Implosion that Caused “Deep Pain” | One Last Word

  3. Pingback: The Shifting Balance of Power for Media — Is the Free Lance Really Free? | One Last Word

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