Jonah Lehrer and the $20,000 Apology Speech


In July 2012 I blogged about Jonah Lehrer, the rising journalist and author of three books who flamed out over charges of fabrication and plagiarism, and his apology.  Even though it was a decent apology, it seemed unlikely that Lehrer would soon be trusted as a public figure.

Jonah Lehrer recounts his misdeeds and apologizes at the Knight Foundation on February 12, 2013

Jonah Lehrer recounts his misdeeds and apologizes at the Knight Foundation on February 12, 2013

Mea CulpaNow Lehrer is back in the news for delivering a lecture to the Knight Foundation, accepting a $20,000 honorarium for the event.

Lehrer took the opportunity to repeat his apology, dissect his deplorable behavior in considerable detail, and suggest a way forward for himself. The Knight Foundation website has the video of Lehrer’s remarks as well as a liveblog of what he said.

I thought Lehrer was exceptionally humble and contrite. He accepts that he broke trust with his readers. He details his many failings by name and victim. He admits that he was arrogant and thought that the rules did not apply to him. He agrees that “a confession is not a solution.” He offers some prescriptions for what it will take for him to overcome his deficiencies as a professional.


Many critics were not satisfied by Lehrer’s remarks.

Many were offended by the sum of money he was offered.  It seems many critics want Lehrer to remain silent in silent shame.

But I think society is well-served by offenders who are willing to be so publicly accountable for their misdeeds.  After his remarks, Lehrer was willing to take questions, and some questions were very personal and pointed. He handled them with grace and humility.

Live Twitter Stream

The Knight Foundation also projected the live Twitter stream as Lehrer was talking and taking Q&A. Talk about vicious.

During the Q&A, one member of the audience asked Lehrer to weigh in on the Lance Armstrong apology.  Lehrer wisely declined, answering that it was all he could do to focus on his own misdeeds and apology. He would not judge anyone else. Good for him. It’s a rare offender who can resist the invitation to share the blame.

The attendees heard first-hand from a very smart journalist about the traps laying out there for all professionals. I think that after Lehrer’s remarks any thoughtful attendee should conclude that none of them are different from Jonah Lehrer. That’s their best defense against falling into the trap. If so, the Knight Foundation got its money’s worth.

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