The cover of Jonah Lehrer’s book published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt which is now being recalled
Jonah Lehrer is not the world’s most famous journalist. In light of recent events in his life, some might say that he is not even a journalist, but that is a matter of opinion.
Lehrer has just had to resign as a staff writer for the New Yorker after admitting that he falsified quotes. And quotes of not just anybody but those of music legend Bob Dylan.
The quotes in question are part of Lehrer’s best-selling book, ‘Imagine: How Creativity Works.’ Those feeling outraged have no reason to feel so because the title of the books is self-explanatory. Which part of ‘Imagine: How Creativity Works’ do they not understand? First it is about imagining and then about creativity and finally about making them work together.
The book is supposed to be an exploration into the science of creativity and Lehrer thought why not carry out an experiment in the book. Unfortunately for him, a fellow journalist had a more accurate definition of accuracy and he challenged Lehrer who has now come clean on his falsification.
Jonah Lehrer (A video grab from www.jonnahlehrer.com)
Lehrer has a dream academic resume. The 31-year-old is a graduate from Columbia in neuroscience with a masters from Oxford. He is also a Rhodes scholar. There is something about Lehrer that screams the New Yorker. He was hired as the magazine’s staff writer in June.
In keeping with the highest tradition of this blog I did some quick forensics about Lehrer before writing about him. His personal website has a video trailer of his this very book where he says, “Creativity is taking two things that existed before and connecting them in an entirely new way.” If this is not an uncanny foreshadowing of what he has now admitted to, then what is? I do not know exactly how he has falsified the Dylan quotes but going by the news stories about the subject, it does not sound that different from what he says in this video clip.
In a statement after the falsification controversy Lehrer was quoted by The Guardian as saying, “The quotes either did not exist or represented improper combinations of previously existing quotes.” Compare this with what he says in the video clip about connecting previously existing things in a new way.
Helping quotes become smarter and pithier than they really are is not a particularly unknown phenomenon in the world of journalism across the world. Journalists often do so without realizing it and they also do so to fit a preconceived narrative. Working behind this practice is the crafty logic that such journalists follow which says that almost no one will ever disown a smart or pithy quote attributed to them even if it did not come from them.
My approach has been to quote people verbatim, including their linguistic deficiencies, to ensure that I have not indulged in even a subtle makeover. A lot of people I have interviewed over the decades have disliked how they sound in cold print and complained. There was a particular movie star in the 1980s who was so unhappy at the way she came across in cold print that she had her PR man call me to compel me to retract everything. I said it was exactly what she had said and I had it on tape. To which he said with delightful shamelessness, “Lekin woh to aap ko theek kar lena chahiye na likhne se pehle (But you should have corrected it before writing it).” I said I was not the film star’s copy editor and put the phone down.
The point is most people do not realize that most people do not speak in a properly structured manner where what comes out is a tightly edited copy. It is conversational, informal and often undermined by poor phraseology (not unlike this blog). I do not think it is a journalist’s job to filter those out. For instance, in many politicians’ cases the simple act of quoting them faithfully would be tantamount to misquoting them because that’s what it reads like in cold print. To quote a politician is to misquote a politician. I have encountered this problem dozens and dozens of times, including once with a very high profile politician who went to become India’s prime minister. After the politician’s interview appeared his aide called to contest some of the comments. Fortunately, everything he said was on tape.
In my experience the only people who do not care about accuracy and do not retract are gangsters and their bosses. But then that is peculiar to their profession where erasing mistakes has a whole new meaning. They do not erase mistakes, they erase mistake makers.
Coming back to Lehrer, he joins a distinguished group of journalists such as Stephen Glass, formerly of The Vanity Fair, and Jayson Blair, formerly of The New York Times, both of whom had to resign under similar circumstances of having fabricated or falsified or embellished their stories. Perhaps the three can form a firm together. ‘Blair, Glass and Lehrer’ has a nice ring to it.