A young, bright writer is hired at an 80-year-old magazine. He has arrived at one of the pinnacles of journalism, becoming an envy of the literary world. But soon, his legitimacy begins unraveling, culminating in a devastating exposé by a fellow reporter. It's unclear if he will ever be published again.
The narrative fits the case of Jonah Lehrer, the now-former New Yorker writer and best-selling author, who was caught making up Bob Dylan quotes in his book "Imagine" by Michael Moynihan in Tablet magazine. Lehrer resigned Monday after two months at the New Yorker, where he also recycled his previous work on a blog for its website.
Lehrer's rise and fall traces that of Stephen Glass, a writer who invented sources and plagiarized material nearly two decades earlier at the New Republic. Glass was uncovered by Adam Penenberg, then at Forbes, for creating a fictional hacker and related company he called Jukt Micronics. Glass would later become popularizied in a 2003 film, "Shattered Glass," where he was played by Hayden Christensen. (Disclosure: I took a class taught by Penenberg while I was a student at NYU.)
When confronted, both Lehrer and Glass attempted to lead their accusers astray, building another layer of lies. But ultimately, their fabrications collapsed. Glass is now working as a paralegal, and Lehrer's future is clouded.
In the nascent days of the Internet, Glass might have sustained his deceit indefinitely, were it not for Penenberg's expertise in the story's subject matter and relentless digging. Glass wrote for the magazine for three years, but in Lehrer's case, the revelations of "self-plagiarism" just a month earlier invited scrutiny across his work. But the false quotations of Dylan in Lehrer's 279-page book went largely unspotted. Credit to Moynihan, who was a tireless reporter, not to mention a passionate Dylan fan.
Lehrer's exact mindset may never be known, but his methodology was familiar. The art of journalism, particularly the Malcolm Gladwell-type that deals with grand ideas, is cutting away the dregs and polishing the core concept. Vivid anecdotes burnish the underlying theme -- but in Lehrer's case, part of the source was counterfeited.
There is, particularly in the hyper-accelerated media business, the drive to be unique. Standing out, whether through scoops, ideas or force of personality, is the key to success. And the expectations continue to grow along with accolades.
"I certainly understand that pressure. Once you’re young and successful, I think, in this profession you’re only as good as your last story -- and you want every story to be better," Jayson Blair, the former New York Times reporter whose plagiarism was one of the darkest moments at the paper, told Salon on Monday.
Lehrer and Glass are particularly tragic figures because their writing skills are evident. There are reports of plagiarism almost weekly, but many come from young or undistinguished writers. The most notorious examples are those with obvious, but wasted potential.
And perhaps the real tragedy is the void of stories, subjects and ideas that Lehrer, Glass, Blair and the others could have discovered and shared, if only their ethics were equal to their talents.