Journalists Fume Over Jonah Lehrer’s $20,000 Plagiarism Payday

on February 13 2013 6:10 AM
Jonah Lehrer
Acclaimed author and science writer Jonah Lehrer resigned from his position as staff writer at The New Yorker magazine on Monday following a report that he "fabricated" several quotes and details about Bob Dylan's life in his recent best-selling non-fiction work "Imagine: How Creativity Works." Wikimedia Commons

Jonah Lehrer, the disgraced science journalist who stepped down from a staff position at the New Yorker last year after it was revealed that he plagiarized and fabricated some of his material, made his first extensive public statements on Tuesday at a Knight Foundation seminar in Miami.

Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon reports that Lehrer was paid $20,000 to speak at the event, in which he not-so-humbly apologized for his journalistic misdeeds, chalking them up to “self-blindness” and arrogance.

“I’m just trying to grapple with my own arrogance and come up with the rules that force me every day to contain it,” Lehrer said at the event. “It’s not enough that I’ve been humbled. I still may be arrogant.”

The 31-year-old Rhodes Scholar also expressed his desire to return to journalism to “restore a measure of the trust” he’d lost.

“If I’m lucky enough to write again, then whatever I write will be fully fact-checked and footnoted,” he said. “Every conversation will be fully taped and transcribed.”

However, that prospect isn’t sitting too well with other journalists, many of whom took to Twitter and blogs on Tuesday to lash out at Lehrer and his $20,000 payday. Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici accused Lehrer of trying to “outsource integrity.” “That’s his plan for reviving his career as a big-idea science journalist,” Bercovici wrote.

Chris O’Shea, at Mediabistro’s Fishbowl NY blog, wrote that Lehrer’s attempt to “kick off a redemption tour” didn’t go so well. “Here’s a funny ‘rule’ to try some time,” O’Shea wrote. “Don’t make s--t up.”  

David Dobbs, a science writer and former colleague of Lehrer’s, tweeted to Lehrer in advance of the seminar, asking if the writer would ever “confess to anything that others haven’t already exposed or stand on the verge of exposing.” In a blog post on Monday, Dobbs wrote, “I feel I would fool myself badly, and betray his enormous potential, if I pretended he didn’t have a lot to answer for before he’s ushered back to podiums.”

Lehrer, once a rising star in the world of pop-science journalism, made a splash with his best-selling books “Proust Was a Neuroscientist” and “How We Decide.” However, it was in his 2012 follow up, “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” in which Michael C. Moynihan, a columnist for Tablet magazine, discovered a fabricated quote from Bob Dylan. The revelation came shortly after Lehrer had been accused of self-plagiarism, or recycling his own blog posts.

Earlier on Tuesday, Moynihan tweeted that there are many problems with Lehrer’s second book that have “never been acknowledged.”

Partially in response to the Lehrer scandal, the American Copy Editors Society is holding the first-ever plagiarism summit at its annual conference in St. Louis in April.

A video archive of Lehrer’s speaking engagement is accessible on the Knight Foundation website.

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