Jonah Lehrer: “I don’t trust myself to not be arrogant”

After having been revealed as a recycler of material and inventor of quotes, Jonah Lehrer explains himself

Topics: Jonah Lehrer, knight foundation, imagine, The New Yorker, stephen glass,

Jonah Lehrer: "I don’t trust myself to not be arrogant" (Credit: Nina Subin)

Jonah Lehrer’s invention of quotes in his book “Imagine” and his reuse of previously published material in his capacity as a New Yorker staff writer ultimately led to his departure from the magazine and his fall from grace; he’d been one of the most prominent and widely read young journalists in America, working in the realm of science and thought also occupied by best-selling authors like Malcolm Gladwell. And today, Lehrer proved he can still draw a crowd.

Lehrer addressed the Knight Foundation’s 2013 “Media Learning Seminar” in Miami (and was paid $20,000 for the speech); Poynter recorded the most interesting and provocative of his comments throughout.

Most compelling to Lehrer defenders and detractors alike is his promise that — no matter what happens with his publishing life — the writer will continue to write. “At my lowest point, when I didn’t know what else to do, I found myself at 3 a.m. trying to write, typing, just trying to get it out, trying to learn myself, trying to figure myself out, trying to grapple, trying to wrestle with it.” That said, he claims not to have considered whether he’ll publish his own account of the scandal.

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The author, who has disregarded the rules and ethics of publishing, seems to have adopted an apologetic tack: “I need rules because I don’t trust myself to not be arrogant. I need my rules to force me to confront my mistakes, to force me to deal with them every day.”

The speech took on, at times, a strangely self-flagellating flavor, as when Lehrer said, “I’m just trying to grapple with my own arrogance and come up with the rules that force me every day to contain it.” Certainly, his experiences have been humbling, but it’s hard not to see the specter of exiled fabulists like Stephen Glass haunting Lehrer’s apology not for journalistic sins but for character flaws. He’s beating himself so the audience might stop doing so.

Lehrer said he wanted an accounting of his errors, “so I could say I found the broken part and that part has a name.” The accounting he’s providing is a step toward naming that part that led him to play fast and loose; once it is named as “arrogance,” it can be expiated, and the writing might begin again.

Daniel D'Addario is a staff reporter for Salon's entertainment section. Follow him on Twitter @DPD_

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