The Knight Foundation is a non-profit organization whose aim is “to promote excellence in journalism.” It was formed by the Knight brothers, John S. and James L. Knight (Jack and Jim) in Florida in 1950.
Before the foundation was formed, the Knight brothers from Akron, Ohio established the Knight Memorial Education Fund in 1940, which existed until December 1950 when its assets were transferred to the newly formed Knight Foundation.
Carrying out the work of the Knight Memorial Education Fund, the foundation provided small aids to local educational, cultural, and social service institutions, and even journalism-related causes. For the first decade, the foundation’s assets came from contributions from The Akron Beacon Journal and the Miami Herald, as well as from personal gifts by Jack and Jim Knight.
Years later, journalism, especially the education of journalists, became a matter of more pronounced funding interest.
The Knight Foundation says it “supports free expression and journalistic excellence in the digital age,” with the goal of promoting informed and engage communities – which are essential to a healthy democracy.
The organization has three divisions: Journalism & Media Innovation; Engaged Communities; and Fostering the Arts. These divisions operate separately, but under the same umbrella, reporting to the same board members and leadership.
Today, the Knight Foundation, with a funding of $2.4 billion, has a special focus on 26 communities where the Knight brothers once published newspapers.
Knight Foundation shelling out thousands of dollars to a disgraced “journalist”
The Knight Foundation has definitely contributed a lot to the artistic and cultural renaissance of Miami. However, it is quite alarming that the organization paid Jonah Lehrer, a writer best known for plagiarism and fabrication, to speak at Knight Foundation’s 2013 Media Learning Seminar and was even interviewed by Alberto Ibarguen, the current president and CEO of the Knight Foundation. The organization even went above and beyond by giving Leher a whopping $20,000 fee.
The three-day event was funded by the Engaged Communities branch of the Knight Foundation and featured all types of media, academic, business and nonprofit heavyweights from around the country.
Prior to the said event, Lehrer was involved in a scandal wherein he was proven guilty of plagiarizing, fabricating quotes, and lying to the journalist who caught him. He was forced to resign from The New Yorker, and was fired from Wired magazine for this reason.
In his speech, Lahrer admitted and “apologized” for plagiarism, fabrication, and other ethical lapses in his work. He blames his “arrogance, need for attention, carelessness, the ability to make excuses to explain my carelessness and my tendency to believe my own excuses” for his lies, saying he could not protect himself from himself.
The Knight Foundation thought that inviting a plagiarist, liar, and fabricator of a writer was a brilliant idea.
At first, Ibarguen and Co. liked Lehrer’s speech. Ibargüen told The Washington Post, “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.”
Many people weren’t as impressed. As Lehrer’s speech was being broadcast live, he was flooded by a live feed of tweets reacting to him, which was projected to a giant screen next to the stage. Most tweets were critical in nature and a lot came from journalists. Some of the online reactions on Twitter include:
“Don’t understand why Lehrer needs a set of special rules. Just follow one simple rule of journalism: tell the truth. #infoneeds” – Brooke Borel (@brookeborel).
“Lehrer talks like ease of fabricating quotes is ever-present temptation for all journalists. Does he really think that? #infoneeds” – Jeff Bercovici (@jeffbercovici).
Lehrer’s speech and the fact that he was speaking at a journalism foundation event later created a buzz online. The Knight Foundation was under fire for letting someone like Lehrer use the podium to voice out his redemptive aspirations and paid him tens of thousands of dollars to do so.
Critics say the foundation was funding plagiarism, while others also suggest Lehrer to just donate the money he received from the Knight Foundation.
Knight Foundation “regrets” their mistake
After more than 24 hours since letting Lehrer give his speech at their event and receiving backlash for it, the Knight Foundation issued an “apology.” However, the apology seemed to have been only issued because it became controversial.
The Knight Foundation said in a blog post that it “regrets” paying Lehrer to speak. The organization wrote: “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.”
In the organization’s defense, Ibargüen told The Huffington Post in an interview that they invited Lehrer to talk about the decision-making process, which was the subject of his book, “How We Decide.” Ibargüen also said that Lehrer talked in a “very dramatic, very compelling way,” about his own admittedly bad decision-making process because he wrote that book.
The organization said they considered Lehrer as a speaker before his plagiarism scandal broke out in 2012. Yet, they still invited him even after he was exposed for making up quotes, recycling his own materials, and plagiarizing others.
Explaining the amount paid to Lehrer, the organization said that it was not an unusual amount to be given to a well-known author to speak at a large conference. Still, they reiterated that it was not something that they should have paid, given their values.
The organization also tried to defend itself by saying they did not tell Lehrer what to say. Yet, they knew that he would include “an exploration of his own self-destructive decision-making,” which was his plagiarism scandal and failure in his field. Additionally, the organization even thought that his failed decision-making would make his speech even more “poignant.”
Nonetheless, Ibargüen said he understands the perspective of those critical of Knight for paying Lether to speak and did not question the anger and feelings of the people about what Lehrer did.
The Knight Foundation ended its apology by saying that they continue to support journalism excellence in the digital age and that they want to send the message that “when things go wrong the best action is to admit the error and get back to work.”
Investing on NewsGuard
The Knight Foundation is one of the investors of NewsGuard, a browser extension made by Steven Brill and Gordon Crovitz of NewsGuard Technologies. Other investors of NewsGuard include Nicholas Penniman IV, Nicholas Penniman V, Publicis Groupe, Eijk van Otterloo, Jules Kroll, Cox Investment Holdings, Inc., Blue Haven Initiative, John McCarter, Fitz Gate Ventures, L.P., Leslie and Charlotte Hill, Thomas Glocer, Michael Hill, and John Levy.
NewsGuard aims to remove “fake news” on the internet by hiring dozens of journalists to review more than 7,000 news and information websites that are commonly accessed in the U.S. NewsGuard will label news sources with either a green or red icon, which indicates its general trustworthiness and whether it disseminates stories labeled as fake news.
The Knight Foundation, together with American analytics and advisory company Gallup, conducted a study to test NewGuard’s ratings. They asked more than 2,000 adults in the U.S. to rate the accuracy of 12 news articles on a five-point scale. Some participants saw articles with NewsGuard’s ratings, while others didn’t. The results showed that participants saw news sources to be more accurate when they had a green icon attached compared to those with a red icon. They also perceived news sources with a green icon more trustworthy than those without an icon at all.
Sources for this TruthWiki include: