July 29, 2014

In dismissing “viral politics” staffer Benny Johnson late last week, BuzzFeed editors cited 41 pieces in which Johnson had improperly borrowed phrasing, concepts or both. For one of Johnson’s posts — 24 Delightful Inauguration Firsts — an editor’s note declares: “This post has been corrected to remove phrasing that was copied from a U.S. Senate website, which should have also been cited as the source for almost all of the information in this piece.”

The list of source sites for Johnson’s borrowings includes but is by no means limited to Wikipedia, Associated Press, Baby Said What?!, About.com, National Review, Federal Register, Fox News.

Though BuzzFeed didn’t provide a side-by-side comparison of Johnson’s bad work, Twitter users @blippoblappo and @crushingbort, who started all of this, furnished a few examples, one of which we’ll republish here (as we did last week):


(screenshot)

Liftings of that sort don’t impress Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten as outrage-worthy:

There’s a difference between crappy, lazy Internet writing and real plagiarism and I contend that when you start calling the first thing the second thing, you belittle the seriousness of real plagiarism. It all starts seeming like kindergarten-level failure to footnote. And over time real plagiarism will not outrage the public as it should.

An example of “real plagiarism,” Weingarten argues, would be the pilfering of this paragraph on the topic by writer Malcolm Gladwell:

The ethics of plagiarism have turned into the narcissism of small differences: Because journalism cannot own up to its heavily derivative nature, it must enforce originality on the level of the sentence.

That’s good stuff, he argues, and so taking it amounts to theft, as opposed to the less original and less creative stuff that Johnson grabbed for his various listicles. What he took was boilerplate in many instances, Weingarten argues.

In the same piece, Weingarten concedes that, in one instance, Johnson did pull something of intrinsic value, from About.com: “Technically, any Catholic male who has reached the age of reason, is not a heretic, is not in schism, and is not ‘notorious’ for simony can be elected pope–there is no other requirement for election.”

As always, Weingarten advances a provocative argument. Certainly there are less egregious and more egregious cases of plagiarism. We could go on for months citing this instance and that instance, compiling a hierarchy of plagiarism severity. Yet what Johnson did, in many instances, was to cut and paste the work that others had done and claim it as his own. Weingarten may not value that stuff the way he values the stuff of MALCOLM GLADWELL. Over three years of blogging, however, the Erik Wemple Blog has developed a deep respect for the people who maintain sites like Wikipedia, Yahoo Answers and other such sites — people who have a command of their topic areas and arrange facts in clear, readable and, indeed, original ways.

What Johnson did was sleazy, Weingarten declares, just not plagiarism, or real plagiarism. Perhaps a new term is needed here.

Expectations figure into this drama, too, argues Weingarten:

To look at these pieces and pretend they are journalism, and expect the same degree of due diligence from them is like going into a restaurant named “Eat, Pay, and Get The Hell Out” and being SHOCKED, SHOCKED to discover the french fries aren’t made fresh on the premises.

Links and quotation marks are as easy to place in a listicle as in any other piece of journalism.

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