Journalism foundation gives journalist $20,000 after lying, plagiarism incident

Knight Foundation

 (Knight Foundation)

Want to know how to earn big money in journalism? Lie, make up quotes and plagiarize. While those actions cost journalist Jonah Lehrer reputable employment, they didn't stop one of the most well-known journalism foundations from paying him $20,000 to speak at an event.

Journalism sure has come a long way.

According to Politico, Lehrer "resigned from The New Yorker following a report today [July 30, 2012] that he fabricated quotes by Bob Dylan in his new book." 

How did that happen? Well, Tablet magazine's Michael Moynihan thought quotes in the book, aptly titled "Imagine," seemed bogus. He was right. 

Lehrer was later fired from WIRED magazine for his "failure to meet WIRED editorial standards." 

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Notice a trend?

Ordinarily, one incident of serious plagiarism alone would be enough to end your journalism career. (See: Jayson Blair and Janet Cooke for prime examples.) Thanks to the Knight Foundation, that was enough to get a check bigger than most people will see in a lifetime for speaking at Knight's Media Learning Seminar this week on Februay 12.

Initially, the foundation was proud of its efforts, running a story that detailed the event, mentioning that "Lehrer broke the basic code of journalism." And there was also this: "There are important lessons here for all of us as decision makers and supporters of information projects," the story quoted Knight Foundation President Alberto Ibargüen saying.

Their story changed when news got out about how ridiculous their actions had been -- paying Lehrer $20,000 to speak. In an interview with The Huffington Post, Ibargüen defended the incident but didn't question that "some people are still angry and feel he should be punished."

This from Knight which claims it "supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts." 

Then again, I guess lying and plagiarism are kind of "transformational."

The criticism certainly helped transform Knight's response. At 10:08 p.m. on Feb. 13, the foundation issued an apology under the headline "Knight Foundation regrets paying Lehrer speaking fee." The apology mentions not wanting to upset "partners." The $2-billion foundation works with many organizations and paid out $112 million in donations in 2011 to organizations such as $1.9 million to the liberal journalism start-up Pro Publica.

Perhaps this year, Knight will spend some of its war chest to fund a program in journalism ethics. It might try out the courses on its own leadership.

Dan Gainor is the Media Research Center's Vice President for Business and Culture. He writes frequently about media for Fox News Opinion. He can also be contacted on Facebook and Twitter as dangainor.