Curate Yourself! Starring Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lehrer resigned from The New Yorker after it was discovered he’d fabricated a series of “quotes” from Bob Dylan. Thinking you could get away with putting words in the mouth of the most obsessively studied songwriter of the last 100 years might mean Lehrer possessed a Rasputin-like notion of his own indestructibility. Or, it could say less about Lehrer specifically and more about a transformation in ideas of what we expect from media and entertainment.

I wrote about a similar issue earlier this year when I laced into a Verizon commercial that ripped off an SNL ad parody from the early 1990s. What struck me about that Verizon commercial was not only how blatant the concept robbery was, but how long it took me to notice it, which indicated either no one else had noticed it or the world at large was completely unconcerned with the theft.

The Verizon spot didn’t run for very long–suggesting perhaps they got cold feet about such wanton thievery–but it also didn’t garner much outrage outside of media types, ad-centric blogs, and weird trainspotters like myself. Google “Verizon SNL bad idea” and the aforementioned Scratchbomb post is fourth from the top, which is usually a good sign that nobody cares about a subject but me.

When thinking about Verizon’s ripoff and why no one seemed to care, it occurred to me that in our reference-oriented culture, there is no longer a shared concept of what constitutes stealing an idea.

So many folks out there in TV Land may interpret this Verizon ad as more of an homage to Bad Idea Jeans than a ripoff. And for all I know, the ad’s creators may honestly see it that way, too. They don’t think they’ve “gotten away” with something; they think they’re playing by the New Rules. What passes for a new idea in the 21st century is being the first guy to complete bite something we’ve seen before.

While the Jonah Lehrer incident is a bit of a different animal, I think they’re in the same wing of the zoo. Both reflect a shift in attitudes in what both the writer and the reader expect from content.

Recall that when Lehrer first landed in hot water, it was for self-plagiarism, which means he took large chunks of things he’d already written and inserted them into “new” pieces. Lehrer was getting paid a lot of money to deliver content to publications that ask readers to pay for that content, which carries with it an expectation that said content will be exclusive and not a content-loaf made of literary byproducts.

And yet, when Lehrer’s self-plagiarism was first exposed, many reactions were along the lines of “So what? He wrote it, he can do what he wants with it.” Lehrer had the good fortune to commit his offense in an age that thrives on recycling like this, and while he was forced to apologize, most folks either judged this an innocent mistake or failed to see why some people made such a big deal out of it. So much of what passes for content today is recycled or repurposed–listicles, slideshows, collections of GIFs and meme photos, very little of it attributed to any source but the person who collected it in one place and hit PUBLISH. How was what Lehrer did any different, really? said his apologists.

The distance from the relatively mild crime of self-plagiarism to the unforgivable sin of Making Stuff Up is closer than it appears. Because I think the same impulse that led him to recycle his own writing led him to use fake quotes; namely, a literary self-love that transcended earthly ideals like truth and fact checking.

I doubt that Lehrer made up the Dylan quotes off the top of the dome to support his work. More likely, he sprinkled half-remembered phrases into his work, sincerely believing he’d heard Dylan say them somewhere, some time. Then, he fell so much in love with how these “quotes” looked in his prose and how they bolstered his point that he lost any desire to verify them. Whether Dylan said them or not was immaterial. What mattered was he might have said them, and anyway, see how pretty a Bob Dylan quote looks on the page!

What happens to many writers, I feel, is that once they’ve set down a certain “stage” for whatever it is they’re working on, it becomes very difficult to strike the set. They fall in love with what they’ve made and don’t want to engage in the destructive work of starting over. Add to this the fact that very few editors nowadays really edit in the classic Raymond Carver/Gordon Lish sense, and you get a recipe for trouble.

What’s scary is that Lehrer might have continued on in this vein if he hadn’t made the idiotic mistake of misquoting an artist whose every word has been studied within an inch of its life. When you misquote Bob Dylan, some dedicated maniac out there with a first printing of Tarantula is going to sniff it out. Had Lehrer misquoted someone whose oeuvre is even slightly less examined, chances are it would have gone undetected for years, perhaps forever.

The question then is, why did he do it? Lehrer rose through as traditional and elite a world as possible. He graduated from Columbia. He was a Rhodes Scholar. He wrote for the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe. I don’t know much about his background, but considering all these factors, and the fact that he bought the Shulman House in LA for $2.25 million two years ago, I’ll go out on a limb and say he isn’t a Beverly Hillbilly. He comes, I assume, from a world of money and privilege, which means he shouldn’t really have a striver’s mentality of doing whatever it takes to get ahead and maintain his position. If he failed to keep his job at The New Yorker, he probably wouldn’t fall into a bottomless pit of poverty and want.

So I have to think his crimes where inspired less by stress and drive and more by our culture. Modern entertainment has evolved from creating to curating. Finding something and pointing to it saying, “Look at this cool thing!” is now considered on the same level as actually making that thing. Lehrer simply elevated this to a whole other level: He curated himself.

As this sorry tale unfolded, I thought back to a piece Lehrer wrote for Grantland last year, one that infuriated me at the time but now seems especially ironic. In it, Lehrer wondered aloud if sabermetrics and “math” were ruining sports. It’s the kind of article you’ve read a million times, written by a local sports columnist who thinks all new statistical acronyms are hilarious. (“VORP! What the hell is VORP?!”) What made it especially weird is that Lehrer is a neuroscientist, someone who should have an appreciation for stats and what they bring to sports.

On first read, the Grantland article read very oddly, as if he was a reformed egghead who was apologetic for his nerdy ways and ready to side with the jocks. He cherry-picked details to show that the Dallas Mavericks worked their way to an NBA title in 2011 more on personnel than numbers, despite ample evidence to the contrary. And he wrote words like this, which even Mike Lupica would reject for their triteness.

…sabermetrics comes with an important drawback. Because it translates sports into a list of statistics, the tool can also lead coaches and executives to neglect those variables that can’t be quantified. They become so obsessed with the power of base runs that they undervalue the importance of not being an asshole, or having playoff experience, or listening to the coach. Such variables are the sporting equivalent of a nice dashboard. They can’t be quantified, but they still count.

How fitting that Lehrer would embrace a view of sports that rejects explanation or examination. He nearly made a career on it–and our new notions about content nearly let him.

  • Amber Sexton

    I like your take on it, but reading the initial takedown of him in Tablet, in a few cases it seemed much more intentionally done to bolster his thesis. The most interesting thing in the Michael Moynihan piece in that mag, was what he did to distort the meaning of a true anecdote and quote.

  • Amber Sexton

    And I agree with the fact that it’s Dylan is why no one noticed, what’s going to happen now, is people are going to examine all his work and find more problems like this. Yes he has a masters degree in neuroscience. But now that seems strange to me, who gets a masters in that? Don’t you normally become a doctor or PhD if you are really good at it? I bet he’s got some fakery in his academic writing as well.