July 27, 2014

Perhaps former BuzzFeed “viral politics” staffer Benny Johnson should have asked himself the question he posted to the site’s readers in May: “How Well Do You Know Basic U.S. Politics?

That post, which leads readers through a quiz, carries this editor’s note at the top:

This post has been corrected to remove phrasing that was copied from Wikipedia.

BuzzFeed takes its responsibility to readers very seriously, and plagiarism is a major breach of that responsibility. Please read our apology to readers here. JULY 26, 2014, 1:30 a.m.

Which is to say, Johnson didn’t know enough about basic U.S. politics to phrase his copy without direct, and unattributed, assistance from an online encyclopedia.

Had the politics-quiz screwup been among a few, isolated and dismissible transgressions by Johnson, he might still have his job at BuzzFeed, a news organization that overlays foreign reporting, politics and business coverage and long-form investigations with some of the most frivolous and clickable material on the Internet.

An internal investigation by BuzzFeed editors, however, found 41 corrupted posts, or almost a tenth of Johnson’s 500-plus pieces since his January 2013 hiring. He was toast. “This isn’t fun for anyone,” said BuzzFeed top editor Ben Smith in a Saturday afternoon interview with the Erik Wemple Blog.

Johnson’s demise proceeded at the same pace that BuzzFeed processes news. On Thursday, Smith stood behind Johnson after Twitter users @blippoblappo and @crushingbort on their site “Our Bad Media” espied instances in which Johnson had clearly plagiarized from sites like Wikipedia, Yahoo Answers and U.S. News & World Report.

BuzzFeed reacted by correcting the posts in question and asserting that Johnson was one of the Internet’s “deeply original writers.” Then another set of allegations came from those Twitter handles — more Johnson pilfering from Wikipedia, and also from the National Review and the New York Times.

BuzzFeeders got busy pumping every sentence Johnson had ever written for BuzzFeed into Google, with disappointing results. “I was hoping what I’d find was a handful of instances from beginning and then somebody who had figured it out,” said Smith.

By Friday night, BuzzFeed had announced Johnson’s sacking on the site and sent a memo to staffers (shared with the Erik Wemple Blog by BuzzFeed’s PR shop). The message from management carried contrition…

We owe you, our readers, an apology. This plagiarism is a breach of our fundamental responsibility to be honest with you — in this case, about who wrote the words on our site. Plagiarism, much less copying unchecked facts from Wikipedia or other sources, is an act of disrespect to the reader.

…context:

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.

…and commitment:

We have more responsibility now than ever to get it right, to keep raising our standards, and to continue getting better.

In the memo to staffers, a similar sentiment prevails:

We, Benny’s editors, also owe our writers more: We should have caught what are now obvious differences in tone and style, and caught this very early on. We will be more vigilant in the future. We will also change our onboarding procedures to make sure that the high standards of training that come with our fellowship program extend to everyone who arrives at BuzzFeed — and particularly to those without a background in traditional journalism.

Refreshing though it is to see a Web site’s management holding itself accountable for policing these transgressions, newsrooms will always struggle to build defenses against motivated fabricators and plagiarists. Plus, “training” should never be required to teach people not to steal the work of others. “I don’t think there’s anyone who gets out of high school thinking it’s OK to copy term papers,” says Smith.

How about Wikipedia? Here’s an inventory of all the outlets from which Johnson purloined material, complete with a link to the offending BuzzFeed post:

*The Associated Press: “Hooray for Washington DC
*The Hill: “7 Things Democrats Would Have Freaked Out About If Bush Had Done Them
*The Guardian and AdAge:”15 Tips To Avoid Eating Horse Meat
*Baby Said What?! Web site: “7 Miracle Babies to Warm Your Heart Today
*A press release produced by Rep. Sam Johnson’s office: “The Most Romantic Story in Congress
*A report produced by Sen. Tom Coburn’s office: “The 15 Most Absurd Ways the Pentagon is Spending Money
*Pictory Magazine: “54 Things that are Definitely Bigger in Texas
*CBS News: “The Biggest Slap Fight Washington has Ever Seen
*About.com: “Technically, Any Catholic Man can be the Next Pope.
*Federal Register: “The 17 Best Swag Gifts Obama has Received from Foreign Leaders.
*Fox News: “This is How the Internet Responded to a 13 Hour Rand Paul Filibuster
*Creative Guerrilla Marketing: “21 Masterfully Creative Resumes
*EverythingMouse.com and About.com: “The Most Exclusive Hotel Room In The World: Inside Disney’s Castle
*The Catholic News Herald and the Boston Globe: “Pope Kisses the Feet of Prisoners and Muslims
*MermaidsinMotion.com: “This Real-Life Professional Mermaid will Blow Your Mind.
*Wikipedia and the New York Times: “How 8 Other Massive Manhunts Ended.
*Yahoo Answers: “7 Cities that Defy Terrorism
*U.S. News & World Report: “What Would Your Life be Like if You Were Born in North Korea?”
*Associated Press: “How the Obama Administration is Having the Worst Week Ever
*”Documents obtained by the Washington Post”: “The Literal Army It Takes to Get the President to Africa
*Karl E. Case’s Principles Of Economics and Wikipedia:”FDR Had the Best Childhood Ever
*Marketwatch and Yahoo! Finance: “10 Ways America Is Still Number One
*Wikipedia: “The Story Of Egypt’s Revolution In “Jurassic Park” Gifs
*The New Yorker and the autobiography of Harry Reid: “7 Badass Things You Should Not Forget About Harry Reid.
*News release from the U.S. Botanical Garden: “DC’s Version Of The Royal Baby Is A Gigantic Flower That Smells Like Poo
*Associated Press: “The Mayor Of San Diego Allegedly Did Some Despicable Things To Women
*Wikipedia: “The 16 Most Canadian Things About Ted Cruz
*Wikipedia: “Photos From The World Pipe Band Championships Will Instantly Make Your Day Better
*CNN and NBC News: “QUIZ: Who Keeps Working During A Government Shutdown?
*Associated Press: “11 Posh Pieces Of Jesse Jackson Jr. Swag Being Auctioned Off By The Federal Government
*Wikipedia, Prof. Boerner’s Explorations, and Senate.gov: “11 Times Congress Has Declared War On Another Country, And Why
*New York Times: “Obamacare Failures As Told By Dr. House
*Politico: “The Senate Conservatives Fund Is Not Living Very Conservatively
*The Wire: “America is Really Helpless in Space Without the Russians
*Wikipedia: “Inside Fort Hood, The Site Of Tragedy And Everyday American Life
*Wikipedia: “How Well Do You Know Basic U.S. Military History?
*Wikipedia: “How Well Do You Know Basic U.S. Politics?
*Previous BuzzFeed post: “The 2014 Running Of The Interns
*A “government website”: “25 Amazing, Official White House Petitions
*A U.S. Senate Web site: “24 Delightful Inauguration Firsts”
*National Review: “When The West Romanced Assad

Or, in the BuzzFeed world, “41 Scandalous Editor’s Notes.”

The list evidences a lack of discrimination by Johnson — not merely in simply grabbing stuff verbatim, but grabbing it from all kinds of sources. There are four interpretations of his actions: Very brazen, very lazy, very ignorant, or very entitled. Or perhaps a blend of the four.

The frequency of pilferings from Wikipedia suggests he viewed the site as an open-source document. Another theme: He pulled stuff from the Federal Register for his piece on the president’s swag gifts; from a “government website” for his post on “25 Amazing, Official White House Petitions”; from a U.S. Senate Web site for his piece “24 Delightful Inauguration Firsts,” a post that, according to the BuzzFeed editor’s note, should have credited that Web site “as the source for almost all of the information in this piece”; from the U.S. Botanical Garden for the piece on the giant flower — all of which suggests that Johnson felt entitled to material created with the help of his tax dollars.

Then again, he helped himself to the original work of other news outlets, too.

Johnson on Saturday morning addressed the scandal in fewer than 140 characters:

Do the folks from “Baby Said What?!” accept that apology? For his January 2013 post “7 Miracle Babies To Warm Your Heart Today,” Johnson acquired not only phrasing from that site but also the “structure” of his list, according to BuzzFeed’s editor’s note on the post. The Erik Wemple Blog has been frantically trying to reach the administrators of “Baby Said What?!” this weekend; we’ll post an update if we hear back from them. Another victim is Linden Wolbert, the “real-life” mermaid that Johnson profiled in another corrupted post. If she’s outraged by Johnson’s improper use of “phrasing” from her Web site, her Web site isn’t reflecting any such sentiment:


(Screenshot from Mermaidsinmotion.com)

We’ve reached out to Wolbert for comment. When asked whether any of these folks — the government entities, the news outlets, the mermaid — had ever complained about Johnson, BuzzFeed spokeswoman Ashley McCollum responded, “none we know of.”

So Twitter users @blippoblappo and @crushingbort did the outing. As they called out Johnson, they alleged a cultural issue at BuzzFeed around “ripping off others’ content for profit,” citing a 2012 Gawker story by Adrian Chen on the derivative origins of many BuzzFeed listicles, though Chen noted that attribution standards got tighter following the accession of Smith to BuzzFeed’s editorship in January 2012.

In his chat with the Erik Wemple Blog, Smith dismissed the idea that Johnson’s transgressions stemmed bad waves in the BuzzFeed WiFi: “Newspapers, including yours, have had really serious plagiarism issues,” he says. (That’s true.) Nor were they a symptom of Johnson’s “viral politics” beat, which forced him to flit around from topic to topic — from presidential gifts to Edward Snowden to babies to wars to whatever. Improper usage by Johnson, noted Smith, popped up not only in largely aggregational posts, but also in “extremely original work, like that Fort Hood piece.

When Smith started at BuzzFeed in early 2012, there were fewer than 10 editorial staffers; now there are about 200. Could this outfit have grown too fast? “I don’t think so,” says Smith. “We’ve grown in a deliberate way, with strong and careful editors.” Nobody at BuzzFeed, says the top editor, “thought these instances were okay, particularly in their scale.” The challenge of BuzzFeed is to merge Web culture with “great journalism” and “great entertainment,” says Smith. “We do journalism and entertainment and in neither is plagiarism acceptable.” That BuzzFeed got slimed by a plagiarizing outlier gains credence from a tweet that Johnson himself posted on Wednesday:

@blippoblappo and @crushingbort cited that tweet in kicking off their expose on Johnson. Perhaps this fellow didn’t understand his own vulnerabilities.

As he pursued facts and information on his multi-topical viral beat, Johnson had a few options: Read material from multiple sites and develop a command of the material (painstaking, time-consuming); quote and link to source material (a bit tedious but ethically sound); and steal stuff (sleazy and risky in a world with the likes of @blippoblappo and @crushingbort). Johnson on many occasions chose Door No. 3, affronting not only readers but Web journos everywhere who fiddle to no end with their copy to guarantee originality, who link neurotically to eliminate any suggestion of misappropriation, who close and reopen and close and reopen their posts before publishing to re-inspect this little thing or that little thing, and who finally hit “publish” with a plume of palm sweat. Such doesn’t appear to have been the MO of Benny Johnson.

The borrowings create awkward complications within BuzzFeed. There are posts in Johnson’s tainted archive that stem from collaborations with other BuzzFeed staffers, including cable TV maven Dorsey Shaw and D.C. reporter Kate Nocera. Someone alighting on those pages might well suppose that these collaborators were as culpable as Johnson for the purloined material. BuzzFeed is working to resolve this problem.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.
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