Hacker News new | comments | show | ask | jobs | submit login
Jonah Lehrer Resigns From The New Yorker After Making Up Quotes (mediadecoder.blogs.nytimes.com)
99 points by kevinalexbrown on July 30, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 72 comments

Just in case you're skimming: this comes at the end of a bit of a saga for Lehrer, who had also been discovered "plagiarizing himself", recycling significant chunks of previously-published work in new New Yorker pieces. No doubt there's been a fine-toothed comb running through everything he's done since that first story broke.

At the same time Gladwell (another New Yorker writer) was exposed for being a corporate shill, something quite more serious. Nothing happened.

I've never heard of this until now. Reading the article people have mentioned below:


Well, it's a really badly written article, full of "association" but I can't really find anything damning, just a bunch of innuendo, which could be invented about most any sufficiently prolific journalist.

I've read a lot of Gladwell's writing -- the only main theme I can find is that he just tends to write articles that fly in the face of received wisdom. That's his whole shtick. He plays devil's advocate.

So obviously, if he defends unpopular positions, you can read into that all you want, but I don't see any real evidence that it's ideological or driven by corporate support. It's just his writing style, and you can probably find just as many counter-examples.

No, being a "corporate shill" is not "quite more serious" than fabricating quotes.

It depends what the magnitude of the transgression is, and whether you are a journalist or non-journalist.

If you are a journalist, the faking of a quote, even if it's something as benign as, "Sally Smith, an 8-year-old from Chicago, said, 'I really love the clowns. They mak eme smile'" is punishable by the (journalistic) death penalty. No one was harmed, especially if 'Sally Smith' was herself made up, yet such a writer would have a very, very hard time finding work at a reputable non-fiction publication.

To a non-journalist (who, in this case, is anti-fossil-fuel), though, someone who worked in the Exxon PR department as an entry level job out of college and then worked his/her way into a respectable columnist position, would always have the taint of Big Oil Money...even if said columnist never fabricated a quote in his/her career.

Interesting. The real life example of the non-journalist who took an entry level job in a field he later covered would be Michael Lewis, author of "Liar's Poker" and "The Big Short". Even though both books condemn the excesses and stupidity of his former industry, and even though "Liar's Poker" ended up having the unintended consequence of drawing new hires because of the excesses, I still wouldn't consider him a shill for the investment banks.

  > To a non-journalist (who, in this case, is anti-fossil-fuel)
Was that necessary? BTW, I am not against use of fossil fuels. Misdirected ad-hominem.

Oops, sorry. No, it wasn't directed at you. Sorry, the hypothetical non-journalist.

My point was that the consequences of the transgressions of plagiarism and shilling are relative to whether you're a non-journalist or a journalist, and less so about the actual worldly-impact of such transgressions.

IOW, both you and tptacek are right...but it depends on from what perspective you're looking at this from. Lehrer will likely never get a writing gig as prestigious as the New Yorker, even though what he allegedly did pretty much hurts no one (but the trivial truth).

Another example: in the military, lying about a medal is hugely dishonorable -- the U.S. Navy's supreme commander committed suicide when Newsweek questioned two "valor" pins. But you could be a commander whose decisions resulted in needless destruction/deaths and still get an honorable discharge. The latter case had more actual real-life impact, but the former case resulted in more "punishment" within the group.

"No, being a 'corporate shill' is not 'quite more serious' than fabricating quotes."

How do you figure? Do you actually think that corporate shills cause less harm to society than people fabricating a few (largely inconsequential) quotes?

> Do you actually think that corporate shills cause less harm to society than people fabricating a few (largely inconsequential) quotes?

If I'm allowed to parenthetically assume that the shilling also is "largely inconsequential", then yes, it causes less harm.

If you actually look at the quotes made up by most of these journalists, they are mostly things about the weather that day and the color of the house or whatever. Look at the actual quotes from the Jason Blaire scandal, it's all completely trivial stuff.

On the other hand, it's hard to argue that cigarettes aren't actually dangerous, since they kill around 500,000 Americans per year.

Coming up with ways your customer is right isn't necessarily offensive, so long as he isn't lying. Being biased in the way that you're paid to isn't necessarily evil, though it's arguably more questionable, but this is how advertising, law, consumer advocacy and other entire industries work.

Accentuate the positives, believe the same truths your customers believe.

If you're a journalist, whose job it is to report the truth and nothing more, lying of any sort is arguably the gravest offense you can commit (short of rape, murder, etc.)

Fabricating quotes is doing a sloppy, lazy job of defending one's position. Selling one's position, on the other hand, is clearly more serious.

This sounds like a defense of "truthiness" to me. A position not defensible with facts is an indefensible position. If you look at the media you find those corners of the media with an atmosphere of truthiness are those that produce the most harmful positions.

"making stuff up" is worse than "constructing a biased argument"

Making up Dylan quotes seems a lot more benign than discouraging people from suing tobacco companies and saying Ritalin is safe.

Making up shameful quotes for a prominant politician seems a lot less benign than discouraging people from purchasing a competitor's product.

"I like to grab old women's tits from behind, they never know what's coming" laughed the mayoral candidate in a private moment last night. By the way, Coke is better than Pepsi.

Even if that were the case (not IMHO) it's still very bad and Gladwell just brushed it off.

"Comparing being a shill to fabricating quotes is preposterous, they are such different things that have a huge and overlapping spectrum of possible impact" -Ben Franklin

random source from the Wikipedia article: http://exiledonline.com/malcolm-gladwell-unmasked-a-look-int...

That source is atrocious

I disagree. Gladwell's long standing self-disclosure is a serious analysis on his own motivations and corporate relationships. http://www.gladwell.com/disclosure.html . Claiming that he is a corporate shill seems unfair. Despite his "igonvalues" issues, I haven't seen any serious corporate bias in his works. Are you sure your own remarks aren't due to some bias that you may have?

To what are you referring? And how did this fly completely out of my radar?

Top link from googling "gladwell corporate shill"



  * pushed ritalin for big pharma
  * defending tobacco corporations on settlements
  * advocating for financial deregulation
  * and defending Enron executives
Allegedly rewarded $1m/yr for speaking by undisclosed corporations. Significantly more than what he makes as journalist or writer.

This case against Gladwell as a corporate shill is weak. The article cherry-picks a handful of controversial (sometimes wrong, whatever) positions that align with corporate interests. Note that not all of his positions do, the entire thesis of Outliers is offensive to many in the corporate world.

There's no evidence of a quid pro quo anywhere.

Quid pro quo is a red herring. Conflicts of interest rarely work that way. They are more subtle than that, so we can keep our self-image of being neutral when in fact our actions have been corrupted. There is much experimental work being done on this. Here is a (long, but relevant) quote from a recent post by Dan Ariely on the topic:

The real issue here is that people don’t understand how profound the problem of conflicts of interest really is, and how easy it is to buy people. Doctors on Pfizer’s payroll may think they’re not being influenced by the drug maker — “I can still be objective!” they’ll say — but in reality, it’s very hard for us not to be swayed by money. Even minor amounts of it. Or gifts. Studies have found that doctors who receive free lunches or samples from pharmaceutical reps end up prescribing more of the company’s drugs afterwards. It’s just a fact of human life: we are compelled to reciprocate favors, and an ingrained inability to disregard what’s in our financial interest. As author Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” http://danariely.com/2012/07/09/disclosure-not-good-enough/

As I understand it, the experimental evidence is clear that measures like self-regulation, intuitive judgement, and disclosure are nowhere near sufficient to prevent the corrupting effects of conflicts of interest. What we need are new, simple rules grounded in the empirical findings. We're a long way from that, and it seems that such rules are likely to seem pretty extreme by today's standards, but as long as the science continues to pile up this way it seems like we will eventually have a shot at cleaning things up.

I see where you're coming from, but I worry about the standard of evidence being thrown around. Is anyone who says something that aligns with a corporate interest a "shill"? It seems to be easy to allege and impossible to disprove.

Surely there is a gradation at some point along which a word like "shill" becomes applicable. I don't know where that line is. Is anyone who says something that aligns with a corporate interest plus takes a million dollars from said interest a "shill"?

I like a good muckraking as much as the next guy but in the end, judging individual actors as "shills" or whatever obscures the important issues, which are systemic. It may even be that tarring a few people as shills and frauds is a big mistake insofar as the rest of us then take that as a license to let ourselves off the hook.

In my opinion academia, medicine, and journalism (to pick three pretty important institutions) are all corrupt in this systemic way, a way that has little to do with individual choice (apart from a few ethically gifted souls whom we can all admire but mostly won't imitate) and much to do with human nature. And this is a big, big deal because it deeply affects what those institutions are producing. Think of all the work done on how big pharma gets doctors to push their product into people who don't need it, or about how journalists are mollified by "access" (friendly personal contact) with powerful people they're covering.

The really great thing about what researchers like Ariely are doing is that it could lead to an objective basis for preventing the conditions for corruption from arising in the first place. Can you imagine what a difference that would make to society?

There may be no explicit quid pro quo, but he definitely functions as a shill would. He may be objective and contrarian in his own mind, and yet desire to please the powerful like any other human. He gets a ton of money for speaking to corporations, which he would not if he spoke against them.

Wow, the case is really weak. And I don't even like Malcolm Gladwell.

In 2007, Gladwell took up the financial industry’s cause. He argued that Enron’s investors were to blame for their losses, rather than accounting fraud, which he dismissed. His "analysis" was debunked and mocked by U.C. Berkeley Economics Professor Brad DeLong.

That same year, 2007, Gladwell hailed ex-Goldman Sachs CEO Hank Paulson’s move to head the Treasury Department, praising him for being among those “self-selected toward public service. . . ” Gladwell did not mention that Paulson saved himself roughly $100 million in taxes by moving straight from Goldman Sachs to Treasury.

He's a contrarian. Maybe wrong, maybe even stupid. But that is different than corruption.

Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to have affected his popularity, his income, or people's tendency to suspend rational thought and go ga-ga over his latest profundity.

The full AP story has more info at the bottom. http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5iEB7lzn2h8...

Among Lehrer's inventions was a quote that first appeared in the famous documentary from the mid-1960s, "Don't Look Back," in which Dylan tells a reporter about his songs that "I just write them. There's no great message." In "Imagine," Lehrer adds a third sentence — "Stop asking me to explain" — that does not appear in the film.

According to Tablet, Lehrer also invented quotes on how Dylan wrote "Like a Rolling Stone" and, when confronted about them, alleged that he had been granted access to an uncut version of "No Direction Home," a Dylan documentary made by Martin Scorsese. Lehrer now says he never saw such footage.

Still curious to see a full account of all the Dylan quotes in question. Anyone have it?

I have no idea. But I'm all but certain they'll turn out to be perfectly banal, expected things that Dylan certainly "could have" said. People don't invent or plagiarize blogbuster news. The cheat on the dumb stuff that no one will bother to check.

Not to defend Lehrer exactly, but this is a kind of situation where hackers don't have a lot of experience to draw on to aid interpretation. It's not possible to "cheat" your way to working software. But in the world of journalism, it really is possible to fill out an article based on nothing but a little creativity. Combine that with the severe time and performance pressure these people can be under, and the temptation to cheat must be immense.

This is a great point. I'm a working programmer and journalist...In the latter profession, there is no greater, clear-cut sin than making things up. The second is to not plagiarize...but what constitutes plagiarism can differ among different opinion-holders.

I can't think of a ethical parallel in programming. I mean, there's copying of proprietary code but that's also a criminal violation. Plagiarism and fabrication can be done without incurring criminal charges, but it's basically the end of a career in journalism.

The point is that even though these transgressions seem minor in quantity, for a professional journalist to have justified committing them requires either a total burst of sudden professional insanity...or a long, undiscovered history of other transgressions.

"The point is that even though these transgressions seem minor in quantity, for a professional journalist to have justified committing them requires either a total burst of sudden professional insanity...or a long, undiscovered history of other transgressions." <<+100 -- as a journalist, i think this is the most insightful comment on this thread. I suspect even more will come out.

I would argue that passing insecure systems off as secure, like what we saw with Tesco today, would count as unethical. That's a case where you can cut corners and nobody might notice for a while, and the system in question seemingly works.

Yes, I agree that would be unethical and should be a career-killer. But that's a decision arguably made possible by several layers of incompetent management, not just one manager or coder. Higher-level managers can say that they aren't expected to know of the technical details. And coders can blame the result on legacy systems that they had to interact with. The buck does not stop as cleanly at one person as it does in the case of the writer who plagiarizes/fabricates.

Moreover, journalistic writing is very public. Your byline is attached to a piece that was seen by at least a few hundred, if not hundreds of thousands of people. If you get called out on fabrication/plagiarism, well, people are going to know about it. Editors and proofreaders rarely get called out by name for mistakes. But that's irrelevant, since an editor/proofreader isn't really in the position to fabricate/plagiarize in a writer's piece...they're there to edit/fix/separate-the-chaff-from-the-wheat-and-keep-the-chaff

Tablet's been on and offline all day, I'd imagine from server overload--- Michael Moynihan, the author, was the one who originally broke the story with his investigations.

My favorite part of this mess is that Jad Abumrad (one of the two guys behind Radiolab which, I think, is extremely messy with its science) called the initial ousting of Lehrer when he recycled passages a "cheap moral crusade."[1]

[1]: https://twitter.com/jadabumrad/status/218042197826732033

To be fair, the "self plagiarizing" thing got way out of hand.

It's a little bit not cool to not tell your audience that you've recycled some of your own columns. But… at the time I really didn't see any grounds for all the cries of lèse majesté.

Agreed. Reasonably large chunks of material in A-list pubs was probably over the line of accepted practice. But way, way different from plagiarizing someone else or making stuff up. In general, I don't find anything especially wrong with judiciously reusing material. If I've explained XYZ tech in an article in the past, I may well cut-and-paste that paragraph, reworking it a bit for flow, if I need the same explanation again. Similarities might well be sufficient to be called plagiarism if it were someone else I cut-and-pasted.

That said, I would be a lot more conservative in the case of a commissioned article from a major publication.

It is easy to call the Radio lab guys "messy" but it is a lot harder to tell compelling science stories that fit the medium and the audience. If you can name a better general-audience radio show about science, I will eat my tote bag.

Radiolab is incredibly compelling, I agree. I listen to every episode. I can't think of a more entertaining science radio show, but we need to define "better" if you want me to name a better one. There are certainly more scientifically accurate and informative shows, like Science Friday and Car Talk, and The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

Radiolab is so entertaining because it's willing to compromise accuracy - and sometimes any tie to reality as with the whale-thanking-the-diver episode - for the sake of a good story. And because of this, it's hard to call it a science show, just like it's hard to call Armageddon a science movie.

His link to Aaron Sorkin's recycled dialogue is hilarious. (Fortunately Sorkin writes fiction.)

I understand that making up quotes is illegal and unethical but is using prior work acceptable as long as you cite it (I'm not a journalist)

I'm not sure I understand how anyone can plagiarize themselves either. Isn't that just called "recycling your own material"? For example, several parts of David Foster Wallace's speech/book This Is Water are pretty much verbatim from Infinite Jest. Or what about authors who are pushing ideologies and repeat themselves a lot? For example, there's a lot of overlap between Ayn Rand's novels Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Isn't this just what writers do?

I think the problem was that his deal with the New Yorker meant he would create original work for them. I'm sure it's okay when they are your own books that you sell to publishers, and the publishers are aware of the overlap in content, but in this case he was supposed to be writing new, original pieces for the New Yorker.

Reminds me of the episode where John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival fame was sued by a former label for recording a song that was too similar to one he had recorded prior with another record label.


I'm a journalist -- technically you can't plagiarize yourself, so while not best form, it's not really anything "wrong." And often there's certain phrases that as a writer you are going to use over and again (he took it well beyond that though). So that's why he was still around. But yes making up quotes is WAY across the line. I'm curious if he just up and resigned knowing he would be fired; if I were his boss, I'd rather fire him to make sure people know how serious his transgressions are.

Self-plagiarism is most definitely not as "wrong" as plagiarizing from someone else. But in some contexts, the amount of work you've produced for esteemed publications is essentially part of your prestige and resume. To have significant number of pieces actually just be recycled material, while bragging about how you were published in X, Y, Z magazine, is looked down upon.

Agreed Danso. Although think it could be argued technically that it's not "plagarism," but could be considered to be ripping off the people who paid you for the article. And there is copyright issues depending on who owns it. And, of course, it's sleezy at the amount he did it. So maybe several levels here.

I don't know the facts here.

In author land, you may have sold the publication rights to the prior work to someone, and you may not have reprint/derivative works rights without a new deal.

You can see rights clearances on the copyright pages of some of your favorite novels, anthologies, and story collections: "Portions of this work appeared in a substantially different form in ANALOG June 2005."

When I see this in magazines and newspapers the credit to prior work is often in italics at the end. I guess I assumed cash (or backscratching) was on the line for them.

It is interesting that this duplicate submission (submitted 14 minutes after http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4314048 ) is on the front page, while the original submission only has one upvote :)

[edit]: response to th0ma5: As the smiley and the comment should have made clear - this is not a matter of anyone being "too upset" about anything (and you th0ma5 were the only person investigating and talking about karma :)

Btw in spite of the downvotes, the comment is back in positive territory, so presumably, other people disagree with your comments about what is OT

As for the title, the NYT headline doesn't fit into 80 chars, which is why one submission removed "Dylan" and the other removed "New Yorker"

Well, you have more karma by far, so hopefully you're not too upset :D This link mentions the affiliation so perhaps it just gets more attention because of that. I have been in this spot often, but in general meta-HN stuff is a bit OT, so sorry heh.

> "The lies are over now," he said. "I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologize to everyone I have let down, especially my editors and readers."

This reads as "I am so so sorry that I got caught."

Sounds like the story of Stephen Glass, whose meteoric rise at The New Republic was halted when it surfaced that many of his articles were made up (in part or in whole). There was a movie about it starring Hayden Christensen. Pretty interesting stuff.

It's fascinating how a promising young journalist gets busted every few years for making things up. I wonder how prevalent this is.

Sad. Too many people operate with the motto 'its not illegal if you don't get caught'. It nearly always turns out badly for them.

Jonah Lehrer famously said "I'll never get caught, you can't catch me." and "If I get caught I'll eat my shoe." At least, that's what I've just made up and attributed to him.

"You are skirting dangerously close to creating a meme here." -- Jonah Lehrer

Well, we know the ones it turns out badly for. Who knows how many out there got away with it.

True enough. And sometimes people think they got away with it and then it catches up to them unexpectedly. Like schraeds comment (which you can see if you show dead) its even worse when they might otherwise be contributing useful stuff.

Nonsurvivorship bias.

I love the irony of being fired for making up shit about Dylan, a noted "borrower" of other people's ideas himself!

Now some people are bothered because a guy who sells a bunch of books, made up quotes. Well, in academy this is the rule, most citations are just skimmed and put in papers just because they sound arcane/profound. If people are buying, shame on editors, who not revised well. Even worse, why on earth the source is more important than content? Status seeking is what people do when trying to signal intelligence. Maintaining a track of published book/posts like most writers/popscience/ do is not easy. If you are already on the staff, is more efficient to manage to become permanent, then trying to be "moral". And all this time, only now someone accused him. I doubt very seriusly he'll become unemployed for this.

It is not the rule in academia that people just make up quotes. Not any place I was ever at, anyway.

In academia, quotes and excerpts are cited. They can be verified. Many publications do verify (at least a random selection of) the citations in an article they are publishing.

At least he was caught before he became another Stephen Glass.

Sounds like another Johan Hari:


although to his credit Lehrer probably wasn't editing his rivals' wikipedia pages and writing gay incest porn.

Slightly off topic: what's with the barrage of "Mr" and "Mr"? Is this proper american english? He even writes "Mr. Dylan" like he is some unknown guy.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact