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Duly Noted

Friday, Aug 3, 2012, 11:16 am

Jonah Lehrer Always Cut Corners

By Lindsay Beyerstein

Pop Tech, Creative Commons.

Science journalist Seth Mnookin knows from personal experience that disgraced former New Yorker writer Jonah Lehrer is a slap-dash journalist of long standing.

Mnookin discovered that Lehrer fabricated a single quote from two separate passages in Leon Festinger's classic case study of cognitive dissonance, "When Prophecy Fails," for a 2010 Wired blog post. Manufacturing Bob Dylan quotes wasn't an isolated incident.

Since Monday, I’ve spoken with about a dozen people who know Lehrer in one capacity or another. A theory that several have raised is that when the 2008 publication of How We Decide made Lehrer a superstar — with Colbert Report appearances, huge speaking fee paydays, and bylines in the country’s top glossy magazines and newspapers — he became overwhelmed and started to cut corners. But the simultaneously pervasive and picayune journalistic misconduct cited above — and remember, that’s all in a single blog post that’s roughly half as long as the one you’re reading —  doesn’t illustrate sloppiness or corner-cutting. It illustrates a writer with a remarkable arrogance: The arrogance to believe that he has the right to rejigger reality to make things a little punchier, or a little neater, or a little easier for himself. This is not the work of someone who lost his way; it’s the work of someone who didn’t have a compass to begin with.

I'm truly baffled by journalists who express sorrow over Lehrer's downfall. Guys like him make the job more difficult for the rest of us.

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/hillmanblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.

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