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Jonah Lehrer: some blame media adoration for his fabrications

'Imagine' author Jonah Lehrer admitted in a statement that he made up remarks attributed to Bob Dylan.

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Monday’s revelation wasn’t the first. In June, Lehrer was criticized for the awkwardly named offense of self-plagiarism, recycling his own past material in blog posts for The New Yorker. And according to Moynihan’s article in Tablet, questions were raised as early as Lehrer’s first book, “Proust Was a Neuroscientist,” in which the young writer was accused of plagiarizing a paragraph from Malcolm Gladwell. Even “Imagine” was criticized for “many elementary errors,” for “borrowing (heavily)” from economist Edward Glaeser, and for its “inaccurate, misleading, or simplistic” exegesis of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” according to the Tablet article.

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The question, of course, is what leads a person, and a bright, promising, successful writer at that, to commit such colossal misjudgments, such bald-faced lies, such stupid audacity? Even as he saw his predecessors – similar rising stars – fall for the same lies?

As Jayson Blair, of New York Times fabricating fame, wrote for The Daily Beast, “Part of Jonah Lehrer’s problem had to be his success … success, of course, brings with it the pressure to make each new publication better than the last.”

And for this pressure, writes Roxanne Gay of Salon.com, the media and its breathless adoration of the boy wonder, is to blame. “Consider,” she writes, “how journalists have referred to Lehrer. At NPR, he is a “superstar science writer.” At Tablet, Lehrer is referred to as a “celebrated journalist.” In a Boston Globe article, Lehrer is a “rising star.” The New York Daily News refers to Lehrer as a “promising young pop-science writer.” In the Chicago Tribune, Lehrer is a “seemingly prodigious young writer.” The Atlantic calls Lehrer a “wunderkind writer.” The lavish descriptors go on and on and on as journalists try to find just the right words to capture Lehrer’s promise, his genius, his place as prodigy, to remind us that in that young man, there is (was) greatness.

“The question isn’t really why did Lehrer fabricated those Dylan quotations and then lie about it nor is the question why did he plagiarize himself time and again in his highly visible position as a staff writer for The New Yorker,” Gay writes. “The question that intrigues me most is how this happened at all, how Lehrer was elevated to a position of such prominence. Are we that enamored by bright young things that they can act with impunity?”

This, we imagine, is only the beginning of the agonizing soul-searching that will follow. For writers like Gay, for Lehrer’s readers, for The New Yorker. And of course, for Lehrer himself.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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