Standing beside a large screen displaying brutal comments on Twitter, the disgraced science writer Jonah Lehrer today delivered a talk that seemed to be aimed primarily at rehabilitating his writing career, rather than offering any insights on his journalistic misdeeds.
Lehrer was paid $20,000 for his talk by the Knight Foundation, according to Andrew Sherry, the foundation's spokesman. Lehrer spoke at a Knight Foundation journalism conference in Miami. (The Knight Fellowships at MIT were established by a grant from the Knight Foundation.)
In his first public remarks since resigning from The New Yorker last summer, Lehrer began by apologizing to his readers and his colleagues. "My mistakes have caused deep pain to those I care about…I am profoundly sorry," he said. "It is my hope that someday my transgressions might be forgiven."
Lehrer said he was apologizing because he wanted to avoid such problems in the future, and to learn "to fail better." He said he wanted to have an accounting of his mistakes, so he "could explain it in a talk like this," but he did not share that accounting with the audience or those following a live webcast. Nor did he add anything new to what's already been reported about his fabrications and plagiarism, even when asked about that during a question period following his talk.
Lehrer resigned from The New Yorker last summer after revelations that he had fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan and others and lied about it; that he had plagiarized; and that he had reused material written for older blog posts in new posts. His book Imagine was recalled by the publisher. And an investigation launched by Wired cost him his job there.
About 10 minutes into his talk, after the apologies, he said, "What I'd like to talk about today is how I'm attempting to confront my mistakes in the future. I don't have any wisdom. Just a story that gives me a small measure of comfort." He then launched into a classic, Lehrer-style story about the problems that plague forensic scientists, with examples of how fingerprints can be misinterpreted through unwitting self-deceit on the part of the examiners.
Whether Lehrer realized it or not, the story made it seem as if he were trying to blame his errors on human nature, not on his own bad choices. Even by his own admission, Lehrer's errors were not the result of self-deception. He blamed the misdeeds on "my arrogance, my desire for attention, my willingness to take shortcuts." Those qualities are not uncommon among journalists, but most journalists, despite their arrogance or need for attention, don't do what Lehrer did.
The large screen that stood beside him as he spoke displayed the meeting's Twitter stream (hashtag #infoneeds), where Lehrer was criticized and even mocked by people listening to his talk at the meeting or online.
Lehrer said he hoped to earn back the trust of his readers and to re-establish his career as a journalist, a job he said he loves. I couldn't help but wonder whether he was apologizing to earn himself the right to compete again, as some people have suggested was the case with Lance Armstrong.
Near the end, he said, "I have learned a difficult truth about myself." And he said he hopes that one day "when I tell my daughter the same story I've just told you, I will be a better person because of it."
What Lehrer missed was this: We don't know him personally. We cared about him because of what he wrote. Now that we know that his writing was deeply flawed and we can't trust it, many of us will not be interested in what he has learned about himself.
[Lehrer's talk has been posted here by the Knight Foundation. This post was updated about 4pm with additional information.]