The bizarre digital flogging of disgraced New Yorker writer Jonah Lehrer

Chris Gayomali
The Week
“I have broken their trust,” Lehrer says.

Lehrer addressed his plagiarism scandal against a backdrop of humiliating tweets

On Tuesday, disgraced science writer Jonah Lehrer publicly apologized for a plagiarism scandal that led to his abrupt resignation from The New Yorker in 2012. At an event hosted by the Knight Foundation, an organization known for championing quality journalism, Lehrer spoke about plagiarism, how he plans to rehabilitate his toxic career, and the difficult lessons he's purportedly learned along the way. "My failures were my fault alone," he said. "But entangled in that truth is a possibility for improvement. Not redemption, not forgiveness."

What made the entire spectacle especially strange was that Lehrer gave his talk against a giant screen of endless tweets that mocked him as he spoke. Using the hashtag #infoneeds, commentators populated the feed with missives that seemed designed to further shame the author — a scarlet letter for the modern age:

My soul apparently contains a disappointing lack of forgiveness. #infoneeds

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— Adam Rogers (@jetjocko) February 12, 2013

So I'm confused-- is Jonah Lehrer more like Niels Bohr or Charles Darwin? #infoneeds

— Laura Helmuth (@laurahelmuth) February 12, 2013

What is the psychological explanation of quote fabrication? #infoneeds

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— carlzimmer (@carlzimmer) February 12, 2013

Staffer at Wired told me that mag wanted JL to write "the science of why I lied." Apparently this is that piece #infoneeds

— Michael C Moynihan (@mcmoynihan) February 12, 2013

Of course, not everyone was comfortable with the Knight Foundation's decision to thrust Lehrer in the digital town square:

RT @ chanders:Inviting Jonah Lehrer to speak at #infoneeds may represent a level of trolling I did not think @ knightfdn was capable of.

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— felix salmon (@felixsalmon) February 11, 2013

Jonah Lehrer's crimes are significant, but apologizing in front of a giant-screen Twitter feed seems cruel and unusual punishment #infoneeds

— Daniel Engber (@danengber) February 12, 2013

It's kind of sobering to watch the Science Journalists circle and begin eating their young #infoneeds

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— Hope Jahren (@HopeJahren) February 12, 2013

Lehrer's speech itself received mixed reviews. "If I'm lucky enough to write again, than whatever I write will be fact-checked and fully footnoted," Lehrer insisted, in discussing his hope to return to journalism. Forbes' Jeff Bercovici sees the apparent "humblebrag" as a cold ploy to revive his career. "Lehrer's intention in submitting himself to a public grilling was to show the world that he's ready to return to journalism, that we can trust him because he knows now not to trust himself," says Bercovici. Wired writer David Dobbs, a friend of Lehrer's, voiced his reservations about the Knight Foundation's decision to tap Lehrer as speaker. "I feel I would fool myself badly, and betray his enormous potential, if I pretended he didn't have a lot to answer for before he's ushered back to podiums," says Dobbs.

According to Poynter, the science writer took home a handsome $20,000 for the appearance, so it's understandably hard to feel bad for him, insults be damned. Ever the contortionist, Lehrer concluded his talk with a quote from the very person he stands accused of fabricating material from in the first place. "I'd like to end with a quote from Bob Dylan, one he actually said," Lehrer told the audience. "For Dylan manages to compress a brutal fact of life: 'Failure is both necessary and terrible.'" 

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Insufferable? A few critics think so. Perhaps this line from "Brownsville Girl" would have been more fitting:

People don't do what they believe in. They just do what's most convenient, then they repent.

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