On Monday, Michael C. Moynihan published a story that he knew was going to change another man's life for the worse. Writing for Tablet magazine, Moynihan revealed that last month's self-plagiarism charge against Jonah Lehrer was the least of it: The celebrated 31-year-old author had fabricated quotes he attributed to Bob Dylan in his bestselling book, Imagine: How The Creative Process Works.
"It's a horrible, horrible, horrible feeling," Moynihan told the New York Observer on Monday, later adding that he had unfortunately come upon something that had to be reported. (Moynihan did not respond to an interview request from the International Business Times.)
Lehrer resigned from his position at the New Yorker within hours and issued a formal apology.
"The lies are over now," he said in a statement issued through his publisher. "I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologize to everyone I have let down, especially my editors and readers."
The unfolding scandal recalls notorious cases of journalistic misconduct: The New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, who lied about his credentials and went on to plagiarize or fabricate numerous stories; Janet Cooke of the Washington Post, who was forced to return a Pulitzer Prize after it was discovered that she invented the subject of the award-winning article; Stephen Glass, who passed off fictionalizations as original reporting at The New Republic and elsewhere; and Mike Daisey, who, while not a journalist himself, allowed journalists to believe that his monologue about labor conditions at a factory in China was objectively true.
Similar to the way Moynihan discovered Lehrer's fabrications, Marketplace reporter Rob Schmitz came to expose the embellishments in Daisey's theater piece The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs because he knew the material well: He is a resident of China who has reported on the subject of the monologue -- the conditions at the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, which manufactures Apple products. Schmitz noticed some questionable claims in Daisey's account when he heard the monologue excerpted on Public Radio International's This American Life. Specifically, Schmitz questioned Daisey's claims that security guards at Foxconn were carrying guns when he visited, and that he had communicated with underage workers.
"My first thought wasn't, 'Oh, I am going to get him,' but at the same time I was curious, because this is a beat that I covered,"Schmitz said.
After easily tracking down Daisey's Chinese translator, Schmitz realized that the performer had embellished more than just a few minor points. "As I started talking to her I became aware of how egregiously he made up the details and it became apparent to me that someone had to do something about it."
So he contacted the host of This American Life, Ira Glass, who had initially aired the segment believing that Daisey was presenting the monologue as fact. Glass questioned Daisey in a now-infamously awkward interview where Daisey admitted to exaggerating some of his experiences in the monologue, but defended his work on the grounds that it was a theater piece, not a news report. The interview aired in an extraordinary episode dedicated to the radio show's official retraction of the previously aired segment.
"If I wouldn't have come along and done this, I can assure you that someone else would have definitely come along and done what I did," Schmitz said. "Nowadays, there are so many people who know China like I do."
Indeed, the moral of the story for aspiring fabulists seems to be this: If you are going to fudge facts or make up quotes, you'd better hope that you know your beat better than anyone else who covers it.
But of course, there is always someone out there who knows more.
In 1998, a year after Forbes magazine launched its digital arm, Adam Penenberg's editor demanded to know how Stephen Glass, a young reporter at the New Republic, had scooped him on the story of a 15-year-old hacker who was hired by the very software firm whose security system he had infiltrated.
"I hadn't heard of anything he talked about," Penenber said. "I just assumed I was a really crappy reporter."
As most anyone who has heard of Stephen Glass now knows, Penenberg hadn't heard of anything in the story because Glass made the whole thing up. But even after Penenberg and his team established that there was something very wrong with the story, the Forbes reporters felt they had to be very careful in how they handled the potential fraud.
"It's hard to disprove a negative," Penenberg said, referring to the difficulty in proving with absolute certainty that certain people or places do not exist. "My biggest worry was what happens if we write that this company doesn't exist and some kid working out of his parent's basement comes forward?"
Penenberg needn't have worried, as Glass was unable to back up any of the claims he made in the story, "Hack Heaven." But Penenberg and his colleagues still had to face what he described as a real schism between print and online journalists. "Print reporters looked down on us," he said.
Given the power dynamics, Penenberg was pleasantly surprised when Glass's editor Charles Lane allowed the investigating reporters to interrogate Glass over the phone. It was then, when a still-stubborn Glass slipped up on a basic fact check, that everyone involved realized what they were facing.
"It really weighed heavily," Penenberg said. "I felt really bad about it. But we couldn't not run the story."
When Penenberg's story -- "Lies, Damn Lies and Fiction" -- finally did run, "the impact took our breath away," he said. The expose led to the discovery of dozens of stories that Glass had plagiarized and/or fabricated.
Penenberg said he was struck by the similarities between Moynihan's experience and his own, even though Lehrer's crimes -- at least those that we know about -- seem minor compared to Glass's spectacular inventions.
He believes that Moynihan did not set out to debunk Lehrer's book, but because of his deep familiarity with the material -- Moynihan is an avowed Dylan nerd -- he could not help but notice something wasn't right. But he didn't jump to any conclusions until he was sure.
"We held back and so did he," Penenberg said. "That's to his credit and our credit as well."
As Moynihan explained to the Observer, "This is not something I did on a whim. I wasn't trying to hurt him. In fact ... I was trying to help him, saying, 'Let's find this stuff.'
"This was a three-week process. I could have taken it and put it up online as it progressed, and let the hive mind look for this stuff."
Moynihan told the Observer he believes Lehrer is genuinely remorseful, something that Penenberg believes better positions him for career recovery than Glass.
"I think he has taken the first step. He admitted what he did, unlike Stephen Glass," Penenberg said.
"It's going to suck for the near future," he concluded. "But I would encourage him to keep going."