The deep-pocketed Knight Foundation, like most foundations, has a lofty mission statement:
Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged.
Given such self-regard, the foundation came under fire this week after it gave proven plagiarist, liar and fabricator Jonah Lehrer a platform to speak at a seminar; allowed him to leverage his podium to outline his redemptive aspirations; and paid him $20,000 to do so.
People weren’t happy. Tweeted one critic: “The Future of Journalism: be a fabulist, get caught, journalism foundations pay you $20,000 for a single speech.”
That was Tuesday. Just after the event, Knight Foundation President Alberto Ibargüen told this blog: “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.”
Thanks to the Internet, Ibargüen quickly became unhappy with it. In a post that hit the Web last night, the foundation said it regretted paying the guy:
On Tuesday, the Knight Foundation paid Jonah Lehrer to speak at a community foundation conference. In retrospect, as a foundation that has long stood for quality journalism, paying a speaker’s fee was inappropriate. 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 full-throated contrition didn’t impress several commenters on the Knight Foundation site: “You have set journalism back 20 years. Fire yourselves for funding plagiarism,” writes one. Others knock the foundation for a dumb decision, for following through with such a clearly flawed plan, etc.
The Erik Wemple Blog is standing up in applause. Every organization makes mistakes, be it a news organization, a nonprofit, a Fortune 500 company, whatever. They’re all going to make mistakes that, to people sitting at their keyboards, are obvious, blatant, offensive and easily avoidable. We’re reminded of that iron law every time we scan the headlines.
What matters is how they respond. Here, Knight pulled off an ethical reevaluation and apology within 32 hours of its misdeeds. That’s remarkable turnaround. If only news organizations could be so quick to acknowledge their mistakes.