Knight Foundation says it was a mistake to pay Jonah Lehrer $20,000


At a Knight Foundation lunch Tuesday, Jonah Lehrer apologized for plagiarism, fabrication and other ethical lapses in his articles and books. Now the Knight Foundation is apologizing for paying Lehrer $20,000 to speak at that lunch. Knight reveals that it invited Lehrer to speak after he had already lost jobs with The New Yorker and Wired for repeatedly misrepresenting his work as original:

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 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.

The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple spoke with Knight CEO and President Alberto Ibargüen just after critics questioned the fee; Wemple reports “there wasn’t a lot of dissension among decision-makers” about paying Lehrer. “We would typically pay a speaker sometimes more than that,” Ibargüen told Wemple.

Critics suggested Lehrer should donate the fee. Jeff Bercovici reached Lehrer by phone and asked about that possibility. “I read your article. I have nothing to say to you,” Lehrer told the Forbes reporter.

Scientific American guest writer Taylor Dobbs suggested Lehrer donate the money to a scholarship fund so that “young broke freelancers who might have once aspired to one day be just like you can go to ScienceOnline and learn this craft that you yesterday called a ‘profound privilege.’ That way, maybe those young broke freelancers can learn how not to be just like you.”

Related: Tickets go on sale today for a new show by Mike Daisey, called “On Lying and the Nature of Magic.” Daisey’s lies about Apple manufacturing last year caused “This American Life” to retract the episode that featured his story.

Previous: It’ll take a village to redeem Jonah Lehrer | “Intellectual laziness is a different crime than intellectual dishonesty, but it still needs to be reckoned with” (The New Republic) | Jonah Lehrer apologizes, makes everyone angrier | Jonah Lehrer falls into familiar pattern, fails to face his reckoning | “Every single factual error I’ve made in my journalism career has been seared into my memory” (Science Tomorrow)

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  • Clayton Burns

    Pure, pure misery.

    I suggest that the Knight Foundation establish an analytical unit with some intellectual grasp.

    First, a real unit would smell out a disaster in the making and warn Knight.

    It is not as if this problem had failed previously to cross the desk of Knight. But naturally Knight ignored it.

    Knight should fund projects anywhere in the states based on the recommendations of its analytical unit. I would suggest some serious funding for Chicago, before a cartel eats it up.

    Another case of pure misery: the coverage, including the tawdry Op-Ed business, by The New York Times of the Obama initiatives for 4-plus-year-olds.

    Knight could help The New York Times by educating reporters and its current flimsy Op-Ed writers.

    Academics are in a muddle about education. It makes little difference how much money we pour into it if we have no targets and no pathways. By experimentation, I have discovered that “Winnie-the-Pooh” is an excellent beginning text for pre-school students, who if they cannot read it can have it read to them.

    But we want to know how to build long-term linguistic skills. A powerful beginner’s dictionary is the Cambridge School Dictionary. Let’s take “suspiciously” as an example, working out of the delightful uses of “suspect,” “suspicious,” etc in “Winnie-the-Pooh.” You might encounter students who can’t look up the words in the dictionary because they do not grasp the alphabetical system, or can’t spell the words. Overcoming these problems would be a learning experience for the students and the teachers.

    If instead of fumbling in the same way as Gove in the UK, Obama were to master “Winnie-the- Pooh,” “The House at Pooh Corner,” and the Cambridge School Dictionary so as to be able to discuss them with young students he would get somewhere.

    There is a good grammar, the COBUILD Elementary, but at the beginning stage it is far more important to work on texts and develop the tactile dictionary habit.

    At Knight, the education funding has failed. At The NYT, there is limited or no understanding of how to construct pathways from “Winnie-the-Pooh” to the exceptionally sharp target for students by grades 4 and 5, “The Wind in the Willows,” to the very nice middle-school “Oliver Twist,” and to the ultimate honors English grade 12 goal: Henry James’s “The Wings of the Dove.”

    Vague and untargeted behavior means lapsed reporting in education. Far downstream, uncritically, we invite Jonah Lehrer in for lunch. The cartel feasts on us in Chicago because we can’t understand internal factors. The mind is not just a test car. The NYT can’t cover an education story. Fortunately, the assumptions at the paper prevent the editors from realizing that.

  • Billy Budd

    Truly shameful. The Knight Foundation needs to stop worshiping technology and the “next new thing” — if it cares about the future of journalism, it could use a dose of the basics: How to write and report.

  • mattgriffin

    Good work, Knight Foundation, but late. Perhaps your decision-makers need fresh, dissenting ideas among them.