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.