The Jonah Lehrer scandal makes us question journalistic ethics in a mash-up world

Aug 3, 2012

World Science Summit

Science writer and contributer to Radio Lab, Jonah Lehrer attends the “You and Your Irrational Brain” panel discussion at Water Taxi Beach in Long Island City in conjunction with the World Science Festival on May 29, 2008 in New York City. Credit: Thos Robinson/Getty Images

Best selling author and journalist Johan Lehrer sent a shockwave through the realm of intellectuals when he resigned his position at The New Yorker on Monday following a scandal that involved fabricated quotes from music legend Bob Dylan. When another journalist confronted Lehrer about Dylan quotes he felt were invented in his latest book, “Imagine,” Lehrer initially attributed the error to unintentional misquoting, thereby deepening the ruse. Lehrer came clean early this week and thus began the headlines.

Lehrer’s actions and attempted cover up led to widespread criticism and prompted his publisher to pull “Imagine” from bookstores and e-book retailers. Journalism is a profession of information built on the bedrock of truth, and Lehrer had made a name for himself writing books and magazine articles on heady topics like psychology, neuroscience and how science and the humanities intersect. But Lehrer is only 31 years old and had only been writing for The New Yorker for less than two months.

Intelligent and insightful as he may be, he is from a generation of Internet natives for whom ideas like intellectual property are an archaic concept. Modern artists – more than ever before – freely borrow from each other and from work that came before, blurring, and even rejecting, genre lines along the way.


Did Jonah Lehrer violate a pillar of journalism or is he just giving a name to a new kind of ‘gonzo journalism’ where the art is close enough to the truth to make it so? How have journalistic ethics changed in the era of blogs and opinion-based media?


Sharon Waxman, founder and editor of

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