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Knight Errant

Feb 25, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 23
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You may remember the downfall last summer of Jonah Lehrer, a popular journalist and author of the bestselling books Proust Was a Neuro-scientist and Imagine: How Creativity Works. Despite Lehrer’s well-polished conclusions—crafted to make NPR listeners feel smarter than they actually are—we’re pretty confident in saying that Proust was not actually a neuroscientist, and no one really has a good idea of how creativity works.

Stephen Glass

We did, however, learn how Lehrer’s creativity worked: by misappropriating the work of others and fabrication. (Daily Beast writer and occasional Weekly Standard contributor Michael C. Moynihan deserves credit for his skillful work exposing Lehrer’s fraud.) Everyone in the hipster end of the intellectual wading pool was at a loss to explain why such a promising young journalist had self-immolated. 

The irony here is that this might be one aspect of human nature that is readily explained. Here’s a big clue, courtesy of the Los Angeles Times, which reported in 2010 that the “Holly-wood Hills residence and studio of the late iconic photographer Julius Shulman has sold for $2.25 million.” The buyer was a then-29-year-old Jonah Lehrer, who obviously had millions of reasons to make his work sound more exciting than it was.

A few days after his fall from grace last July, an item on Forbes.com was headlined “Jonah Lehrer Was Going to Give a Speech on Ethics. It’s Canceled, Obviously.” But as it turns out, it’s not so obvious that paying Lehrer to talk about ethics is a laughable idea. Last week, the Knight Foundation—started by the founders of the once mighty Knight Ridder newspaper chain to support “transformational ideas that promote quality journalism [blah, blah, blah]”—gave Lehrer $20,000 for a talk on plagiarism.

Sadly, rewarding bad behavior is nothing new among the high priests of media. When New Republic fabulist Stephen Glass was exposed, the rush of media attention given to Glass prompted one betrayed colleague to complain to 60 Minutes, “What you’re covering now is contrition as a career move.” After an outcry over the Lehrer speech, the Knight Foundation eventually tweeted: “You’ve spoken, we agree—it was a mistake for a journalism foundation to pay Jonah Lehrer for a speech.” Somehow, we’re not reassured. Does a journalism foundation that had to be publicly shamed into admitting it made a “mistake” by cutting a huge check to a plagiarist know anything of morality beyond the difference between good publicity and bad publicity?

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