Yesterday we found out that Jonah Lehrer, the Gladwellesque whiz kid who's The New Yorker's newest staff writer, reused his own old writings for every goddamn blog post he's written for The New Yorker so far. A self-plagiarist, he is. Big time. What's the latest? He is an even bigger time plagiarist (self, and otherwise!) than we knew yesterday. And for it, he should probably be eased out of journalism's highest echelon.
The news yesterday set off a predictable wave of digging into Lehrer's past work, revealing that his penchant for reusing old material without disclosure was not limited to a few blog posts. Edward Champion found "twelve pages of lifted passages" in just the first 100 pages of Lehrer's recent book Imagine: How Creativity Works. Lehrer's January New Yorker article on brainstorming now has an editor's note disclosing that Lehrer took Noam Chomsky quotes from a story (not written by him) in Technology Review and inserted them into his story, making it appear as if he had spoken to Chomsky himself. And a tipster pointed us to this 2009 Columbia magazine review of Lehrer's book How We Decide, which contains this telling passage:
Several caveats: Despite Lehrer's agile handling of a lot of complicated material, I never was quite sure about the line that separated his reporting from other people's work. Lehrer's account of the disastrous 1949 firefighting episode in Montana, for example, with which he began his July 2008 story about insight in the New Yorker, apparently represents no original reporting, but instead is an elaborate four-page retelling of Norman Maclean's Young Men and Fire (1992). Lehrer mentions the Maclean book in the main text, yet oddly doesn't attribute his very detailed account to it. This and other derivative anecdotes are written with such immediacy and visceral detail that it is the kind of prose we normally associate with eyewitness reporting or fastidious, scrupulously sourced reconstruction.
Repackaging the work of others without disclosure is arguably a much more serious offense than reusing your own work without disclosure. Not Stephen Glass-level offenses, but not good. Let's go with the charitable interpretation of all this: Jonah Lehrer does not actually know how to do journalism.
As has been pointed out elsewhere, Lehrer's schtick is much like Malcolm Gladwell's: he's an idea man, a smarty-pants revealer of illuminating and counterintuitive truths about the way our minds work. It's the ideas that pay the bills, rather than the reporting. This sort of work leans far more heavily on pop psychology/ neuroscience than it does any particular journalistic flair; the journalism is merely the necessary packaging for the gleaming, brilliant idea at the center, which is what drives all those sweet, sweet paid speaking gigs.
So—being charitable—Jonah Lehrer fancies himself a thinker rather than a journalist, and he concentrated on the ideas to the exclusion of basic journalistic rules of disclosure and citation and originality and other important things like that. Okay. So why is he working for the most rarefied journalistic magazine in America? You know? Send him down to the minors. A few years rewriting scientific press releases for LiveScience.com could probably do him a world of good. If The New Yorker keeps Lehrer on, at this point, it's quite hard to not scoff at the idea that The New Yorker takes basic rules of journalism very seriously. This shit would get you canned from the average community newspaper.
This is also why you should never pay someone in their 20s to give a speech and expect to learn something new.