MORE PhDs on Bob Dylan's work lie around dusty shelves and memory sticks than on any other 20th century wordsmith. Yet into this crowded field of fetish and literary allusion sauntered Jonah Lehrer, a preppy, precocious 31-year-old author, speaker and staff writer for the New Yorker.
In his latest best-selling book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, Lehrer fearlessly proceeded to perform a form of journalistic suicide by putting words into the singer-songwriter's mouth that he had not uttered. Lehrer's ventriloquism in the book (the Australian edition is titled Imagine: The Science of Creativity) was exposed by Dylan-obsessed writer for Tablet magazine Michael Moynihan.
In his first chapter, ''Bob Dylan's Brain'', Lehrer traced Dylan's reluctance to deconstruct his creative process, and noted the singer dead-batting questions about early songs: '''I've got nothing to say about these things I write,' [Dylan] insisted. 'I just write them. There's no great message. Stop asking me to explain.'''
Part of the quote appeared in D. A. Pennebaker's 1965 seminal rockumentary Don't Look Back, but the last sentence - ''stop asking me to explain'' - was pure invention by Lehrer. Moynihan challenged Lehrer about the misquote, and several others, only to be told that Lehrer had had access to archival footage.
Moynihan's blog on plagiarism hung around smelling for a few weeks. Then Lehrer folded.
''Three weeks ago, I received an email from journalist Michael Moynihan asking about Bob Dylan quotes in my book Imagine,'' Lehrer said in a statement this week. ''The quotes in question either did not exist, were unintentional misquotations, or represented improper combinations of previously existing quotes. But I told Mr Moynihan that they were from archival interview footage provided to me by Dylan's representatives. This was a lie spoken in a moment of panic. The lies are over now. I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologise to everyone I have let down, especially my editors and readers … I have resigned my position as staff writer at the New Yorker.''
The literary scandal spread quickly around the world. Lehrer was a media pet expert well versed in the promotion of snappy style over substance. Plus, he was writing for a magazine with a trailblazing fact-checking philosophy that, having evolved during the golden days of print, remained stubbornly geared to finding fault in black and white, not the Web. Even before the imbroglio, the New Yorker had carried a number of addenda to Lehrer's Frontal Cortex column, explaining he had cannibalised his own work published elsewhere.
Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia, said not only had Lehrer carved out a career in the popular niche of brain science, but he had created a persona perfectly suited to a 21st-century media environment. ''Conjure me up a guy who talks science winningly, who shows you that everything is transparent, and does it in a self-help-y spirit,'' Gitlin told The New York Times.
Lehrer is hardly the first journalist or writer to have been caught out. The Washington Post's Janet Cooke's 1981 Pulitzer Prize-winning profile, Jimmy's World, about an eight-year-old heroin addict, turned out to be based on thin air. She resigned, returned the prize and when last spotted was working at a checkout.
A budding hot shot reporter with The New York Times Jayson Blair was caught out in 2003 making up and stealing stories about the Iraq War. Blair resigned and is now a ''life coach''. In 1995, Stephen Glass was a 23-year-old wunderkind writing for the New Republic when fellow journalists discovered 27 articles he had written for the magazine contained fabrications. These days, Glass is trying to get admitted to the California bar.
In Australia, Paul Radley's Jack Rivers and Me, an uplifting book about a boy's imaginary friend and his ex-US serviceman father, won the inaugural Vogel Award for young writers. Sixteen years later, Radley confessed the book had been written by his uncle Jack. Both Radleys slid from view. The book disappeared, its wonderful literary worth lost amid duped literary outrage.
Helen Demidenko, aka Helen Darville, brought scandal upon herself and her award-winning 1993 novel The Hand That Signed the Paper after falsely assuming a Ukrainian identity. She catered to stereotypists, wearing a Ukrainian peasant's blouse to the Miles Franklin ceremony. Cashing in on 9/11 fears, Norma Khouri's Forbidden Love ( 2003) supposedly told the true story of childhood in Jordan and her best friend's love affair with a Christian that ended with her honour killing by her father. The following year Fairfax's Malcolm Knox exposed Khouri's fabrication. The book was pulled. Knox and a colleague, Caroline Overington, won a Walkley Award for their expose.
Lehrer's fall from grace has a fine irony. Over the years, Dylan himself has been accused of helping himself to lines from blues songs and the words of US poet Henry Timrod.