February 12, 2013

Poynter reported earlier today that disgraced ex-science reporter/cerebral guy Jonah Lehrer received $20,000 for a speech that he gave today at a Knight Foundation seminar. The news prompted its share of Twitterrage:

What’s controversial on Twitter, though, doesn’t appear to have been controversial in the conference rooms of the Knight Foundation, which “supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts.” 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.

“We would typically pay a speaker sometimes more than that,” says Ibargüen, whose organization gave out $110 million in grants last year and racked up $15 million in administrative costs. “I can think of a number of instances in which we paid more.” Lehrer, fire your agent.

On one level, at least, Ibargüen appreciated the return on investment. “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.”

So stipulated. But Ibarguen also betrays a bit of disappointment with Lehrer’s spiel. The purpose of the conference was to assist leaders of community foundations to meet the informational needs of their constituents. Lehrer droned on for quite a spell about Lehrer, his past, his mistakes, his thirst for standard operating procedures to protect himself from Jonah Lehrer. Those passages weren’t of much relevance to any world outside of Lehrerville. “I think his speech turned out to be significantly more about himself than I had expected,” says Ibargüen. “But nevertheless, I thought there were…things in there about trust and arrogance and groupthink and the appeal of inconvenient ideas that are still relevant for that group.”

Whatever his objections, Ibargüen wasn’t going to try to police the speech. “You’re not going to tell the speaker” what to say, says Ibargüen.

Did Ibargüen & Co. have any misgivings about paying a proven plagiarist and fabricator a five-figure sum? No misgivings about the money, says Ibargüen. But he did give a lot of thought to the appropriateness of the speaker. The notion of having Lehrer speak before the confab, says Ibargüen, originated before the 2012 Lehrer scandal. The concepts in “How We Decide,” a thumbsucking Lehrer book from 2009, prompted Knight to consider Lehrer for a spot in front of the podium. “Our interest was about the book ‘How We Decide,’ and in spite of what happened, we were still interested in having him,” says Ibargüen.

Perhaps it’s just good business for a nonprofit like the Knight Foundation to mix it up by putting a reviled intellectual phony before its people. When asked if controversy is healthy at such an event, Ibargüen responded, “This is a field where controversy—where when people speak their mind, controversy sometimes follows and that’s OK with me.”

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.