5 of the Most Awful Media People of 2013
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The writer Michael Moynihan identified multiple quotes attributed to Bob Dylan in “Imagine” that did not exist in the form Lehrer had used. Some featured portions of actual Dylan quotes, stitched together to form new lines that supported Lehrer’s thesis. Some seemed to have been entirely fabricated. Moynihan also listed Lehrer’s prior documented instances of lapses of journalistic judgment, including one instance of plagiarizing another New Yorker writer, Malcolm Gladwell.
Reviewing his first book, “Proust Was a Neuroscientist,” philosopher Jonathon Keats upbraided Lehrer for a narrative larded with examples that “arbitrarily and often inaccurately” supported his thesis. The writer Edward Champion, who cataloguedLehrer’s recent recyclings on his blog, stated baldly that Lehrer was guilty of “plagiarizing” a paragraph from fellow New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell. A New York Times reviewer catalogued the “many elementary errors” in Imagine. And the New Republic’s Isaac Chotiner, in a devastating review of “Imagine,” chided Lehrer for “borrowing (heavily)” from economist Edward Glaeser and claimed that “almost everything” in his exegesis of Bob Dylan’s song “Like a Rolling Stone” was “inaccurate, misleading, or simplistic.”
Lehrer’s previous employer, Wired.com, asked journalism professor Charles Seife to review Lehrer’s work for their website.
Seife reviewed 18 posts and found 14 instances in which Lehrer recycled his own work, five posts that included material directly from press releases, three posts that plagiarized from other writers, four posts with problematic quotations and four that had problematic facts.
Lehrer had plagiarized and fabricated repeatedly, for years. He had violated all of the most important modern rules of journalistic ethics. He misled his readers, stole from other authors and violated the trust of every editor, publisher and media organization that ever published him. An author like that deserves every bit of public scorn he’s received, right?
We tend to think, like Seife, that writers shouldn’t make things up. But one man, Malcolm Gladwell, says maybe we’re just overreacting.
“In the classic sense of the word, it was a hysteria,” Gladwell says of the anti-Lehrer uproar. “There was a kind of frenzy about it that was disproportionate to the crime. Jonah screwed up, and he’s the first to say he screwed up, but I’m puzzled by how much vitriol was directed at him.”
Should a writer mean what he says? We typically think yes. But sometimes writers can say what they mean while also meaning something entirely different. “He says pretty much what he means,” Gladwell recently said of another writer, David Eggers. Gladwell also said:
When Eggers says, “Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one,” he does not mean you can’t criticize a book or a movie unless you’ve made one.
A more useful question might be, should an author believe what he writes? Maybe, depending on the subject matter, and the author’s intent, a writer can advance arguments the author knows to be dubious in support of shaky, predetermined conclusions, if the author really wants to.