News Column

Knight CEO Regrets Paying Plagiarist Jonah Lehrer

Feb 13, 2013

John Dorschner

Jonah Lehrer, Plagiarist

After a rush of complaints on media websites and Twitter, Alberto Ibarguen, chief executive of the Knight Foundation, said Wednesday he now regrets that the foundation paid a $20,000 speaker's fee to Jonah Lehrer, a New Yorker writer who resigned last summer after it was revealed that he had fabricated quotes and recycled his own material.

"I still believe that controversial speakers have a platform, but I don't think the Knight Foundation should have been involved in rewarding someone who has violated the basic tenets of journalism," Ibarguen said.

Lehrer spoke to a Tuesday conference of community foundation leaders in Miami about the values of decision making -- a speech that was quickly the buzz of Twitter.

"The Future of Journalism: be a fabulist, get caught, journalism foundations pay you $20,000 for a single speech," tweeted Tom Gara of the Wall Street Journal.

Carl Zimmer, a science writer, tweeted that Lehrer was paid $20,000 "about how not to do journalism. And he took it. What a business."

In his speech, posted on the writer's website, Lehrer talked about the "causes and repercussions of failure. .... I am the author of a book on creativity that contained 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 also plagiarized from myself," and then lied trying to cover up the Dylan fabrications.

The foundation issued this statement on its website:

On Tuesday, the Knight Foundation paid Jonah Lehrer to speak at a community foundation conference. In retrospect, as a foundation that has long stood for quality journalism, paying a speaker's fee was inappropriate. 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.

We started considering Lehrer as a speaker before his plagiarism scandal broke last year. We knew of his work on the neuroscience and art of decision-making. 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. We did not tell him what to say, but knew he would include an exploration of his own self-destructive decision-making, and thought that might make his talk even more poignant.

We try to be as transparent as possible about our work. When asked, we released the amount of the speaker's fee. The fee was not unusual for a well-known author to address a large conference. But it was simply not something Knight Foundation, given our values, should have paid. We continue to support journalism excellence in the digital age. And we do not want our foundation partners to think that journalism controversies are too hot for them to handle. Instead, we want to send the message that when things go wrong the best action is to admit the error and get back to work.

Ibarguen said that he had hoped that Lehrer would focus more broadly on decision-making, which he had written about frequently, but the speech was more focused on the writer's own problems. "In retrospect, as a foundation that stands for quality journalism, paying a speaker's fee was wrong," Ibarguen said.

"My mistakes have caused deep pain to those I care about," Lehrer said in his speech. "I am constantly remembering all those people I've hurt and let down -- friends, family, colleagues. My wife, my parents, my editors. I think about all the readers I've disappointed, people who paid good money for my book and now don't want it on their shelves."

Source: (c)2013 The Miami Herald. Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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