Since media critic Jim Romenesko revealed on Tuesday that a New Yorker essay by the prolific writer Jonah Lehrer borrowed paragraphs from a Wall Street Journal essay by the prolific writer Jonah Lehrer, journalists have been in a tizzy, madly Googling to find more cases of Lehrer ripping off Lehrer. One blog went so far as to find instances where Lehrer recycled his magazine articles in Imagine, his most recent book. This particular criticism is, of course, ridiculous: Loads of journalists repackage their magazine writing into books—and why shouldn’t they? It’s their writing and their book. (As Lehrer’s publisher subsequently made clear, Lehrer “owns the rights to the relevant articles, so no permission was needed.”)
As long as Lehrer’s offenses are confined to self-plagiarism, they are mostly an embarrassment to his editors and harmless to his readers. Worst-case scenario, someone reads a Lehrer piece twice. But the thorough combing of his work sparked by this transgression has raised an interesting question about the editorial style of The New Yorker when it comes to crediting previously published sources.
Consider a passage flagged by both Jim Romenesko and Gawker yesterday in a 2009 Columbia Magazine review of Lehrer’s second book, How We Decide. The review was mostly positive, but it criticized a section taken from Lehrer’s 2008 New Yorker piece “The Eureka Hunt” for reporting from other accounts without properly referencing sources. Gawker cited this as yet another journalistic sin committed by Lehrer. But if it is a sin, the blame almost certainly lies with The New Yorker, not Lehrer. Let me explain.
In both How We Decide and “The Eureka Hunt,” Lehrer recounts the tale of the 1949 Mann Gulch wildfire in Montana. Facing certain death, firefighter Wagner Dodge had a sudden insight that saved his life: He purposefully burned a patch of ground, providing a fuel-free island of earth to lie on as the fire roared past. The trouble is, firefighter Wagner Dodge died in the 1950s. The whole story, as Columbia Magazine points out, is a retelling of Norman Maclean’s 1992 book Young Men and Fire.
“Repackaging the work of others without disclosure,” writes Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan, “is arguably a much more serious offense than reusing your own work.” He’s right, of course. And this has been an issue with Lehrer’s work on more than one occasion: An editor’s note attached to his January New Yorker story, “Groupthink,” states that a Noam Chomsky quote in the piece came from an article in Technology Review, not Lehrer’s notepad as a reader might have concluded. The note doesn’t say, however, if the dropped reference was Lehrer’s mistake or an editor’s.
Consider this: A reference to Young Men and Fire, the source of the Wagner Dodge story, does appear in Lehrer’s book How We Decide, the one reviewed in Columbia Magazine. But a similar reference doesn’t appear in “The Eureka Hunt,” a piece that, presumably, was vetted by The New Yorker’s notoriously strict fact-checking department. Those checkers must have tracked down the source of the Wagner Dodge story. If New Yorker editors had any interest in crediting the source of that story, it would have been very easy to do so. (My calls to The New Yorker to find out for sure were not returned.)
And the same is true for the Chomsky quote, which presumably was traced back to the Technology Review article. In both cases, it’s hard to imagine that anything but a fact-checking error or an editorial decision would have left out the missing attributions. (Nothing kills a juicy Chomsky quote like, “As reported by the Technology Review.”)
This isn’t the first time someone has taken issue with The New Yorker over missing references. A 2005 Caitlin Flanagan article on P.L. Travers, the writer of Mary Poppins, was the subject of similar debate. While writing the piece, Flanagan apparently consulted a biography of P.L. Travers by author Valerie Lawson. But the title of the biography doesn’t appear in Flanagan’s article. (Lawson’s name appears once.) In a letter to The New Yorker published a few weeks later, Lawson writes, “New Yorker readers might be interested in knowing of those who trod the Travers path before,” and then lists a bibliography of work on the author.
If there are any “victims” in the matter of Lehrer’s recycling, it’s really just his editors, who expect to get new work from him. But when a magazine decides not to credit sources, then at least two groups of people lose: the sources themselves, who did the hard work that journalists draw on, and readers, who might wish to know more about where such great stories come from.
Of course, the magazine wants to keep the reader interested and not break up the flow of a good story. At least one New Yorker writer has lamented this. In 2006, Malcolm Gladwell told the New York Observer that he viewed his blog as a means to add additional material to his stories. “In my perfect, nerdy world,” he told Tom Scocca, “The New Yorker would have footnotes.”