Sorry For $20K Payment to Jonah Lehrer says Knight Foundation

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Jonah Lehrer. (Credit: Knight Foundation, screenshot)

The Knight Foundation paid $20,000 for Jonah Lehrer to speak about his plagiarism and fabrication scandal earlier this week.

As iMediaEthics has written, last summer Lehrer resigned from the New Yorker and was fired from Wired after numerous examples of plagiarism, self-plagiarism, and fabrication were found in his blogs and his book Imagine. In his Tuesday speech for the Knight Foundation’s Media Learning Seminar, Lehrer owned up to his journalistic failings. During the speech, which lasted less than an hour, he admitted:

“I am the author of a book on creativity that contains several fabricated Bob Dylan quotes…I committed plagiarism on my blog, taking without credit or citation an entire paragraph from the blog of Christian Jarrett. I plagiarized from myself. I lied to a journalist named Michael Moynihan to cover up the Dylan fabrications.”

Many news sites highlighted, questioned or criticized the $20,000 speaker’s fee the foundation paid Lehrer, more interested that Knight paid such a hefty sum than the fact that Lehrer gave a speech about how he plagiarized and fabricated. For example, the New York Times’ blogpost about the speech was titled “Plagiarism Pays: Jonah Lehrer Gets $20,000 for Speech.”

See below some reactions from journalists to the news of Lehrer’s speech and payment.



At first, the Foundation backed giving Lehrer the speaking fee, the Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone reported.  At the same time, Knight Foundation president Alberto Ibargüen told Calderone that he can “understand the point of view” of critics who questioned paying someone that much money to fess up.

But, by Wednesday night — the day after the lecture — the foundation changed tack and apologized for paying Lehrer the fee in a statement on its website for “rewarding” Lehrer’s misdeeds:

“Controversial speakers should have platforms, but Knight Foundation should not have put itself into a position tantamount to rewarding people who have violated the basic tenets of journalism. We regret our mistake.”

The foundation also offered a little background on why it chose Lehrer as the speaker:

“We started considering Lehrer as a speaker before his plagiarism scandal broke last year…after he was exposed for making up Bob Dylan quotes, recycling his own material and plagiarizing others, we accepted the risk and invited him. We asked him to talk about decision-making to a conference of people for whom that is a necessary skill.”

The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple, who reported on criticism of the foundation’s payment to Lehrer, called the foundation’s apology, which he saw as forced by the Internet‘s reaction to Lehrer, a “remarkable turnaround.”

“If only news organizations could be so quick to acknowledge their mistakes,” he added.

iMediaEthics wrote to the Knight Foundation asking

  • What changed in the hours between the Knight Foundation president’s defense of the speech payment and the foundation’s apology
  • If this incident will affect how the Knight Foundation handles future controversial speakers and payments
  • If the foundation still backs the decision to have Lehrer speak, despite the payment
  • For any response to the criticism of the foundation in the apology post’s comments section.

The foundation’s VP for Communications Andrew Sherry told iMediaEthics by email that outside of the foundation’s blogpost, he doesn’t have “anything to add.”

Jim Romenesko reported that Jayson Blair, who notably shook the New York Times with his widespread fabrication and plagiarism, even commented that he’s “a little surprised that the Knight Foundation got caught flat-footed on this one.” Blair suggested Lehrer should have just taken money to “cover the expenses and modestly for their time.”  As iMediaEthics wrote in 2009, Blair spoke at an ethics event held by Washington and Lee University six years after resigning in disgrace from the Times.

Edward Wasserman, who invited Blair for $3,000 to speak in 2009, told Romenesko that the $20,000 fee “was excessive.”

Hat Tip: Talking Points Memo

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Sorry For $20K Payment to Jonah Lehrer says Knight Foundation

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