Buzzenfreude and Plagiarism

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
July 25 2014 10:05 PM

Buzzenfreude and Plagiarism

It started, as so many few things start, with an argument about socks. BuzzFeed's viral politics editor, Benny Johnson, had asked former President George H.W. Bush for advice on stylish ankle-concealing garments. (Johnson had been on this beat for a while.) The aggregation-heavy conservative site IJ Review basically stole Johnson's content—which included an exclusive quote from Bush—and Johnson tweet-shamed them into taking it down. (Believe it or not, IJ Review had also trafficked in Bush socks stories.)

That was the cue. On the blog Our Bad Media, writers known only as @blippoblappo and @crushingbort revealed that "a brief dip into the cesspool that is Johnson’s Buzzfeed articles quickly turned up several incidents of Johnson directly lifting from other reporters, Wikipedia, and Yahoo! Answers, a website where people go to ask if they can get pregnant from stepping on a rusty nail." They posted their evidence; BuzzFeed edited several of Johnson's stories to give proper credit. Not long after, Gawker's J.K. Trotter advanced the story with a comment from Buzzfeed's editor in chief, Ben Smith: "Benny Johnson is one of the web’s deeply original writers, as is clear from his body of work."

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Ever since then (well, in the 28 hours since then) it's been open season on Johnson. He has not published anything since yesterday, and his body of BuzzFeed work is being "reviewed." (I sent Johnson an email but otherwise haven't contacted or heard from him about this.) Anyone with a working Google machine can compare Johnson's text, which typically consists of captions below photos or gifs, to existing content on Wikipedia or Yahoo—the sleuthing has turned up more short phrases and sentences that look cloned.

Why is there so much heat on Johnson? The hubris started it, but there's been a healthy burble of Internet hatred toward the guy for ages. Johnson was a college Republican and writer for Glenn Beck's website the Blaze before he joined BuzzFeed, facts exposed and shamed by the mysteriously-named FeedBuzz in 2013. On the left, Johnson's probably best known as the guy behind the viral post "How to Thank a Soldier, by George W. Bush," ("14. Cook them a big-ass dinner if you can.") so writers on the left have spared nothing in gloating about the scandal.

"Describing buzz feed benny johnson as a viral load does an allusive disservice to more noble organisms like the AIDS virus," wrote Jeb Lund, who writes for the Guardian.

"Hearing that @bennyjohnson is not a paragon of ethics—its like the day I found out Santa isn't real," wrote Matt Taibbi, who now writes for First Look Media.

You can follow the links to the sleuthing, but Dylan Byers has done the best job explaining the unseemly amount of schadenfreude.

In the eyes of many journalists, BuzzFeed is constantly walking a fine line between aggregation, or "curation," and theft. Go to BuzzFeed.com and click on any one of its lists. In very fine print, buried below each photo, there will be a link to another site -- usually Reddit -- which is where the photograph came from.
Is this plagiarism? Of course not. Does it feel a little seedy? Yeah, a bit.

This is not what Johnson did. I've seen Johnson in D.C. (and once in Iowa), arriving at events with a camera and notepad to feed his stories. He's a photojournalist who fills out his stories with captions, and it's the captions that have got him into trouble. But his photojournalism is all live and earned. Just a week ago, Johnson got a lot of attention for a pair of posts about ugly federal buildings in D.C.—one in which he gave readers a tour of their worst aspects, one in which he described how security guards tailed him and shooed him away. Johnson's last post before today's "review" was a photo essay about military dogs being reunited with their owners. The few D.C. outlets that covered it gave the story a quickie "this happened" text treatment. Johnson profiled several of the dogs and owners, using very few words but plenty of schmaltzy pics. People ignored the other stories and read his.

But that's not an excuse for the lifted text. The added irony, which is upping the schadenfreude quotient, is that BuzzFeed has cornered a market in hitting politicians for plagiarism. In the fall of 2013, BuzzFeed's Andrew Kaczynski made life hell for Sen. Rand Paul, pulling pages from his books and sections from his speeches that were lifted from Wikipedia or other sources. In 2014, Kaczynski expanded the franchise, shaming candidate after candidate for lifting grafs or phrases from other Republicans, usually (funny enough) Paul. 

Kaczynski's findings were baffling and pathetic. Who were these people, who cared enough about politics to mortgage their lives and reputations on runs for office, but didn't care enough to come up with their own thoughts? The cases of plagiarism were much more blatant than what Johnson's accused of. People have found him lifting sentences that included factoids; the pols were lifting bland political thoughts, word for word. But BuzzFeed was proving that catching plagiarism had become easy, and that lifting a few sentences without a link-back constituted outright fraud. 

The result of all this? An unusual coalition of people—liberals, Republican pols, journalists—gloating that BuzzFeed has been caught. At. Last. It would be very easy to Johnson to return to his beat, being more careful to credit his sources. But there's just so much glee and animosity about the circumstances.

Update: Shortly before midnight, BuzzFeed announced that Johnson had been fired. The most interesting part of the two relevant statements—one to readers, one to staff—is this.

BuzzFeed started seven years ago as a laboratory for content. Our writers didn’t have journalistic backgrounds and weren’t held to traditional journalistic standards, because we weren’t doing journalism. But that started changing a long time ago.
Today, we are one of the largest news and entertainment sites on the web. On the journalistic side, we have scores of aggressive reporters around the United States and the world, holding the people we cover to high standards. We must — and we will — hold ourselves to the same high standards. BuzzTeam, too, has, over the last two years, raised its game dramatically, focusing on creative and ambitious work, and increasingly careful attribution.

That's the website putting down a marker and promising that Bennyghazi (as at least one Twitter user has called it) was the moment BuzzFeed stopped tolerating slapdash, Reddit/Wikipedia content. More eyes will be looking for it now.

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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