Knight Foundation apologizes for paying Jonah Lehrer $20,000 for plagiarism talk

After initially defending the payment, the Knight Foundation apologized for paying Lehrer to talk about his own plagiarism. Lehrer resigned from the New Yorker in July after he was caught recycling his own material and fabricating quotes.

After initially defending the payment, the Knight Foundation has apologized for paying disgraced former New Yorker science writer Jonah Lehrer $20,000 to talk about his own plagiarism at a seminar Tuesday.

"In retrospect, as a foundation that has long stood for quality journalism, paying a speaker’s fee was inappropriate," the foundation said in a message posted on its website Wednesday night. "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 foundation's five-figure payment to Lehrer had sparked debate over whether the writer should have accepted the fee.

Lehrer resigned from The New Yorker last July after he was caught recycling his own work and inventing Bob Dylan quotations.

Lehrer acknowledged his plagiarism and fabrications, and he answered questions from Knight Foundation President and CEO Alberto Ibargüen and other participants at the 2013 Media Learning Seminar held in Miami. He blamed his lies on "arrogance" and a "need for attention." 

“Like most outside speakers at Knight events, he was paid an honorarium. In this case, it was $20,000,” Knight spokeswoman Marika Lynch told Poynter.org via email. 

But Lehrer's hefty fee for the seminar was questioned by a number of journalists.

"A man who truly wants to atone for his sins does not need to be paid five figures to do so," wrote Amy Wallace of Los Angeles magazine.

Forbes staff writer Jeff Bercovici wondered whether Lehrer was "humblebragging" his way back into journalism with his confession.

"Any crisis PR consultant worth her retainer would certainly advise him to decline the fee," Bercovici wrote.

Ibargüen told The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple that he could "think of a number of instances" in which the Knight Foundation had paid their speakers more.

Lehrer introduced himself to a crowd of 300 at the seminar as "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," he said. "I plagiarized from myself."

Lehrer said he had broken the trust of his readers, family and co-workers. "By not accepting responsibility … I kept myself from getting better," he said.

He acknowledged that he'd started to appreciate "this fixation on standard operating procedures."  

"If I’m lucky enough to write again, then whatever I write will be fact-checked and fully footnoted," he said.

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