The Knight Foundation's deep pockets are unarguably the single biggest contributor to the artistic and cultural renaissance of Miami. We should rightfully be grateful to the Knight Foundation.
For this reason it is deeply troubling to witness the national embarrassment the Knight Foundation stepped in when they paid disgraced journalist and plagiarizer Jonah Lehrer 20,000 dollars to speak at its recent Media Learning Seminar. The Knight Foundation, an organization whose mission is to help define the future of journalism, set a horrible example by promoting someone guilty of plagiarism. It was indeed reckless to pay Lehrer any speaking fee, and quite honestly, the public's fuss should have transpired before the fact, rather than after it.
Still, the Knight Foundation shelled out $20,000 for a 45-minute speech to a disgraced journalist while the Herald can hardly even pay its writers to report the news.
Anyway, the Knight Foundation apologized for paying Lehrer, but the apology only made things worse. The only reason they apologized was because it became controversial.
Shortly after Lehrer spoke, Knight Foundation President Alberto 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.
Ibargüen and Co. liked the speech, initial reaction and optics.
If not for a stern lambasting on Twitter later, they'd of thought themselves cutting-edge.
This beckons a question.
Does this not lack integrity? Discipline? Conviction?
The foundation has done so much for Miami; is this a case in which Miami should look the other way? Or, does this kerfuffle illustrate (in an embarrassing, nationally recognized way) that Knight's judgment can and should be questioned, particularly during a time when they are currently accepting submissions for the 2013 Knight Arts challenge? People all over South Florida right now are on computers writing up grants for the 2013 Knight Arts Challenge. During the last five years, Knight Arts have funded 186 ideas in Miami with millions of dollars. Almost every art institution in Miami is somehow connected and indebted to the Knight Foundation.
Is it wrong to say the Knight Foundation is too powerful? Is it ironic to say this when the Miami Herald may be teetering into non-existence in the next five years?
Is it even fair to link the Knight Arts Challenge to the Jonah Lehrer scandal? To answer that question accurately, one must navigate through the labyrinth that is the Knight Foundation.
John S. and James L. Knight (Jack and Jim) were brothers from Akron, Ohio who grew a relatively small business (one newspaper, The Akron Beacon Journal) into, at its peak, the largest newspaper empire in the country. They've owned the Miami Herald since 1937 and for 60 years their company called the Miami Herald building home, until relocating to San Jose.
Jack and Jim were good men whose legacy continues to positively impact communities around the United States, especially in South Florida, where their philanthropic foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is headquartered.
There are three divisions of the Knight Foundation:
1. Journalism & Media Innovation
2. Engaged Communities
3. Fostering the Arts
They operate individually, but under the same umbrella. They report to the same board members and leadership. Sort of like how Editorial and Marketing at newspapers all report to an editor or publisher. They are connected through their executive leadership and funding.
The Lehrer speaking-fee fiasco occurred during the Media Learning Seminar, a three-day event funded by the Engaged Communities branch of the Knight Foundation. Lehrer was the last speaker (sort of the Keynote) during the three-day event, which featured all types of media, academic, business and nonprofit heavyweights from around the country.
The Knight Arts Challenge, a division of the Fostering the Arts branch of Knight, is (incredibly) administrated pretty much through one man, Dennis Scholl -- who had nothing to do with Lehrer.
Still, a knight is a knight is a knight.
More importantly, the Lehrer controversy is almost moot, it already happened, but the lesson we should take from it is as follows: we should question and challenge those who challenge us.
This week Mr. Scholl is planning four public meetings all over South Florida to discuss what they are looking for when it comes to generating ideas for the Knight Arts challenge.
Does not the Knight Foundation need to grow? Or, are they the say-all, end-all when it comes to what qualifies as reputable art, culture and journalism? Are not those who are applying handcuffed by the allure of the grant money? It seems Miamians tend to consider the Knight Foundation the barometer of what's worthy. Knight recipients automatically receive press, money and status. You won't see the Herald write one bad word about the Knight Foundation. You won't hear one Knight recipient whisper criticism of the foundation; how could they (or why would they) when their existence is co-dependent on Knight money. In addition, almost every artist in this city has applied for a grant. Miami has more than Knight's fingerprints on it; our city's future currently, in part, is in the palm of their hands.
Are we in bondage to the whims of a few cultural king makers? We shouldn't be.
As powerful an institution as they are, as grateful we should feel they exist here, we should challenge them as often and as much as they challenge us, if not, we're just puppets in their play.