Knight Foundation Sorry It Paid Jonah Lehrer: How It Can Put Its Money Where Its Mouth Is

The journalism organization has been invited to participate in a plagiarism summit. Will it accept?

on February 14 2013 11:17 AM

Following a public outcry that reverberated throughout the journalism community, the Knight Foundation on Wednesday said it should never have paid Jonah Lehrer for a speaking engagement in Miami this week.

The Florida-based nonprofit journalism organization admitted in a blog post that paying the fallen pop-science writer a speaking fee of $20,000 was a lapse in judgment. “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,” the foundation said. “We regret our mistake.”

Lehrer, who resigned from the New Yorker last year after he was discovered to have plagiarized and fabricated some of his material, made his first extensive public statements at a Knight Foundation seminar on Tuesday. Many in the journalism community became enraged after Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon reported the amount Lehrer was paid. As a backlash, journalists on Wednesday made it a point to recognize the good work of their peers and colleagues under the Twitter hashtag #Worth20K.

In its blog post, the Knight Foundation said the fee was “not unusual” for a well-known speaker at a large event. However, it conceded that paying such a fee to an admitted plagiarist was inappropriate in light of its stated mission to promote quality journalism.

Meanwhile, some journalists think the foundation can and should make amends with more than a verbal mea culpa. Teresa Schmedding, who is organizing a plagiarism summit at the American Copy Editors Society, or ACES, conference this spring, said the Knight Foundation has an open invitation to attend the event and be part of the discussion.

“I saw their posting last night admitting it was mistake, which I thought was good,” Schmedding said in an email. “I’m trying to contact them ... to offer them an opportunity to participate in the summit to help fix the problem.”

ACES’s National Summit on Plagiarism and Fabrication is a co-venture between ACES and a handful of journalism organizations, including the Society of Professional Journalists, the Online News Association, the American Society of News Editors, the Canadian Association of Journalists, the Radio-Television Digital News Association and Local Independent Online News Publishers.

Schmedding, an editor at the Daily Herald and president of ACES, said securing enough funding for the event has been a challenge. At the same time, she lamented the fact that Lehrer’s past transgressions haven’t seemed to hurt his bankability.

“It’s ironic that I just received a $20,000 grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation to help underwrite the cost of the summit,” she said. “One man gets $20,000 for betraying everything journalism stands for, while an entire team of journalism organizations gets $20,000 to try to fix the damage he, and others like him, have done to our industry. Just doesn’t seem right.”

Click here for more information on ACES’s plagiarism and fabrication summit. Knight Foundation, the ball is in your court.

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