New Yorker star Jonah Lehrer quits after faking Dylan quotes

Jul 31, 2012
Nigel Horne

Over-creative science writer rewrote Bob Dylan lines for his best-seller, Imagine: How Creativity Works

Getty Images

A RISING star of The New Yorker, Jonah Lehrer, has resigned from the magazine after being caught fabricating quotes by Bob Dylan in his best-selling book, Imagine: How Creativity Works.

Lehrer, described in the New York Times as "one of the most promising, visible and well-paid writers in the business", has admitted embroidering various quotes, including an exchange lifted from the 1967 documentary Don't Look Back.

Dylan, questioned in the film about his songs, said: "I just write them. There's no great message." But Lehrer added a third phrase, that did not appear in the film. He had Dylan saying: "Stop asking me to explain".

Lehrer was caught out by self-confessed "Dylan nerd" Michael Moynihan who used an article for Tablet – an online magazine about Jewish life, not to be confused with the Catholic magazine of the same name – to expose Lehrer’s various "deceptions".

Owning up, Lehrer said: "I told Mr Moynihan that [the quotes] were from archival interview footage provided to me by Dylan's representatives. This was a lie spoken in a moment of panic.

"The lies are over now. I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologise to everyone I have let down, especially my editors and readers."

Lehrer, 31, had joined the New Yorker from and was making a considerable name for himself as a science writer and public speaker in the mold of another New Yorker star, Malcolm Gladwell. He was represented by the high-profile New York literary agent Andrew Wylie.

Imagine had sold more than 200,000 copies in hardback and e-book since its publication in March, and was ranked number 105 on Amazon before publishers Houghton Mifflin Harcourt announced on Monday that it was recalling all print copies.

For the editor of The New Yorker, David Remnick, the revelation was apparently the last straw. He had already had to upbraid Lehrer publicly for "self-plagiarism" - using chunks of columns he’d already written previously elsewhere in recent blogs for The New Yorker online.

Several of Lehrer’s pieces on the magazine’s website now carry the rider: "Portions of this post appeared in similar form in Wired magazine/the Wall Street Journal... We regret the duplication of material."

In a statement, Remnick said: "This is a terrifically sad situation. But, in the end, what is most important is the integrity of what we publish and what we stand for."

Looking for reasons for Lehrer’s behaviour, Julie Bosman at the New York Times points to: "A publishing industry that is notoriously ill-equipped to root out fraud. A magazine whose famed fact-checking department is geared toward print, not the Web. And a lucrative lecture circuit that rewards snappy, semi-scientific pronouncements, smoothly delivered to a corporate audience."

Sign up for our daily newsletter