Knight Foundation defends paying plagiarist $20k to talk about himself

At the Washington Post, Erik Wemple reports that the Knight Foundation defended its decision to pay journalistic fraud Jonah Lehrer $20,000 to deliver a speech.

Alberto Ibargüen, the foundation’s president, tells the Erik Wemple Blog that there wasn’t a lot of dissension among decision-makers about the Lehrer speaking budget. ... “I was happy with it, because people stayed riveted, people were discussing both the speech, the emotion of it, the Twitter feed that played right with it. And then, 15, 20, 30 minutes, later pockets of people were still standing around discussing it.”

It looks like they didn't really think through what they were doing:

“I think his speech turned out to be significantly more about himself than I had expected,” says Ibargüen.

I mean, just look at that. Just think for a moment about how completely clueless that man is.

Previously: Knight Foundation pays $20,000 to Jonah Lehrer for speech about his lies

Update: The foundation now writes that paying Lehrer to speak "was a mistake".


  1. Is there a good backgrounder somewhere for someone who has been mostly ignorant of the existence of Jonah Lehrer up to this point?  I’m a little puzzled by the extent of the outrage you seem to be projecting here, for example.  It seems he plagiarized himself?  While, of course, that’s still plagiarism and wrong, it just never strikes me as being anywhere near as bad as passing off someone else’s work as your own.  But, I’m even more clueless than Mr. Ibargüen on this one, I freely admit.

    1. Here’s the key article:

    2. The outrage is mostly journalistic. He betrayed a couple of the main doctrines of the profession. (At least) one time, he did that to the hindrance of another journalist.

      I don’t believe the public really gives a shit. But journalists run the media (obviously) and when they want to destroy something or someone, it’s a very public event.

  2. I thought the Knight Foundation concentrated on shadowy flights into the dangerous world of a man who does not exist?

    1. OK, but do you still like it now that you know he made his preferred narrative work by inventing quotes and possibly other facts?

  3. > I mean, just look at that.

    Did anyone else start looking for a photo of some banana-related item at that last line?  I think I’m brainwashed now.

  4. Did Jonah Lehrer take a job from you? Multiple jobs? Did he elbow you on the subway? The hate-on you have for a guy who plagiarized his own work and maybe made up a Bob Dylan quote is, well, it’s just weird, and misplaced.

    1. “a guy who plagiarized his own work and maybe made up a Bob Dylan quote”

      That’s all he did? In his speech, Leher said he also plagiarized other writers, definitely (not “maybe”) made up Bob Dylan quotes, and repeatedly lied about doing so.

    2. “Maybe made up a Bob Dylan quote”

      You could always just read up on what he did, you know.

      Since you asked, though, my attitude is that Lehrer and Knight must be flayed because a) plagiarists and fakers make literary hoaxes unfashionable, and b) their behavior serves the notion that journalism is merely the juvenilia of public intellectuals.

  5. So, better or worse than Johann Hari? Or the German minister who resigned after plagiarizing for her PhD thesis and condemning a different German minister for doing the same thing?

  6. What he failed to realize in that moment that the pockets of people standing around still discussing it, we in fact discussing the very real possibility that the foundation was being run by someone with out any common sense.  That paying $20K to this pinnacle of what every journalist should avoid becoming was possibly the dumbest thing they had ever seen.  They were seen later leaving discussing a plan to see if they could sell the foundation a new sort of media to print on… invisible except to the very wise….

  7. I’ve enjoyed Mr. Lehrer’s work, and thought he was an excellent story-teller the time I saw him in person. After reading Michael Moynihan’s account of confronting him over his fabricated Dylan quotes, I began to suspect that Lehrer had a more than mildly problematic relationship with the truth. (Moynihan, in the short interview with Robert Wright below, recounts that after he caught him Lehrer continued to compound his lies, even though the new lies wouldn’t be likely to help, and even though they would be easy to catch too.) The report about his speech to the Knight Foundation didn’t do much to change my mind. I have a feeling that Lehrer’s second act may not end up much better than the first, though I hope he’ll get back on a good track. 

    As for his $20,000, I don’t know what to say. Sounds like a nice case of falling upward, and I can’t really see what’s in it for the foundation.

    1. As I said in the previous BoingBoing thread on the topic, Lehrer seems to be a fortunate beneficiary of the “Glass Floor” — too many people’s and organisations’ reputations were invested in this confidence artist to allow him to fail.

      1. I like the idea, but wouldn’t call it a “Glass Floor”. Maybe “Concrete Floor” because I think he’s so arrogant he doesn’t care to see what’s below him, to where he could sink.

        1. I still prefer Glass Ceiling/Floor — it reflects the invisibility of the barrier to observers who wonder why a given person never rises/falls beyond a certain point.

          Besides, people like Lehrer are so arrogant that after that certain point they don’t even bother looking down.

  8. Does it strike anybody else as a terribly bad sign that somebody associated with a foundation ostensibly dedicated to journalism would defend an action based on the all-important ‘how entertaining people found it’ metric?

    C’mon, guys, if we wanted to maximize entertainment value, it’d be 100% fictionalized infotainment all the time. You. Really. Don’t. Want. To. Go. There.

  9. I’m guessing Mr. Ibargüen was an executive in the news biz before he became President of the Knight Foundation — that’s exactly the sort of bone-headed, brand-destroying decision I came to to expect from senior managers in the media-industrial complex.

  10. Another reason to hate Lehrer’s work is that while he may have been, stylistically, a good writer, he was a lousy communicator of science. Wherever science came into conflict with his narrative, he let his narrative win.  As a neuroscientist myself, who cares a lot about public communication of neuroscience findings, Lehrer drove me crazy long before the fabrication and self-churning came to light.

    Another good article:

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