In the fall of 2009, Edward Wasserman invited disgraced journalist Jayson Blair to speak at Washington and Lee University’s Journalism Ethics Institute. The title of his talk was “Lessons Learned.”
Did people protest it? I asked Wasserman, who recently left Lexington, Virginia, to become dean of Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.
“There was one guy from a very conservative media outlet who just lodged his teeth into my ankle about this and wouldn’t let go,” he recalled in our phone conversation. “Apart from him it didn’t get a lot of traction.” (I believe Wasserman’s referring to Media Research Center and its Newsbusters blog, which reported on Blair’s appearance.)
Wasserman says he paid Blair $3,000 for his appearance, which was the standard fee for ethics institute speakers in 2009.
“He came down for a couple of days. It wasn’t just a speech, it was a two-day seminar, so the compensation wasn’t ridiculous.”
I asked Wasserman if he’d consider inviting Jonah Lehrer to an ethics program.
“Sure, in a heartbeat. He’s a brilliant guy. I’d be very interested in having him speak.”
How much would he pay Lehrer?
“I’d pay him what I pay what I pay everybody else — it’s now $5,000 — but not any more.”
What does Wasserman think about the Knight Foundation paying $20,000 to Lehrer?
“I thought it was excessive. I have a lot of respect for the Knight people but I just think that that’s a lot of money.”
UPDATE: Just as I finished this post, Jayson Blair responded to an email I sent earlier this afternoon in which I asked about Lehrer’s speaking fee.
“I am a little surprised that the Knight Foundation got caught flat-footed on this one. It seems pretty obvious that you have to be cautious about compensating people for doing penance in their own profession. It makes sense to me for people to be paid to cover the expenses and modestly for their time. It’s a particutarly sensitive issue when you are educating an audience in a professional situation. When I speak, I’ll generally use the honorarium to cover my travel and lodging expenses, and sometimes, although not often, money I had forgone through not working. I usual take the rest and donate it to someone.
“I get it from Jonah Lehrer’s perspective in many regards. He probably needs income and believes that he’s figured out the lessons that can be learned from his situation. It seems naive to me, based on my experience in writing my book way too soon, to think you have a clear picture of those lessons so early on. In the long term, the issue of public perception comes at a cost that often makes the money not worth it. But, like I said, I get it, you’ve got to live even if it digs the public perception hole a bit deeper. It just seems from the stories I read that neither Knight or Lehrer saw what to anyone who had been down this road the mines and ditches that abound.”