Jonah Lehrer, a science writer who was caught fabricating quotes in one of his books, said plagiarism is “the worst mistake a journalist can make.”
Speaking at a forum discussion at Fresno State on Thursday, Lehrer has written for Wired, Grantland, The New Yorker, The Boston Globe and The Wall Street Journal and has published three books. He resigned from The New Yorker in 2012 after admitting to making up Bob Dylan quotes in his book, “Imagine: How Creativity Works.”
“Writing for The New Yorker had been my dream job,” Lehrer said. “I lost it, and I deserved to lose it. You make those kinds of mistakes, and you deserve the ridicule, you deserve the criticism.”
Attendees filled Room 2206 of the Henry Madden Library as Lehrer shared his cautionary tale.
Lehrer described the struggles in the aftermath of his resignation, his career choice and lapses in journalistic ethics.
At 33, Lehrer graduated from Columbia University in 2003 with a degree in neuroscience. He then studied 20th century literature and philosophy at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar.
His large workload, Lehrer said, helped create pressure that led to his mistakes.
“I got really, really busy,” Lehrer said. “I tried doing too much, and my work got sloppy, and I made some very serious mistakes. I was taking on more projects than I could do well.”
Lehrer said he reused work two to three years old in order to give his new articles context. He said he didn’t realize it was wrong at the time.
“It sounds very, very, very naïve,” Lehrer said. “To me, these were my words. I had written them. I didn’t understand the problem. But it was a problem. The fact that I felt the need to cut and paste words from the past should have been a sign that something was wrong.”
As for the Dylan quotes, Lehrer said it was mostly a mistake made in haste.
He said he was on deadline to finish the book proposal for “Imagine.” The proposal included a sample chapter, and that chapter was on how Dylan came up with “Like a Rolling Stone.”
“In my race to finish the proposal,” Lehrer said, “I thought I was too busy — too lazy is probably more honest —to really go to the library and look up these actual quotes.”
Lehrer quit The New Yorker as a staff writer and was fired from Wired in the immediate aftermath of a magazine article from another journalist revealing he made up the Dylan quotes.
In February of 2013, just six months after the incident came to light, Lehrer was invited to speak at a lunch for the Knight Foundation.
The speech was not well-received and both Lehrer and the Knight Foundation were criticized for a $20,000 honorarium given to Lehrer to speak.
Though it was not reported, Lehrer said he donated the money.
Fresno State senior Phillip Benotti said he questioned some of the information Lehrer shared in his talk.
“You have that perception of once a liar, always a liar,” Benotti said. “It’s hard to trust somebody after they’ve lied for their career in some major publications. I mean, you’d like to take his word on it, but sometimes you can’t.”
Lehrer no longer accepts honorariums to speak and said he has participated in eight other forum discussions similar to Thursday’s in the past year. He currently is writing books and said he isn’t quite ready to get back into journalism yet, adding he’s enjoying writing now more than ever.
Lehrer told the audience about his new policy on quotes. He sends his interview subjects the quotes he plans to use to ensure that there are no issues or discrepancies. He also records all his interviews for reference.
Lehrer’s next book, “The Digital Mind: How We Think and Behave Differently on Screens,” is co-written with UCLA professor Shlomo Benartzi and will be released in May.