Jonah Lehrer, the disgraced New Yorker writer, does not know how to do journalism. We have established this, repeatedly: he "plagiarizes" from himself. He actually plagiarizes from others. He fabricates quotes. He lies. This is why he was fired from The New Yorker, and why he is not currently employed as a journalist.
So why did the Knight Foundation—dedicated to "quality journalism"—pay him $20,000 to give a keynote speech at one of their events?
In what world is this, remotely, acceptable? That Lehrer was invited to give a speech at an event about journalism in the first place is stupid enough. But that he was paid to do so goes beyond stupid. It's offensive. The guy has broken the simplest and most fundamental rules of journalism. He has nothing to teach anyone. His failures weren't failures of process or system, from which writers and editors might learn. They were failures of Jonah Lehrer.
So what did Jonah Lehrer get paid a little less than half of the U.S. median household income to say?
"I could stop here, but there's a reason I want to talk today about my failures. I am convinced that unless I talk openly about what I've learned so far, unless I hold myself accountable in public, then the lessons will not last. I will lose the only consolation of my failure, which is the promise that I will not fail like this again, that I might one day find a way to fail better."
The speech was billed as an apology, but it wasn't. It's was gross, public self-absolution, a glib reframing of his fraud and plagiarism as procedural errors—"mistakes," like the mistakes made by great scientists in their search for the truth. We should all work together to learn from Jonah Lehrer's mistakes. (The lesson of Jonah Lehrer's mistakes: Do not trust Jonah Lehrer, ever.)
Lehrer treated the audience not as people from whom he should seek forgiveness but as witnesses to his own newfound accountability. It should go without saying that I have no desire to help Jonah Lehrer hold himself accountable and resent being implicated in his therapeutic process. I'm not his therapist. I'm not his AA sponsor. If Lehrer needs my help, if he needs the help of a public audience, to ensure that he will remember to follow the most basic rules of journalism, he should not be a journalist.
Anyway, no one should be surprised that Lehrer's big "public apology" is about Lehrer. Plagiarists and fabricators are narcissists. They don't seem to understand that other people exist, and therefore find it OK to steal or invent their words, to suit their own purposes.
And the Knight Foundation is giving him 20,000 reasons to think that way. In a world where journalistic standards mean anything, Lehrer should be toxic and unemployable, and anyone who tries to hire him should lose their own jobs. But there was the Knight Foundation, unashamed, inviting him to stand onstage and demand that we all participate in his own self-betterment program, that we all bear witness to his ritual self-abuse, that we all help him become a better writer. The world is what Jonah Lehrer believes it is.