This is a column about Jonah Lehrer, the 31-year-old disgraced former New Yorker writer who recently — sigh — landed a contract for a book about love. (Yes, love.) But I want to start by recalling another disgraced former magazine writer: Stephen Glass.
Glass was once a Washington wunderkind who wrote remarkable articles filled with fabulous scenes and quotes. It turned out, of course, that many of the scenes and quotes were figments of Glass’ imagination and that 42 of his articles, spanning 21/2 years, were either partially or entirely fabricated.
The New Republic, his primary employer, fired him. Other magazines that had published his work announced investigations. And, to complete his humiliation, a movie was made about how Glass’ fabrications had been exposed by The New Republic’s editor at the time, Charles Lane.
In the decade and a half since he was quite properly drummed out of journalism, Glass has led an exemplary life. After his disgrace, he vowed to live honorably and honestly, and he has. He underwent years of psychotherapy to come to terms with what he did. He asked for forgiveness from those whom had he betrayed.
And, in 2004, he went to work as a paralegal for a lawyer in Los Angeles who often represents the homeless. For years, Glass has been trying to get admitted to the California bar, but the bar association has been fighting him, saying that he lacks the appropriate character to be a lawyer. Yet I can’t think of anyone more deserving of a second chance than Stephen Glass.
And I can’t think of anyone less deserving of one than Jonah Lehrer.
It hasn’t even been a year since the first of Lehrer’s journalistic sins was uncovered: He was routinely recycling previous work for a pop science blog he had begun at The New Yorker. (His works seem consciously modeled on Malcolm Gladwell’s.) Then, Michael Moynihan, writing in The Tablet magazine, dropped a bombshell: In his best-selling book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, Lehrer had made up quotes attributed to Bob Dylan. Moynihan followed up with examples of good old-fashioned plagiarism in an earlier Lehrer book. Several people who had been quoted by Lehrer said that they had never uttered the words he attributed to them. Inevitably, The New Yorker and Wired, where Lehrer also wrote, cut their ties with him. At which point Lehrer was left to . . . well, what exactly?
He certainly didn’t spend his time atoning. After he was exposed, he issued a statement saying that “the lies are over now” and that he was sorry for what he had done. Then he went dark. I tried to reach him several times; I was intensely interested in why someone with his talent and future would risk it all by doing things that could so easily be found out. He never responded.
Then, in February, he popped up at the Knight Foundation — “the nation’s leading journalism funder” — where he gave a speech titled My Apology. (Knight paid him $20,000, for which it later had to apologize itself.) The speech was anything but an apology. Rather, it was structured like one of his typical mini-Malcolm articles, with discursions into a big forensic mistake made by the FBI, the research of a cognitive neuroscientist and the work of a behavior economist. His central point was that for whatever reason, he couldn’t trust himself to do the right thing, so he needed a structure — a “standard operating procedure” — that would force him to do the right thing. As apologies go, it was both arrogant and pathetic.
Now comes his book on love, which was revealed earlier this week by Julie Bosman of The New York Times, who got ahold of his 65-page proposal. It is more of the same. Although the first seven paragraphs are about “my fall,” (“I have been found out. I puke into a recycling bin. And then I start to cry.”), the book is no memoir. Like his previous books, it is intended to be a work of pop science, an exploration into why and how we love. His chapter outline includes catchy phrases intended to move product. His attempts at literary sincerity come across as deeply phony. There is not much doubt about what is really going on here: Instead of atoning for the disgrace he brought on himself, Lehrer is trying to monetize it.
Although I was unable to speak to Lehrer, I did reach his editor at Simon & Schuster, Jonathan Karp, whom I’ve known and respected for years.
“He knows he can’t screw up again,” Karp told me. “I’m not defending what he did, but I think we ought to have a little compassion here. He’s not a journalist. He’s a writer, and an unusually talented one. Everyone deserves a second chance.”
Actually, they don’t. People who make a big mistake and want a second chance need to earn it. That’s the difference between Stephen Glass and Jonah Lehrer.