Jonah Lehrer, Bob Dylan, and journalistic unquotations

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I was shocked to read that Jonah Lehrer had quit his job at the New Yorker, after admitting that he fabricated some quotations from Bob Dylan in his recent book Imagine: How Creativity Works. I was shocked because what Lehrer did is consistent with the standard behavior of journalists, though perhaps not with the official story of what this behavior is supposed to be like. But the actual practice, in which journalists often put between quotation marks whatever representation of a source's opinions they feel that their narrative needs, was validated by judicial decision in a famous case involving another New Yorker writer 25 years ago — someone who is still on the magazine's staff.

Lehrer was challenged on his Dylan quotes by Michael C. Moynihan, who discusses the process in "Jonah Lehrer's Deceptions", The Tablet 7/30/2012:

I asked Lehrer about seven Bob Dylan quotes in the chapter—three of which aren’t detectable anywhere else, at least not in the forms in which they appear in the book; three others of which include portions of real Dylan quotes; and one that is dramatically removed from its original context to conform to the narrative of Imagine. […]

I was first troubled by Lehrer’s handling of a rather well-known Dylan remark, recounted in countless biographies and websites. Lehrer writes, “Whenever Dylan read about himself in the newspaper, he made the same observation: ‘God, I’m glad I’m not me,’ he said. ‘I’m glad I’m not that.’ ” But in his classic documentary of Dylan’s 1965 tour of the United Kingdom, Dont Look Back, D.A. Pennebaker’s camera catches the singer peering at a newspaper story about a recent concert and muttering, “God, I’m glad I’m not me.” Where the utterance used by Lehrer—“I’m glad I’m not that”—comes from is unknown, as there is no verifiable reference to Dylan ever saying this. […]

But then other, more troubling anomalies began to emerge. In another quote mined from Dont Look Back, in which Dylan is asked by a pestering Time magazine journalist about the inspiration for his songs, Lehrer quotes Dylan as saying: “I just write them. There’s no great message. Stop asking me to explain.” The last sentence sharpens and simplifies Lehrer’s point—that Dylan’s brilliance isn’t easily explicable. But it doesn’t appear in Dont Look Back. […]

I did manage to locate some of the unfootnoted material. Here is Lehrer, again, quoting Dylan on the supposedly chaotic process of writing “Like a Rolling Stone”: “ ‘I don’t think a song like ‘Rolling Stone’ could have been done any other way,’ Dylan insisted. ‘You can’t sit down and write that consciously. … What are you gonna do, chart it out?’ ” But this is actually comprised of two quotes, grafted together from two separate interviews: one conducted in 1984, in which Dylan discusses the process of recording (not writing) the song, and one from 1976, which doesn’t specifically mention “Like a Rolling Stone.”

Assuming that Moynihan is completely right about this stuff, how serious is it?

From occasional personal experience, I've learned that after being interviewed for a newspaper or magazine story, I can usually count on being quoted as saying things that I'm pretty sure that I never said. And seven or eight years ago, when large amounts of audio and transcripts began to appear on the web, I would occasionally have reason to compare the quotes that appeared in a story with a recording or transcript of the interview (or press conference or whatever) that the quotes came from. Despite my native cynicism, I was suprised to learn how little relationship there generally is between what people say, even in recorded material easily available to the public, and what they're quoted as saying in the media.

For some examples, see:

"What did Rasheed say?", 6/23/2005; "Ipsissima vox Rasheedi", 6/24/2005; "Ritual questions, ritual answers", 6/25/2005; "Down with journalists!", 6/27/2005; "Bringing journalism into the 21st century", 6/30/2005; "More comments on quotes", 7/1/2005; "Linguists beware", 7/9/2005; "Quotes from journalistic sources: unsafe at any speed", 7/9/2005; "'Quotations' with a word error rate of 40-60% and more", 7/30/2005; "This time it matters", 8/13/2005; "'Approximate' quotations can undermine readers' trust in the times", 8/27/2005.

After this flurry of blog-post reactions, I mostly gave up posting on the topic of journalistic unquotations, since I was starting to feel like a crank. It was clear that the practices that bothered me were standard ones, and working journalists who wrote to me about some of the posts were surprised and hurt that I should object to them. I tried to limit my subsequent posts on the topic to cases where the fabrications were relevant to some linguistic point, or involved "audio photoshopping", or were especially consequential for some other reason:

"Imaginary debates and stereotypical roles", 5/3/2006; "Journalists' quotations: unsafe in any mood", 5/24/2007; "In president, out president, fake president", 12/5/2008; "Audio photoshopping at NPR", 5/31/2007; "Filled pauses and faked audio", 12/28/2008; "More (dis)fluency and (in)coherence", 12/31/2008; "Egregious fabrication of quotes at the Sunday Times?", 1/29/2010.

So the only thing about the Lehrer incident that surprised me is that anyone felt that Lehrer's inventions were such a big deal that he was forced to resign. Is the difference just that Bob Dylan's exact words are a matter of scriptural reverence to some people? Why else would the reaction in this case be so different from the reaction to the famous case involving Janet Malcolm and Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson?

I've been reluctant to post about the Malcolm/Masson case in the past, because the issues are complex and the documentation is voluminous. The basic background, as Wikipedia explains, is that

Articles published in The New Yorker, and in Malcolm's subsequent book In The Freud Archives, triggered a $10 million legal challenge by psychoanalyst Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, former project director for the Freud Archives. In his 1984 lawsuit, Masson claimed that Malcolm had libelled him by fabricating quotations attributed to him; these quotes, Masson contended, had brought him into disrepute.

When the case finally went to trial, Masson lost — essentially, as I understand it, on free speech grounds. Masson was a public figure, and Malcolm could not be proved to have made stuff up out of actual malice. But I can't read the decisions in the case without coming to the conclusion that she did make stuff up — and her inventions seem to have been more numerous, and much more consequential, than Lehrer's.

The 1989 decision by the United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit (881 F.2d 1452) considers eight instances of fabricated or misleadingly edited quotations. You can read the court's summary of the details in the section of the decision under the heading "The Challenged Quotations". Here's the first one:

Malcolm quoted Masson as stating that he changed his middle name from Lloyd to Moussaieff because "it sounded better." This statement does not appear in tape-recorded interviews. On the tape recordings, Masson states that he changed his middle name to Moussaieff because, inter alia, he "just liked it."

The district court stated that it could "see little difference between Masson's own words and those attributed to him by Malcolm." Accordingly, the district court held that the evidence Masson presented showing a discrepancy between his statements on the tape and those attributed to him in the article was "not sufficient to raise a triable question of fact on the issue of actual malice."

We agree with the district court's observation. We cannot perceive any substantive difference between the phrases "it sounded better" and "[I] just liked it." Thus, although Malcolm did not quote Masson verbatum, the words attributed to him did not alter the substantive content of his statement. The district court did not err in granting summary judgment against Masson concerning the words "it sounded better."

Here's the second one:

Malcolm quotes Masson as stating, in discussing an affair with a graduate student:

She [the graduate student] said, "Well, it is very nice sleeping with you in your room, but you're the kind of person who should never leave the room–you're just a social embarrassment anywhere else, though you do fine in your own room." And, you know, in their way, if not in so many words, Eissler and Anna Freud told me the same thing. They like me well enough "in my own room." They loved to hear from me what creeps and dolts analysts are. I was like an intellectual gigolo–you get your pleasure from him, but you don't take him out in public. (emphasis added).

The italicized portion of the above quote is not in the tape-recordings. It does appear, however, in Malcolm's interview notes.

Masson contended below that both the quotation and Malcolm's notes were fabricated. The district court assumed for the purpose of disposing the summary judgment motion that Masson did not refer to himself as an intellectual gigolo. The district court noted, however, that the tape of this conversation contains the following comment:

[Eissler and Anna Freud] felt, in a sense, I [Masson] was a private asset but a public liability. They like me when I was alone in their living room, and I could talk and chat and tell them the truth about things and they would tell me. But that I was, in a sense, much too junior within the hierarchy of analysis, for these important training analysts to be caught dead with me.

The court held that malice could not be inferred from the purported fabrication because Malcolm's "use of the descriptive term 'intellectual gigolo' was a rational interpretation of [these] … comments." The district court opined further that "[t]he descriptive term 'intellectual gigolo,' as used in this context, simply means that Masson's views were privately entertaining, but publicly embarrassing to Freud and Eissler."

We believe that the district court accurately assessed Malcolm's interpretation of Masson's characterization of the views of Eissler and Anna Freud. While it may be true that Masson did not use the words "intellectual gigolo," Malcolm's interpretation did not alter the substantive content of Masson's description of himself as a "private asset but a public liability" to Eissler and Anna Freud. The district court did not err in determining that Masson did not prove by clear and convincing evidence that Malcolm acted with malice in attributing the words "intellectual gigolo" to Masson.

And you can read more of the same in that decision — or you can read the legal and factul issues discussed in some of the other court opinions the case, such as the U.S. Supreme Court opinion (Masson v. New Yorker Magazine, Inc. (89-1799), 501 U.S. 496 (1991)):

Each passage before us purports to quote a statement made by petitioner during the interviews. Yet in each instance no identical statement appears in the more than 40 hours of taped interviews. Petitioner complains that Malcolm fabricated all but one passage; with respect to that passage, he claims Malcolm omitted a crucial portion, rendering the remainder misleading. […]

Malcolm quoted petitioner as describing his plans for Maresfield Gardens, which he had hoped to occupy after Anna Freud's death:

" `It was a beautiful house, but it was dark and sombre and dead. Nothing ever went on there. I was the only person who ever came. I would have renovated it, opened it up, brought it to life. Maresfield Gardens would have been a center of scholarship, but it would also have been a place of sex, women, fun. It would have been like the change in The Wizard of Oz, from black-and-white into color.' " In the Freud Archives 33.

The tape recordings contain a similar statement, but in place of the reference to "sex, women, fun," and The Wizard of Oz, petitioner commented:

"[I]t is an incredible storehouse. I mean, the library, Freud's library alone is priceless in terms of what it contains: all his books with his annotations in them; the Schreber case annotated, that kind of thing. It's fascinating." App. 127.

Petitioner did talk, earlier in the interview, of his meeting with a London analyst:

"I like him. So, and we got on very well. That was the first time we ever met and you know, it was buddybuddy, and we were to stay with each other and [laughs] we were going to pass women on to each other, and we were going to have a great time together when I lived in the Freud house. We'd have great parties there and we were [laughs] —

I'm not defending either Lehrer or Malcolm — I agree with Justice Kennedy's observation that

In general, quotation marks around a passage indicate to the reader that the passage reproduces the speaker's words verbatim. They inform the reader that he or she is reading the statement of the speaker, not a paraphrase or other indirect interpretation by an author. By providing this information, quotations add authority to the statement and credibility to the author's work. Quotations allow the reader to form his or her own conclusions, and to assess the conclusions of the author, instead of relying entirely upon the author's characterization of her subject. […]

The work at issue here, however, as with much journalistic writing, provides the reader no clue that the quotations are being used as a rhetorical device or to paraphrase the speaker's actual statements. To the contrary, the work purports to be nonfiction, the result of numerous interviews. At least a trier of fact could so conclude. The work contains lengthy quotations attributed to petitioner, and neither Malcolm nor her publishers indicate to the reader that the quotations are anything but the reproduction of actual conversations. Further, the work was published in The New Yorker, a magazine which at the relevant time seemed to enjoy a reputation for scrupulous factual accuracy.

But I find it odd that Lehrer was forced to resign, while Malcolm is still on the New Yorker staff. And I'm surprised that everyone writing about the Lehrer case seems to assume that what he did — at least the initial making-up-quotes part — was obviously outside the norms of journalistic practice. On the contrary, it was completely business as usual.


  1. Neuroskeptic said,

    August 3, 2012 @ 5:52 am

    Surely though it's relevant that Lehrer not only changed quotes, but concocted a web of lies (about having access to archive footage, and other sources) to try to hide that fact.

    It may be that Lehrer would still be in his job if his reply to Moynihan had been: "I made inconsequential changes a la Masson v. New Yorker Magazine, Inc"

    But he didn't.

    [(myl) Good point, emphasizing that the cover-up is usually more of a problem than the "crime". But in fact, very similar assertions about missing notes (and I think missing tapes?) emerged in the Masson/Malcolm controversy. So I think that the fast information-exchange cycle of email and the internet makes a difference — Lehrer didn't have time to sort out his defense. And Masson's objections came from himself, with respect to the content of private (if taped) interviews with Malcolm, not from a legion of dedicated and exhaustively well-informed fans with respect to third-party materials about a famous songwriter.

    Still, I do get the sense that Jonah Lehrer was more naive than Janet Malcolm, and less self-assured about the perspective that (as Janet Malcolm famously wrote in another context, "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible." ]

  2. m said,

    August 3, 2012 @ 6:26 am

    Does it make any difference that Malcolm's interviews were conducted by Malcolm herself (so she would have known the full context), but Lehrer's "quotes" were entirely from other people's interviews? According to the Tablet article "Lehrer hasn’t claimed to have interviewed Dylan."

    [(myl) That certainly made it more plausible for Malcolm to claim that disputed quotations came from some section of an interview that wasn't taped, or whose tape was lost. It's not a lot of help for her case in those instances where (for example) a passage of 40-odd words, replicated verbatim from one of the taped interviews, is integrated seamlessly with a striking phrase that occurs nowhere in the tapes.]

  3. Janelle B. said,

    August 3, 2012 @ 6:32 am

    It's not just journalists who change quotes. People do it constantly in conversation, so it's quite possible that these journalists think they are better representing the person's ideas than the person originally managed to.
    When I was younger, I would sometimes hear my mom quoting me to her friends over the phone, and I always hated it. She always attributed extra ideas to me as if she was trying to make me sound more precocious.
    She'd also start my quote off with phrases like "Well, you know, mom…" even though that wasn't my conversational style at all. Of course, I would tell her that that's not what I'd said, but she would brush it off like it's no big deal. Apparently, my quote was just another part of her social interaction, and accuracy did not matter. It eventually bothered me so much that I stopped talking to her on a regular basis until I moved out as an adult. Now I'm an adult, the chances of overhearing her misquoting me are much lower… but I have noticed that a lot of parents do this–I guess they want their friends to think their kids are smarter and more eloquent than they really are. And few people appear to be as bothered by it as I was/am.

    [(myl) This is all absolutely true. But the conventional hypocrisy about journalism — high-class journalism, anyhow — is that things are different there, and stuff in quotation marks is what someone actually said (perhaps with some disfluencies edited out), and not what the writer puts forward as an authoritative representation of the point that the writer wants to use the alleged quotation to make.]

  4. tpr said,

    August 3, 2012 @ 6:34 am

    I'm not sure this should be framed as an issue of consistency. For those of us who would like to see less of this kind of journalism, then it seems the more serious repercussions that were applied in Lehrer's case represent progress over how things were handled in the past. What kind of virtue is consistency if you're sticking to a poor standard?

    [(myl) I'm not arguing for consistent hypocrisy in this area — I'm just surprised by an obvious inconsistency that seems to be going past without notice.]

  5. BlueLoom said,

    August 3, 2012 @ 7:08 am

    Whatever the circumstances, I regret the loss of Leher's voice in the public square. Perhaps, after a short period of standing in the corner, he'll start up his own blog and not rely on sponsors such as Wired and The New Yorker. I hope I can still find a copy of "Imagine" to read. "Proust was a Neuroscientist" remains one of my all-time favorite books.

  6. RF said,

    August 3, 2012 @ 7:12 am

    There is also a difference in that the ruling in Malcolm's case was not on journalistic ethics, but on libel. It is hard to imagine Lehrer losing a libel case over those quotes, if it somehow came to that.

    [(myl) But neither Janet Malcolm nor the New Yorker felt the need for her to resign, or even to apologize, over the issue of her "journalistics ethics".]

    I also think, like m, that the fact that Lehrer was taking these quotes from other sources seems to matter, although I can't quite put my finger on why. Maybe it's that reporters are allowed some discretion in transcribing oral quotes, while changing written quotes seems more like outright fabrication?

    [(myl) My own opinion is that it's much worse for a journalist to publish fabricated quotations from his or her own interviews, because (except in very unusual circumstances like those in the Malcolm/Masson trials) there's no other record of what happened, and so the fabrications stand unchallenged as primary material for social and cultural history.]

  7. fev said,

    August 3, 2012 @ 7:41 am

    The craft rules themselves are inconsistent. Style guides and textbooks in general are pretty categorical about the sanctity of the direct quote, but they also often prescribe some latitude for disfluencies and "minor grammatical errors." Sometimes those are accompanied by a warning not to make the "average person" look stupid, sometimes by a warning not to make longshoremen sound like collidge professors. The sorts of unwritten rules that make AAVE features, or some flavors of g-droppin', more likely to be transcribed than (say) the speech of an Eastern North Carolina bizness executive are suggested in Warren Breed's "Social Control in the Newsroom" (1955).

    The New Yorker desk has sort of a John Henry reputation, and a while back the magazine published a pamphlet detailing the awesomeness of its editing. In one example (IIRC; it's at the office and I'm not), the editor suggests changing a source's quote because s/he disagrees with how the source characterizes some musical subgenre.

    The rules and perceptions that create news language are worth a lot more study than they've gotten so far.

    [(myl) Back in the days when I was still naive about these issues, I highlighted the differences between the New York Times' "code of ethics" and its common practices in a few striking cases, e.g. here and here. Do you know of any examples of journalists being disciplined, or even suffering reputational loss, for this sort of thing? As opposed to, say, describing interviews that never took place, or sources that never existed, which do seem to be offenses in practice as well as in theory?]

  8. Mike Koplow said,

    August 3, 2012 @ 8:24 am

    I agree with J. Kennedy. To put quotation marks around something is (or so I thought until the Malcolm case) is to assert as a fact that the quoted words were used. To use quotation marks in other ways is to falsify. Libelous or not, it's falsification.

    I don't think this is absolute. When someone quotes someone else's "um's," I assume they're more interested in ridiculing the quotee than in accuracy. Likewise if they quote verbatim a nonnative speaker's misuse of articles, inflections, and the like. But this sort of sandpapering isn't the same as falsely attributing words to someone.

  9. John Roth said,

    August 3, 2012 @ 8:34 am

    I had the honor of listening to Judith Avila talk about the tribulations of getting Chester Nez memoir, "Code Talker," published last year. She mentioned having tried to get it published as straight biography through a university press which I'm not going to name, and gave up when their reviewer insisted that it be changed substantively to match academic views of Navaho life.

    That is not a peccadillo.

  10. Laura said,

    August 3, 2012 @ 9:18 am

    I was once quoted in our university newspaper, after I appeared on University Challenge (a BBC TV quiz). Not only was the quote fabricated, but they hadn't contacted me to ask for a quote, and they hadn't even taken it from my facebook page. In fact, I was expressly forbidden from talking to the press about it until after broadcast so I could have got in trouble over it (though I didn't). But the fact that I had to check to see if I had in fact said the quote on my facebook leads to another issue: journalists very often (at least in the UK) simply look up what celebrities have said on twitter about some issue and base the story on that. Granted, it's a quote and it's in the public domain, but it always seems wrong to me. At the very least it's lazy.

  11. fev said,

    August 3, 2012 @ 9:40 am

    @Mark: No, I can't think of any cases of reputational loss based on the sort of snippet-massaging you describe. Going out of one's way to get the context right, though, does seem to risk some professional disdain, as in the recent flap over the Post reporter's showing a draft to a source, chronicled in some detail at the Poynter news blog:

    To borrow an idea from our friends in visual framing, quotes (even fragments) have the "indexicality" of photos. You may have been fascinated by a 90-minute presentation, but if the 1/250 of a second that the shutter was open happens to coincide with your lone yawn, the photo says "BORED PROFESSOR YAWNS" in a way that context can't mitigate.

    Thus, a phrase on the order of "recent comments by President Barack Obama that 'if you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that; somebody else made that happen'" is likely to sail through to publication (funny, that's exactly what it did). A version pointing out that "if you've got a business — you didn't build that" is as literally taken out of context as you can get is likely to be held up for attribution because it's seen as taking one side's contextual claim over the other. Photos and snippets are data; context is probability.

  12. K McGowan said,

    August 3, 2012 @ 9:55 am

    Interesting point! One difference between the two is that Malcolm got sued and Lehrer did not. (At least, not yet.) Journalists tend to line up behind anyone who is fighting a libel case, because they know that a lost libel case hurts all of them, by setting precedent. And Masson is not exactly the most likeable character, so it was easier to sympathesize with Malcolm. Also, there's a bit of a nod and a wink toward the practices of "literary" journalists like Malcolm vis a vis "science" journalists like Lehrer. I put these terms in scare-quotes because obviously there's no hard and fast line between the two–mostly a matter of perception. See also the interesting LRB story on Kapuscinski's lying and spying for yet another perspective on who gets away with making stuff up and who doesn't.

  13. Jon Weinberg said,

    August 3, 2012 @ 11:54 am

    One key difference between Malcolm's case and Lehrer's is that Malcolm never admitted it. Before and after the court ruling, she vigorously asserted that it was "ludicrous beyond belief" to think that she had fabricated any quotations; after the case was over, she purported to find a lost notebook containing support for some of the disputed quotes. That she felt compelled to make these claims, even after the suit was over (notwithstanding her view that "pure factuality" is a sham), suggests the power with which journalistic practice does condemn Simply Making Things Up. That her colleagues chose to believe her is another matter.

  14. Adby said,

    August 3, 2012 @ 12:23 pm

    Legal findings re libel, don't really have anything to do with what is acceptable in journalism.

    Also, I think that Malcolm always insisted that Masson did say everything that was quoted, unlike Lehrer who admitted fabrication.

    Now the larger point, isn't this post basically a "But, Mom, everybody does it" sort of argument?

    [(myl) No, it's not. I'd explain further, but really, if you read the post, it's obvious.]

  15. Ben Wheeler said,

    August 3, 2012 @ 12:56 pm

    Very interesting! I was under the impression from the epilogue to Malcolm's book that the missing/found notebook explained everything, but the examples you set here make that sound impossible.

    The case Malcolm's possible errors reminds me of is Deborah Solomon's at the NYT Magazine, where she had been rearranging quotes and inserting comments of her own in creating a re-stitched version of her interviews after the fact. In both cases, I think context really matters, and I think it is unethical to do what the journalists seems to have done. Of course, people do this all the time all around us; intellectual dishonesty is the rule, and doesn't get pointed out often enough.

    Malcolm's own book Iphigenia in Forest Hills addresses a similar set of questions: Why do we assume so confidently that we know for certain someone's guilt or innoncence? What do we believe when every source of information we use is incomplete or biased?

  16. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 3, 2012 @ 1:41 pm

    Do we know that Lehrer was forced to resign? I looked at a few articles on line and didn't see anything about that.

    Assuming he was, another possible difference is that Dylan is more important (to lots of baby boomers) than some psychoanalyst who wrote about Freud.

  17. Rube said,

    August 3, 2012 @ 1:50 pm

    Something I haven't seen is any indication that Dylan himself cares. Of course, it wouldn't be the first time Dylan's fans took what Dylan said more seriously than he did.

  18. Julie said,

    August 3, 2012 @ 3:12 pm

    I had understood that the resignation was due to a case of Lehrer 'self-plagiarising' (if such a thing could exist). Basically, recycling chunks of his book and selling them to the magazine as new pieces of writing. Publications would view this far more seriously than inventing quotes?

  19. evilado said,

    August 3, 2012 @ 3:48 pm

    I assumed this was the last straw for Lehrer, rather than a singular firing offence. He was probably on thin ice after the self-plagiarism bit, and this cemented his reputation as a lazy writer. My understanding is that Malcolm had an established reputation and connections at the New Yorker. Lehrer's given the New Yorker nothing but grief.

  20. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    August 3, 2012 @ 4:10 pm

    As a former English major who became a journalist by being hired by a newspaper when I had been out of college for about a decade and a half, I have to say I don't ever remember much discussion of the ethics of quotation in newsrooms — I've probably discussed apostrophes more than quotes.

    When I started out, I took notes and tried to be accurate. I didn't often use dialect, because I didn't feel a feature story was an appropriate place to make someone look bad when, generally, I had approached that person and asked them to be in the paper.

    I like stories with a lot of direct quotes. I like to read things that capture my interest in the beginning. So I tended to take the material I had and arrange it in a way that was interesting. I didn't want the best stuff in the middle — something that journalists sometimes call the "buried lede." But rearranging quotes means that what the journalist writes is not necessarily what the subjects remember, because the subjects remember the order and contexts in which they said things. Some journalists are sensitive to order and context, and some aren't.

    One of my biggest early challenges was to interview someone that I knew, before proposing the story, thought the media had a crazy liberal agenda. We were going to talk about his hobby, so I didn't think our differing views of the media were an issue. But I spent more time planning and writing that story than I usually did to try to persuade him to talk about the most interesting stuff first, then writing the story in the order he told me instead of reorganizing the information.

    My reward was that the man I interviewed thought the story represented him fairly, and several readers told me it sounded "just like him." My cross to bear was that several other readers told me they thought the topic and subject were interesting, but the story seemed to ramble more than other things I'd written.

    As the years have passed, I am less and less willing to massage quotations to improve the way someone sounds. When I reread before turning in a story, I found it was better to turn a direct quote with dialect or vulgar language or repetition or interpolations into an indirect quote instead of trying to guess at the best version or putting parenthetical clarifications or ellipses in a direct quote.

    Reorganizing the order of information, however, continues to be essential. If every school board story I wrote began with the Pledge of Allegiance and board attendance, people would stop reading them. Journalism about government should inform readers accurately, but often readers don't want to read stories that aren't entertaining in some way — funny or hair-raising or eloquent, for instance.

    Crime stories appeal to the gossipy and vicarious thrill-seeking aspects of our personalities, I believe. Sewer repair stories can range from horrifying to mundane. But many stories about the ordinary work of school boards, architectural review boards, county government, township supervisors and other officials and their actions don't appeal as entertainment and don't make national reputations for the many writers who do them. Nor do they provide handsome salaries, because such stories cost more to provide than they bring in in readership or advertising support.

    Maybe there's a different code of ethics for national media and the media outside of the major corridors of power and affluence. I don't know. I have seen an intern disciplined for culling quotes from online sources. But I would not have thought to do what Malcolm or Lehrer apparently did. As far as I can tell, getting to write for the New Yorker or other national media is as much about various kinds of luck as it is about skill.

    I don't think intellectual dishonesty is the rule. But I take into account the wide range of newspapers in the United States, not just prestigious urban newspapers and magazines.

  21. Fethi said,

    August 3, 2012 @ 4:12 pm

    Michael Moynihan has followed up, briefly noting that the problems with Lehrer's writing is not limited to the Dylan quotations.

    The link is:

  22. Fethi said,

    August 3, 2012 @ 4:14 pm

    An example:

  23. Rubrick said,

    August 3, 2012 @ 6:25 pm

    I find myl's opinions on this matter surprising, given that he himself once said "Anyone who deliberately fabricates quotations should be slathered in Dijon mustard and pushed off the roof of the Sydney Opera House."

  24. Faith said,

    August 3, 2012 @ 9:25 pm

    @Rubrick, did you misread this post? Where does myl say Lehrer shouldn't be punished? He is not expressing his opinion on fit punishment. He is expressing his amazement at the seeming randomness of punishments meted out to journalists for similar lapses.

  25. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 3, 2012 @ 10:58 pm

    "Everybody knows by now that there's a gazillion books on me either out or coming out in the near future. So I'm encouraging anybody who's ever met me, heard me or even seen me, to get in on the action and scribble their own book. You never know, somebody might have a great book in them." -Bob Dylan, 2011. Now maybe that's not quite affirmative encouragement to fabricate quotes, but . . .

  26. Peter Seibel said,

    August 4, 2012 @ 12:47 am

    Fethi, is that second link from Moynihan supposed to demonstrate that Lehrer probably didn't actually interview the pilot because some very similar text was found elsewhere?

    I did a book of interviews with notable computer programmers and found that after having prepared for my interviews by reading other interviews and speeches my subjects had given, that I heard a lot of the same lines when I interviewed them. It's certainly not outside the realm of possibility that someone who has been interviewed and spoken publicly about something over and over, would end up with a pretty canned response.

  27. Kenny Easwaran said,

    August 4, 2012 @ 12:22 pm

    My guess is that there is considered to be an ethical difference between making up a quote from your own interview and making one up from someone else's. In the former case, we trust the reporter to only be cleaning things up and quoting the person as saying things that they might have actually said. But in the latter case, the reporter doesn't have the relevant context and could just be making anything up. (Of course, whether or not the trust in the former case is actually warranted is a separate question.)

    There could also be a difference between quoting spoken words and quoting written text. The reporter who does an interview quotes spoken words, and has a lot of latitude in deciding what to put between the quotation marks. The reporter who quotes someone else's interview is quoting written text, which has a permanent record that you can be expected to quote word-for-word.

  28. Quotations and “Unquotations” in Journalism and Ethnography | Neuroanthropology said,

    August 5, 2012 @ 7:12 am

    […] Jonah Lehrer, Bob Dylan, and journalistic unquotations […]

  29. The Scienceblogging Weekly (August 4th, 2012) | Stock Market News - Business & Tech News said,

    August 5, 2012 @ 9:38 pm

    […] Jonah Lehrer, Bob Dylan, and journalistic unquotations and More unquotations from the New Yorker by Mark Liberman […]

  30. “And will pardon Paul Claudel, Pardons him for writing well” « Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science said,

    August 6, 2012 @ 8:17 am

    […] discussion of plagiarism and fake quotes, a commenter points to two recent posts by Mark Liberman (here and here) where Liberman links to about a zillion cases of journalists publishing quotes that were […]

  31. THE MAGNET IS ALWAYS ON -- a cognitive neuroscience blog -- Lehrer was a Science Journalist said,

    August 6, 2012 @ 9:12 am

    […] was thinking about that interaction this week, in trying to make sense of the career-ending kerfuffle over his made-up Dylan quotes and self-plagiarism, and it prompted me to look back at what […]

  32. Catherine said,

    August 6, 2012 @ 10:43 am

    I was shocked because what Lehrer did is consistent with the standard behavior of journalists.

    I wrote for magazines for many years, and I did not make up quotes. Ever. If I had, and had been found out, I would have been dropped by every editor I worked with.

    I once had a fact-checker remove a direct, word-for-word quotation – the interview was on tape – that the interview subject refused to sign off on when he heard his words read back to him. I hadn’t taken the quote out of context, and I hadn’t changed its meaning. But the fact-checker cut it.

    I don't know whether journalistic standards — or policing of journalistic standards — has changed. The fact that Lehrer was forced to resign is evidence that what he did is not "consistent with the standard behavior of journalists."

  33. Edward Ericson Jr. said,

    August 6, 2012 @ 1:27 pm

    A million billion years ago I wrote a profile of a local ska band for some little campus publication. I opened with a scene of the lead singer holding a trash pale in front of his face while discoursing on the events of the previous evening, and the general fallen state of the world. I'd quoted him from memory, at length, and so I gave him the passage to read before I took it to my editor. The musician then paid me what I'm sure he thought was a the ultimate compliment:

    "That's not what I said," the front man exclaimed. "That's BETTER than what I said!"

  34. Experts that send us their reckons « House of Stones said,

    August 15, 2012 @ 10:23 am

    […] about the plagiarism and journalistic misconduct of science writer Jonah Lehrer (here, here, here). This morning I noticed a similar story about the well-known international affairs expert Fareed […]

  35. Unquotations and How to Avoid Them | Book How-To said,

    September 10, 2012 @ 4:12 pm

    […] in the world of professional journalism. Even just plain making stuff up is not unheard of. In an article about the scandal surrounding former New Yorker writer Jonah Lehrer's admission that he […]

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