On July 4th, 2012, struggling freelance journalist Michael C. Moynihan was awake late at night on his sofa in Brooklyn. He was hopeful that an upcoming gig blogging for The Washington Post for ten days would help garner him enough attention to land a more permanent role somewhere—one that would help him better support his wife and young daughter. Hunting for story ideas, Moynihan downloaded the newest New York Times nonfiction bestseller, a book about the neurology of creativity entitled Imagine: How Creativity Works by a young, renowned writer named Jonah Lehrer who’d recently been embroiled in a scandal—there were claims that he’d been recycling some of his own, earlier writing in several pieces for The New Yorker.
This passage introduces two new characters who will soon find themselves at the center of a classic example of a contemporary public shaming. Jonah Lehrer had already found himself at the heart of a scandal—but his transgression hadn’t yet made him the primary subject of the social media sphere’s ire and disdain. Though Moynihan would later play a role in bringing the depths of Lehrer’s journalistic misdeeds to light, this passage shows that there wasn’t any ill intent behind his role in Lehrer’s public takedown—he was just a fellow journalist doing his job.
The first chapter of Lehrer’s book was centered around Bob Dylan, focusing on a period of creative stagnancy he experienced in 1965 just before he began writing some of the greatest songs of his career. As Moynihan read the chapter, something struck him as being off. Moynihan was a big Dylan fan himself, and the quotations he was reading in Lehrer’s book seemed like things Dylan himself never would’ve said. So Moynihan began watching some old documentary footage of Dylan—and found that one of the quotations Lehrer used didn’t match up with what Dylan had actually said. Lehrer claimed Dylan said, of articles about himself in the paper, “I’m glad I’m not that”—but documentary footage showed Dylan, on-camera, saying “God, I’m glad I’m not me.”
While the discrepancies Moynihan discovered within Lehrer’s book may seem small, they were significant to Moynihan and they do distort Dylan’s meaning. A big part of Dylan’s wit and mystique had to do with his tendency towards playful and mysterious statements like “I’m glad I’m not me,” but Lehrer’s version did not capture that aspect of Dylan. From Moynihan’s perspective, this is something of a David-and-Goliath situation, where Moynihan—a small-time blogger—has discovered that a big-name journalist was misusing his privilege and power by putting lazy mistakes out into the world.
Moynihan emailed Lehrer to tell him that he wanted to clarify where Lehrer had gotten some of his quotes. Moynihan had found six quotes that were suspicious or incorrect. He told Lehrer that he was blogging for the Post for ten days. Lehrer emailed back the next day to explain that he was away on vacation—for eleven more days. He promised to go through his files at home as soon as he was back—but in the meantime, he told Moynihan that he’d gotten help from “one of Dylan’s managers” who’d given him access to unreleased transcripts of Dylan interviews. Lehrer told Moynihan he could find some of these interviews in a rare anthology that wasn’t readily available on the internet.
Lehrer seems to have been intentionally trying to keep Moynihan off of his case. By claiming he’d be unable to help Moynihan out until after Moynihan’s blogging stint was already over—and by sending Moynihan on a wild goose chase in search of rare Dylan materials—Lehrer was, in Ronson’s estimation, knowingly trying to protect himself. But Moynihan had the sense that what he was doing was good and righteous, so he stayed on the trail.
But Lehrer—whom Moynihan began to suspect was lying—underestimated Moynihan’s research capabilities. Moynihan wasn’t just a good journalist; he was a person who couldn’t abide liars and cheats. So he tracked down an archive of Dylan interviews, essentially a digital version of the multivolume tome Lehrer had recommended. Moynihan scoured the document for Lehrer’s quotations, but he couldn’t find them. He knew Lehrer was lying.
Moynihan’s motivations have moved beyond simply wanting to pursue a story that might earn him prestige. Here, he’s described as being particularly incensed by Lehrer lying to him, and now he sees himself as seeking to right a wrong by exposing Lehrer’s lies. It’s important to see the complexity of his motivations, though. Moynihan is doing something that will cause Lehrer to suffer, and he’s doing it partially to right a wrong and partially because he knows he’ll be professionally rewarded for it. Throughout the book, Ronson suggests that internet mobs have similarly divided motivations: a genuine desire for a more just world, plus the sense of being publicly rewarded for sharing a popular opinion.
On July 11th, Moynihan received a call from Lehrer. The two of them had a pleasant talk about Dylan and journalism. Moynihan insisted he wasn’t trying to take Lehrer down—he wasn’t a vengeful blogger, just a journalist trying to feed his family. After the call, Lehrer emailed Moynihan to thank him for being “decent.” Moynihan continued to dig around, though, and when he emailed Dylan’s longtime manager, Jeff Rosen, to ask if Rosen had ever spoken with Lehrer, Rosen said he hadn’t. Moynihan emailed Lehrer with more questions and said that he’d talked to Rosen. And then, in Moynihan’s words, Lehrer “lost it.”
While superficially pleasant, Moynihan’s conversation with Lehrer shows their mutual awareness that the situation is a tinderbox: Moynihan clearly feels guilty about reporting an article that could damage Lehrer’s reputation and career, and he justifies it by tying the article to his need to feed his family. Meanwhile, Lehrer may be manipulating Moynihan by calling him “decent,” trying to get him not to publish the article by implying that it wouldn’t be a kind thing to do. It’s worth comparing the tone of this conversation—tense but pleasant—to the tone of the “conversations” that happen during public shamings online. Here, these are two human beings having a phone call about a difficult subject, and they’re both being polite and humane. On Twitter, without the presumption of the other person’s humanity, these kinds of conversations often devolve quickly into vitriol.
Lehrer began calling Moynihan repeatedly and begging him not to publish whatever he was working on. Moynihan would later tell Ronson that he felt like Lehrer was like a dying animal he’d hunted, twitching and ready to be put out of its misery—Moynihan didn’t want to be the one to strike the final blow. Andrew Wylie, a well-known and powerful literary agent who represented Lehrer, called Moynihan and advised him not to “ruin a guy’s life.” Moynihan said he’d think hard about what to do next.
When Moynihan compares himself to a hunter and Lehrer to a dying animal, it’s a rather extreme metaphor—all Moynihan has done, after all, is dig into some suspicious quotations in Lehrer’s book and contemplate publicly accusing him of inaccuracy. But the dying animal metaphor shows how reputational battles on the internet can feel like life-or-death events to those involved. While Lehrer won’t physically lose his life, he does stand to lose his livelihood and reputation, which is a significant loss. Moynihan is aware of this and it weighs heavily on him, which Ronson will later suggest is a good thing. Provoking an internet mob has severe consequences for the person being shamed, and a major argument of Ronson’s book is that it shouldn’t be done lightly.
Toward the end of July, Moynihan fielded a call from Lehrer. Finally, Lehrer agreed to make an on-the-record statement to Moynihan: he said, “I’m deeply sorry for lying.” Moynihan hurried home and wrote the story he’d been working on for nearly a month in just 40 minutes. He knew he wouldn’t make much from the small Jewish online magazine, Tablet, he’d pitched the story to—but that his words would forever affect the outcome of the rest of Lehrer’s life. Moynihan grew anxious.
Here, Ronson captures the ethical and emotional complexity of public shaming. In deciding whether to forever damage Lehrer’s professional prospects, Moynihan has to weigh many conflicting factors: the severity of Lehrer’s transgression, the moral value of exposing his lies, the fact that he admitted to lying and apologized, and the paltry financial compensation that Moynihan will receive for doing something so grave. Moynihan’s anxiety about whether he has made the right decision paints him as an ethical person who does not take lightly the suffering he is about to cause.
Lehrer, too, began exhibiting signs of extreme stress. He called Moynihan repeatedly during the next several days, making upwards of 20 calls at a time. Finally, Moynihan told Lehrer to stop harassing him. Lehrer begged Moynihan to kill the story. Moynihan began to realize that his article really could destroy Lehrer’s life, just as Wylie had predicted. But Moynihan sent his draft to his editor, anyway.
Lehrer’s behavior here makes the earlier analogy between him and a dying animal seem more apt. Clearly, Lehrer is unraveling because of the severe consequences that he knows he’s about to face. Ronson does not weigh in about whether or not he believes that Lehrer’s transgression merits the damage that this article will do. Instead, he focuses on the intense toll that the situation is taking on everyone involved, including Moynihan. It’s worth comparing this to some of the book’s later subjects who are fairly glib about the shamings they’ve incited. But here, Ronson asks readers to pay attention to the stakes; Lehrer is already suffering deeply, and he’ll only suffer more once the article is published.
Moynihan knew about other journalists whose careers had blown up following accusations of falsified facts—Stephen Glass, who fabricated many details in a story about a 15-year-old hacker, was fired from his job after another journalist exposed his lies. But Glass had invented whole scenes and scenarios—Lehrer had only embellished a handful of quotes. Moynihan felt “trapped” in the situation he’d created—he knew that if he didn’t expose Lehrer’s falsifications, someone else would; indeed, Moynihan’s own reputation as a journalist could suffer if his editors grew frustrated with him for failing to finish the piece.
Over and over again, Ronson returns to Moynihan’s anguish. He’s not doing this to frame Moynihan as a victim of this scenario (he’s careful to acknowledge that Lehrer’s suffering is much worse). Instead, by depicting Moynihan’s wide-ranging anxieties (that Lehrer’s misquoting didn’t rise to the level of prior embellishment scandals) and motivations (his professional incentives to publish this first), Ronson is showing readers how serious it is—or, at least, should be—to decide to ruin someone’s reputation.
A few hours before the story appeared online, Moynihan and Lehrer had one final phone call. Moynihan told Lehrer that he felt “like shit,” and Lehrer responded icily that he didn’t care how Moynihan felt. Moynihan barely slept that night—he wondered if the icy persona Lehrer had inhabited on the phone was the person he’d been all along, or whether Moynihan was demonizing Lehrer to make himself feel better.
Moynihan is exceptionally conscientious as he makes the decision to publish his article. Instead of justifying his own motivations to make himself feel better, he interrogates himself rather ruthlessly, wondering if he’s being fair to Lehrer or whether he’s imagining Lehrer to be someone worse than he is. Ronson takes these anxieties seriously, implicitly suggesting that a decision like this should keep someone up at night because the stakes are so high. (This is not to say that, in the end, it wasn’t the right thing to do—Ronson does not weigh in on that.)
Ronson notes that in his own conversations with Moynihan, Moynihan often described himself as a “schlub” or a nobody—but this narrative, too, might have been one Moynihan constructed to reimagine himself as the David to Lehrer’s Goliath. At the same time, Ronson recognized that Moynihan was “traumatized” by what he’d done to Lehrer—until he realized that Lehrer lived in a $2.25 million home in Los Angeles. Then, Moynihan felt, things became “a bit different.”
Ronson suggests that, by describing himself as a nobody, Moynihan might actually have been trying to downplay his own power in the situation, thereby soothing his guilt about what happened to Lehrer. Essentially, this passage asks who was really the more powerful person: Moynihan, who had an explosive scoop and a platform where he could publish it, or Lehrer, the famous journalist whose wealth and connections couldn’t stop his downfall. Ronson doesn’t raise this question to suggest that Moynihan did the wrong thing, but instead to point out that what sometimes seems like a straightforward power imbalance is more complicated than it appears. This can be especially true in the context of internet mobs, where individual users often do not consider themselves to be powerful or believe that their online posts have consequences, but in the aggregate, a mob often has much more power than the person being shamed.
When Ronson, at a party, recounted the Moynihan and Lehrer story to a film director with whom he was making conversation, the director was spellbound by the story. Everyone, the director posited, was living in “terror of being found out.” Everyone has a secret that they keep buried—everyone has something of which they are ashamed. Ronson himself began to wonder how many people he himself had shamed over the course of his career as a journalist.
When the film director observes that everyone has a shameful secret that they’re terrified will be found out, he’s getting at a core argument of Ronson’s book: part of the power of public shamings comes from the near-universal terror they evoke. Since almost everyone has a secret that they’re ashamed of, it’s easy for people to imagine themselves as a victim of a shaming, which gives the threat of public shaming tremendous psychological power. As the book progresses, Ronson explores the possibility that one way to be liberated from the fear of public shamings is to figure out how people can eliminate their own shame.