When Journalism Becomes Plagiarism: The Case of Jonah Lehrer and Misplaced Loyalty

Guest Post by Olivia Morrissey, Future Journalist

Not long ago, Jonah Lehrer had achieved what most journalism students only dream of. Before mid-life, Lehrer published two successful books, worked a lucrative lecture circuit and was hired to a position at The New Yorker. Often referred to as intelligent and high-achieving in his field, Lehrer took on another book project to be released in the summer of 2012, called Imagine: How Creativity Works. It was hailed as a modern psychological analysis of human creativity, and featured interviews with such artists as Bob Dylan. After arriving in stores, the book came under scrutiny for containing fabricated and out-of-context Bob Dylan quotes. For example, Lehrer quoted Dylan as stating about the creative process, “It’s a hard thing to describe. It’s just this sense that you got something to say.” While this quote seems rather benign, Lehrer based much of his explanation in the book on words that Dylan never uttered. When confronted on the issue, Lehrer claimed innocence, stating that the quotes in question were the result of misremembering the interview. As suspicion grew, Lehrer relented and admitted to making up the quotes. Not only was the book hastily pulled from shelves, but Lehrer lost his job and reputation as a journalist. Scandal has continued to follow him. More than a year later, in March of 2013, more “problematic” quotes were found in another book he had written, How We Decide. The publisher decided to pull this book from stores, as well.

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Jonah Lehrer, source, Tablet Magazine

What appears to be a blatant disregard for integrity in journalism has deeper implications. The Jonah Lehrer scandal and others like it point to an ethical issue of journalism that is as old as the profession itself: loyalty. The journalist’s loyalty could be to accuracy, truth telling, a paycheck or somewhere in between. Journalists are not without bias and the will to self-preserve and loyalties are a reflection of the humanity of journalists. Still, these inclinations should not blur the lines of what is ethical journalism and what is not. In the case described above, Lehrer embellished or made up quotes in hopes to intrigue readers and have another best-seller to add to his repertoire.  His loyalty was to his pocketbook and personal prestige, not to his sources or profession. In the end, he lost it all.

What is most interesting about this case of misplaced journalistic loyalty is the profound lack of mindfulness in Lehrer’s decision. Had he simply taken a few moments to reflect on the consequences of fabricating quotes and remembered the part of himself still devoted to ethical journalism, perhaps the situation would have played out far differently.  Though the case of Jonah Lehrer marks a disheartening casualty of journalism, it also serves as a reminder of the importance of mindfulness in determining ethical loyalty in the profession.

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