February 12, 2013

At a talk this afternoon in Miami, Jonah Lehrer acknowledged his plagiarism and fabrications and described how he hopes to redeem his reputation. Lehrer read prepared remarks then answered questions from Knight Foundation President and CEO Alberto Ibargüen and the gathering at the closing lunch for the 2013 “Media Learning Seminar.” A liveblog of highlights appears beneath the video.

Lehrer was paid handsomely for the appearance. “Like most outside speakers at Knight events, he was paid an honorarium. In this case, it was $20,000,” says Knight spokesperson Marika Lynch by email. Ibargüen told The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple, “We would typically pay a speaker sometimes more than that.”

Lehrer resigned from The New Yorker in July after it was revealed he had been recycling his own work for blog posts and had fabricated quotes in at least one of his books. Wired also severed ties with him after an independent investigation found 22 instances of recycling, plagiarism or fabrication.

Archived video of the session appears below, and Lehrer plans to post his remarks on his website in the next few days, he said.

Watch live streaming video from knightfoundation at livestream.com

Live blog of Lehrer’s talk
12:39: Lehrer introduces himself: “For those who do not know who I am, let me give you a brief summary: I’m 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 plagiarized from myself. I lied to a journalist named Michael Moynihan to cover up the Dylan fabrications.”

12:41: “I have broken their trust,” Lehrer says of readers, family, coworkers. Hopes not to fail in same way and that “I might, one day, find a way to fail better.” Says he wanted an accounting of his errors “so I could say I found the broken part and that part has a name.”

12:41: Cites arrogance, “my tendency to believe my own excuses.” But “once I came up with this list of flaws … I realized all my explanations changed nothing.” A “confession is not a solution.”

12:42: “By not accepting responsibility…I kept myself from getting better.”

12:44: Lehrer’s talking about the article about “mental flaws that plague forensic researchers” that he was working on while his “career fell apart.”

12:50: Brings talk back to himself: “I never had a problem contemplating the flaws and bad decisions of others or the comedy of human folly — what ridiculous people these other people are — but I was totally incapable of applying the standard to my own life.”

12:57: “I’ve come to appreciate this fixation on standard operating procedures,” he says. Rules and procedures are how he’ll work his way back. “If I’m lucky enough to write again than whatever I write will be fact-checked and fully footnoted.” He’ll tape all interviews and give copies to interview subjects if they’d like. “The vast majority of journalists don’t need to be shamed into following them [his new rules] … I need the rules because I know that not simply knowing is not enough.”

12:59: “In the past I have quoted a line from the physicist Niels Bohr: An expert, he said, is a man who’s made all the mistakes which can be made in a very narrow field. … But here’s the crucial addendum which I failed for so long to appreciate: Screwing up is not enough. Because I certainly made lots of mistakes, I just tried not to pay attention to them.”

1:00: “I’d like to end with a quote from Bob Dylan, one he actually said … For Dylan manages to compress a brutal fact of life: Failure is both necessary and terrible. … He is speaking a difficult truth, which is really the only kind. … I have learned a difficult truth about myself. I have learned about parts of me that I have tried for too long not to see. But entangled in that truth is the possibility of improvement.”

1:02: I “hope that one day when I tell my young daughter the same story that I just told you I will be a better person because of it. … What I will tell my daughter is that my failure was painful but the pain had a purpose. The pain showed me who I was and how to change.”

1:05: “I need rules because I don’t trust myself to not be arrogant. I need my rules to force me to confront my mistakes, to force me to deal with them every day.”

1:07: “Being careless is a choice, it’s choosing not to care.” Change means “being willing to peel back the veneer of my excuses.”

1:08: “I’m just trying to grapple with my own arrogance and come up with the rules that force me every day to contain it.”

1:09: “Trust is doing what you say and saying what you do. Trust is not about words, it’s not about language … it’s not about an apology, it’s just about doing it.”

1:10: “It’s not enough that I’ve been humbled. I still may be arrogant.”

1:13: “I think my work has been thoroughly investigated and fact-checked online. It’s been through private fact-checks as well. There have been other mistakes. … From Milton Glaser, an artist I greatly admire, … it became clear that he contested several of the quotes. He didn’t think they were exact quotes. I don’t have tape recordings of my conversations with him so I absolutely accept his response. … Will I publish an accounting? I haven’t thought about that.”

1:19: “Being smart, having a high IQ can actually make you more vulnerable to [biases] … Self-awareness is not enough, not even close … Listing my flaws, saying I’m arrogant is not gonna make me humble. … The self-blindness makes me very, very sad.”

1:21: “For me the busy-ness was a way to avoid the reckoning. … It’s precisely when you do feel busy and harried and when you don’t have time for them that they’re [questions] the most essential.”

1:23: “In the immediate aftermath of my resignation, I didn’t think I was ever gonna write again. I thought about going back to graduate school and becoming a teacher, and maybe one day I will do those things. But what I found was that, at my lowest point, when I didn’t know what else to do, I found myself at 3 a.m. trying to write, typing, just trying to get it out, trying to learn myself, trying to figure myself out, trying to grapple, trying to wrestle with it. And as the months went by and I kept on writing — I’m still trying to write for a few hours every day — I was rediscovering … that writing was my own way of making sense of the world, making sense of myself. And so that’s why I’m still trying to do it. And I have no idea if I will, but what I can say for now is I have rediscovered my love of the job. … I still want to write because I remembered when it was too late how much I love writing.”

Related: “I am convinced that unless I talk openly about what I’ve learned so far, unless I hold myself accountable in public, then the lessons will not last,” Lehrer said in his opening remarks, as published by Jim Romenesko. || Lehrer: “Whatever I do next will be shadowed by what I’ve done” (Erik Wemple blog)

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Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at TBD.com and managing editor of Washington City…
Andrew Beaujon

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