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RECYCLING REVIEWED: Revelations that Jonah Lehrer plagiarized himself while writing for The New Yorker and Wired triggered an outpouring of criticism this week and hand-wringing over the extent of his ethical breach. Some have called for The New Yorker to can him. But one area of Lehrer’s career that will be unaffected by his persistent recycling are his speaking engagements. His agent at the Lavin Agency was undisturbed by the news. “Self-plagiarization is…I don’t even know what it is,” agent Gordon Mazur said. “Where does that fall in the level of crimes?”
On Tuesday, Jim Romenesko caught Lehrer reusing some earlier work in all five posts he’s written for The New Yorker since he was poached from Wired weeks ago. Reporters have found more evidence of self-plagiarism in his writing for Wired and in his book “Imagine.”
The New Yorker responded by appending apologies to Lehrer’s posts on its Web site, and digital editor Nicholas Thompson has said similar duplications won’t be tolerated in the future. On Wednesday, a spokeswoman for the magazine said Lehrer was still an employee.
Elsewhere, Lehrer’s work is being treated like a virus.
“We’re going to work with him to identify which stories are affected,” said Wired spokesman Jonathan Hammond. The magazine is reviewing the 300 posts Lehrer wrote while his blog, Frontal Cortex, was at Wired for lifted material.
Contacted for comment, a spokeswoman for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which has published Lehrer’s three books, said he acknowledged and apologized for passing off as new sections in “Imagine” that came from published articles going back several years. In future editions of the book, he will add a disclosure to the acknowledgments, the spokeswoman said.
On Thursday, an unexpected voice joined the fray to defend Lehrer.
"The conventions surrounding what is and is not acceptable in magazine writing, books and speaking have been worked out over the past 100 years. The conventions over blogging are being worked out as we speak," Malcolm Gladwell wrote in response to questions from WWD. "Everyone who writes for a living is going to learn from this. I'm just sorry Jonah had to bear the brunt of it."
Gladwell added that allegations Lehrer had pilfered from his books are "ridiculous."
But Mazur doesn’t get what all the fuss is about. Lehrer’s three books on science, technology and other subjects that are catnip for TED conferences have made him a sought-after lecturer and commentator. Even Ellen DeGeneres has had him on her show.
Lehrer does anywhere from a dozen to 40 speaking engagements every year, he told the New York Observer last year.
“We get him as many engagements as we can,” Mazur told WWD.
On the speaking circuit of which the young Lehrer is an aspiring hall of famer, recycling speeches is as commonplace as movie stars telling the same jokes on rival talk shows.
“You’re not going to write a new speech every time you go out. People understand that,” Mazur said. “Essentially people are hiring them to say the same thing over and over.”
Despite the brouhaha, Mazur said Lehrer has a fallback position in public speaking. The Lavin Agency has no plans to drop him as a client.