Jonah Lehrer: “I panicked. And I’m deeply sorry for lying.”
I’m something of the Dylan obsessive—piles of live bootlegs, outtakes, books—and I read the first chapter of Imagine with keen interest. But when I looked for sources to a handful of Dylan quotations offered by Lehrer—the chapter is sparsely and erratically footnoted—I came up empty, and in one case found two fragments of quotes, from different years and on different topics, welded together to create something that happily complimented Lehrer’s argument. Other quotes I couldn’t locate at all.
When contacted, Lehrer provided an explanation for some of my archival failures: He claimed to have been given access, by Dylan’s manager Jeff Rosen, to an extended—and unreleased—interview shot for Martin Scorsese’s documentary No Direction Home. Two of the quotes confounding me, he explained, could be found in a more complete version of that interview, that is not publically available. As corroboration, he offered details of the context in which the comments were delivered, and brought up other topics he claimed Dylan discussed in this unreleased footage.
Over the next three weeks, Lehrer stonewalled, misled and, eventually, outright lied to me. Yesterday, Lehrer finally confessed that he has never met or corresponded with Jeff Rosen, Dylan’s manager; he has never seen an unexpurgated version of Dylan’s interview for No Direction Home, something he offered up to stymie my search; that a missing quote he claimed could be found in an episode of Dylan’s “Theme Time Radio Hour” cannot , in fact, be found there; and that a 1995 radio interview, supposedly available in a printed collection of Dylan interviews called The Fiddler Now Upspoke, also didn’t exist. When, three weeks after our first contact, I asked Lehrer to explain his deceptions, he responded, for the first time in our communication, forthrightly: “I couldn’t find the original sources,” he said. “I panicked. And I’m deeply sorry for lying.”
On Monday morning, “Imagine” was ranked No. 105 on Amazon’s Web site; by afternoon, it had been removed.
Since its release in March, “Imagine” has sold more than 200,000 copies in hardcover and e-book. On The New York Times hardcover nonfiction best-seller list of Aug. 5, “Imagine” held the No. 14 spot.
Lehrer called Moynihan on Monday morning, shortly before the story was published, and told him he would resign. After they talked, “I felt horrible. I felt like shit,” Moynihan said.
“I knew — he knew — this was a situation of his own making,” Moynihan said. He believes his story was “totally fair.” Still, when the result of a story is that “somebody’s life is going to be unalterably changed … it is not a burden you want on yourself.”
It’s got striking similarities — his youth, his prominence, even the way that I think he tried to defend himself by minimizing the story. All of it just rings so familiar.
Freddie deBoer says it was inevitable:
I have been reading paid political and cultural commentary voraciously for a decade, and it seems to me to be a broken culture. Totally broken. The professional and social conditions of the profession are not in any sense oriented towards producing truthful, challenging, or moral outcomes. The large majority of the professional opinion writers I follow have a primary goal of advancing their personal brand, that horrific social-professional fusion that views getting page views and getting invitations to the latest DC grabass cocktail hour as merely two facets of the same effort. … When writers change publications or think tanks all the time, and when friendly relations with editors and bigwigs matter vastly more for professional advancement than telling the truth, you get writing that’s written to demonstrate insider status and fealty to the proper authorities. Additionally, the medium is currently obsessed with cleverness, which has nothing to do with wisdom or honesty. Jonah Lehrer was inevitable.
Read on for a whip-smart take down of Slate under David Plotz (and I’m a fan).
Bob Dylan has this great line when someone asked him where his songs come from, he said, they begin with acts of love. You fall in love with something and then you steal it. That you make it your own, you reinvent it, you in a sense misremember it. And that’s an important part of creativity which is why it’s so important to create a culture where people can liberally borrow from the ideas of others. So William Shakespeare, a pretty creative guy I think we can agree, he stole most of his plots. He didn’t like coming up with his own stories. But he had access to a publishing industry that gave him lots of stories to steal, and nobody stopped him. And so you see this again and again among very creative people. They have very open minds, they read everything, they’re incredibly curious, and they steal a lot.
Lehrer’s statement to the NYTimes:
“Three weeks ago, I received an email from journalist Michael Moynihan asking about Bob Dylan quotes in my book ‘Imagine.’ The quotes in question either did not exist, were unintentional misquotations, or represented improper combinations of previously existing quotes. But I told Mr. Moynihan that they were from archival interview footage provided to me by Dylan’s representatives. This was a lie spoken in a moment of panic. When Mr. Moynihan followed up, I continued to lie, and say things I should not have said.”
“The lies are over now. I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologize to everyone I have let down, especially my editors and readers. I also owe a sincere apology to Mr. Moynihan. I will do my best to correct the record and ensure that my misquotations and mistakes are fixed. I have resigned my position as staff writer at The New Yorker.”