Why Fans Matter: The Takedown of Jonah Lehrer

This is a Dylan photo from the 60s from a CC-licensed flickr stream, from a photograph on a poster. So it is a fair use exam question!

The career of journalist and author Jonah Lehrer may very well be over, considering that due to making up quotes in his latest book, he has now resigned from his job. But much of the commentary is incredulous by the source of the “plagiarism” (or made up information) — Bob Dylan quotes.

While much of journalism seems to be suffering from a dearth of proper fact-checking, fans are always on the alert. And this is regardless of the specific fandom. Fans notice the incorrect information included in published sources whenever they see something that just seems off. I’ve sent corrections to The New York Times several times due to fandom-related inaccuracies, including one for Layne Staley (of Alice in Chains) ‘s obituary. And one for calling Misty a pokémon rather than a human character within the Pokémon universe of card games, television, and video games.

The thread that led to the unweaving of Lehrer was a curious Dylan fan, one interested in finding out where Lehrer got the quotes included in his most recent book, Imagine: How Imagination Works. The fan, Michael Moynihan, posted his process of exposing the false quotes in an article in an otherwise obscure modern Jewish webmagazine, Tablet. I don’t mean that to be dismissive of the source — instead it shows that in our present era, the voice of fandom to obsessively check and double-check can do an effective takedown from anywhere.

This is what brought a well-regarded writer down:

I’m something of the Dylan obsessive—piles of live bootlegs, outtakes, books—and I read the first chapter of Imagine with keen interest. But when I looked for sources to a handful of Dylan quotations offered by Lehrer—the chapter is sparsely and erratically footnoted—I came up empty and in one case found two fragments of quotes, from different years and on different topics, welded together to create something that happily complemented Lehrer’s argument. Other quotes I couldn’t locate at all.

… Over the next three weeks, Lehrer stonewalled, misled, and, eventually, outright lied to me. … When, three weeks after our first contact, I asked Lehrer to explain his deceptions, he responded, for the first time in our communication, forthrightly: “I couldn’t find the original sources,” he said. “I panicked. And I’m deeply sorry for lying.”

I’ve noticed in many sources that write about this story — from the perspective of journalism — not color-commentary or blogging, that they commit a similar error: not citing to their sources. So I want to make this very clear: Michael Moynihan, a huge Bob Dylan fan, asked the questions that we should all ask about where information comes from, and thereby caused the end (or at least the extreme shaming) of the career of a well-regarded writer.

The New York Times, which dealt with fabrications in the Jayson Blair drama, notes the circumstances that made this situation possible:

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.

But for all of the talk about how bloggers and tweeters aren’t “real journalists”,  traditional journalists are on the hook for not appropriately citing to their sources. In a random sample, taken from Google news of highly cited and “top news” stories on this situation, less than a quarter included a link to the Tablet story that broke this. Shameful! Some may have included the author name, or the name of the magazine — but not the super-difficult link. Look, here it is again!

Giving credit where credit is due helps us as both readers and creators to know where information is from to help judge its accuracy, but also to effectively build upon already existing knowledge.

Perhaps this is because I come from a field where sometimes there are three footnotes per sentence (yes, this is too far on the other side of the spectrum), but there is often a lack of proper citation in journalism and popular writing. I left out a supposed Einstein quote from my latest academic article because the source I found it in didn’t cite a source and I couldn’t find it elsewhere. If I had left it in, perhaps an Einstein fan would be contacting me!

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