Gene Weingarten: When ‘plagiarism’ is merely petty bull-poo

There is yet another plagiarism scandal afoot. I declare it a silly one, and therefore predict that what I am writing here will raise a mini-foofaraw in journalistic circles. It may well get me targeted by the same journalism Internet sleuths who broke this “scandal,” and they might comb my oeuvre trying to prove that I am a plagiarist myself, which might explain why I am daring to question the agreed-upon level of public tsk-ing, using the agreed-upon hair-trigger definition of what constitutes theft in our a shabby new world of frantic Internet journalism that, in its very DNA, happens to encourage and reward theft.

Here’s the problem, in a nutshell:

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.

And so we have the very recent firing of one Benny Johnson, who, in writing crappy listicles for his employer, Buzzfeed, was found to have serially plagiarized phrases from such august sources as Wikipedia, Ask.com and even the disreputable, inane “Yahoo! Answers.”

Appropriately, Buzzfeed Benny was was busted by a couple of pseudonymous Internetsters named @blippoblappo and @crushingbort on their site “Our Bad Media.”

After initially indignantly defending his guy, (indeed, calling him “one of the Internet’s deeply original writers”) Buzzfeed Benny’s boss, @BuzzfeedBen (can’t make this stuff up), finally canned him after @blippoblappo and @crushingbort found more borrowings. @BuzzfeedBen announced the firing in a wretched, groveling post decrying the felony of plagiarism and how much of a betrayal it is to You, The Reader. The whole event is chronicled nicely here by my Post colleague Erik Wemple, writing not under some cute pseudonym but by his own name, in his strategically branded “The Erik Wemple blog.”

The Internet!

I am here to say that as a plagiarism scandal, this is complete bull-doody. It’s a pathetic little phony scandal, with a dirty secret behind it, and everyone wrapped up in it is complicit to some degree, including Buzzfeed, up there on top of that high horse whose feet are sunk in the mud, and even the indignant Internet sleuths who broke this gotcha thing, and even to a smaller degree my illustrious MSM colleagues who have been far too willing to certify this thing as a major plagiarism disgrace without asking some disturbing followup questions.

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.

Lemme explain what real plagiarism is. Real Plagiarism is the third paragraph of this very screed, the one up top beginning with “The ethics of plagiarism” … and ending with “level of the sentence.” It’s the best sentence in this piece, for a good reason. It was written by a more thoughtful and intelligent person than I am, one who had more time to think about this sort of thing, and craft a perfect sentence. It was written by Malcolm Gladwell in his excellent book “What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures.” Malcolm was discussing (and by implication, I think, predicting the spread of) this very issue, several years ago.

Now, had I not disclosed stealing this line, I would have been reprimanded by The Washington Post, probably disciplined with a suspension, and possibly fired. I would not have contested whatever punishment I received, because I would know I deserved it because I had been a thief.

But to be guilty of theft, one must steal something of some intrinsic value. An original insight, such as Gladwell’s, qualifies very clearly. When the dreadful Jayson Blair egregiously stole the on-the-scene reporting of journalists who had been to crime scenes that Blair claimed to have been at but had not, that was indeed grand theft. But I contend you cannot steal something of no intrinsic value; say, a fart. Someone who steals a fart is a weird, disreputable person, perhaps, and even someone deserving of firing, perhaps, but not a thief. This is Mr. Benny Johnson.

Buzzfeed runs hundreds of listicles. They also do important stuff, and do it well, but they are most identifiable by their cheesy, boiler-room listicle operation, which presumably underwrites the rest of the stuff by feeding the gaping maw of people hungry for cheap, quick amusement in a new paperless world with infinite space to fill and infinite pixel space in which to do it. The sheer volume of listicle traffic, and the enforced vapidity of subject matter, means no one is spending any real time or smarts on it, nor can they, nor would anyone expect them to. Some months ago, I wrote about this awful genre, in which I ridiculed an otherwise smart and talented young BuzzFeed writer for her brainless, pointless, trawling-for-advertising paean to the wondrousness of Dunkin Donuts.

To look at these pieces and pretend they are journalism, and expect the same degree of due diligence from them is like 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.

I am not an apologist for plagiarism. I hate real plagiarism, and I think it is the second worst sin a journalist can commit in the course of his work. And I am not contending that theft requires stealing lots of words. A few years ago, I savaged the great Molly Ivins in print after I discovered, to my surprise (and, frankly, delight; it made for a good column) that she had stolen five words from a famous British wag. Unfortunately for Molly, those five words were “a condom stuffed with walnuts,” used to describe the physical appearance of Arnold Schwarzenegger. That’s theft — the description was ingenious.

So, that was plagiarism (though Molly claimed it was inadvertent). But this is not plagiarism: A few paragraphs above, I cut and pasted from the Eric Wemple blog the following phrase: “named @blippoblappo and @crushingbort on their site ‘Our Bad Media.’” Sure, I could have covered my butt and reworded that to something like: “named @crushingbort and @blippoblappo in a post published yesterday on their media-crit website named ‘Our Bad Media’” … I could have done that BUT WHO THE F CARES EXCEPT media-crit gotcha sleuths like @blippoblappo and @crushingbort? Know what I mean?

Let’s take a look, briefly, at what Benny Johnson did.

The first thing that blippo and crushing found that Benny did was, on its face, sleazy and lazy and bad. He appears to have seen a U.S. News article on living conditions in North Korea and come up with the crappy idea of doing a Buzzfeed listicle on reasons it would be bad to live in North Korea (note to Buzzfeed editors: Consider listicle on reasons it’s bad to have firehose diarrhea). The U.S. News piece heavily quoted from a report from a Korean institute. Benny quoted the institute, but probably never saw the report: He was lifting the material from U.S. News, rewording it slightly, giving the Institute credit, but not U.S. News. Crappy. Derivative.

Did he steal the idea, and thereby qualify as plagiarism? Maybe, though if I were Benny I would argue that an article on how bad it is in North Korea merely inspired a spin off TOTALLY DIFFERENT listicle on why you should not live in North Korea.

Sure, it’s crap, and maybe even fireable. Though it should be noted that Buzzfeed didn’t feel it was. They were still defending him until other charges surfaced. So this was SLEAZY, but not plagiarism, really, to them, yet. There is apparently an acceptable level of sleaze for listicles.

But mostly, there is this question: Reading a listicle in Buzzfeed, just what level of diligence does a reader expect? Is a reader really being fooled here? Do we think Benny Johnson of Buzzfeed’s basement listicle division is going to have gone to Pyongyang to investigate for himself? Is he going to have spent five days interviewing Korean scholars to better triangulate his sources for his listicle, to make sure he is placing correct emphasis on appropriate facts?

I contend reader expectations were for Benny to do exactly what he did. After all, we all know he has another listicle to write ten minutes after this one.

Anyway, Buzzfeed still was fine with Benny, after this disclosure. He was still their star listicle writer! It wasn’t until Internet sleuths came up with some other examples that he got the boot.

Let’s take a look at the tenor of some of those other examples.

This is from the Wikipedia entry on Timothy McVeigh: “Commonly referred to as the Oklahoma City Bombings, the attack killed 168 people and injured over 800. It was the deadliest act of terrorism in the United States prior to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. As of 2013, the bombing remains the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. History.”

This is from a Benny listicle on manhunts, under a photo of wreckage: “WANTED for the Oklahoma City bombing, where he detonated a massive bomb outside a federal building, killing 168 people and injuring over 800. As of 2013, the bombing remains the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history.”

Really, sleuths? You find this appalling lack of attribution? For a LISTICLE? In Buzzfeed?

Here’s another one:

Biography.com, on Saddam’s capture: “Finally, on Dec. 13, 2003, Saddam was found hiding in a small underground bunker near a farmhouse in ad-Dawr, near Tikrit.”

Benny wrote this: “FOUND: Living in a small underground crawlspace under a farmhouse in Ad-Dawr, near the city of Tikrit.”

Okay, then. Given what I believe the public expects of listicles, it seems to me Benny was as original as Shakespeare, there. He actually changed some words around.

One more.

From Wikipedia: “The result was the 1898 Treaty of Paris, negotiated on terms favorable to the United States, which allowed temporary American control of Cuba, ceded indefinite colonial authority over Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippine Islands from Spain.”

This is Benny: “The 1898 Treaty of Paris allowed temporary American control of Cuba, ceded indefinite colonial authority over Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines, and precipitated the collapse of the Spanish empire.”

Can plagiarism seriously be the appropriation of boilerplate, which is essentially what this is? This sort of rote description of the end of World War I is probably written word for word, just about exactly like this, in high school textbooks. Who gets excited over this? Nothing of any value is being appropriated.

But saying they are SHOCKED by this sort of thing, Buzzfeed is trying to deny what it is. There is a crappy new world of crappy journalism, and their listicles have been a crappy part of it, and I’m guessing that there are other listicle writers at Buzzfeed and elsewhere who are today doing that comical finger-pulling-the-collar-out-to-get-some-neck-air gesture, trying to remember how many times they lifted a phrase or two from places like Wikipedia because they have nine crap-writing deadlines in two days, and, besides, who the hell cares?

It’s all bad, folks. But don’t start calling this bullhockey plagiarism, because that denies the seriousness of plagiarism.

(My friend Tom Scocca points out there is one thing in the sleazy Johnson oeuvre that fits even my definition of plagiarism: Johnson lifted this line verbatim 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.” He’s right, that’s not boilerplate. And if that were the only complaint here and we were not dealing with charges of serial plagiarism, implying all of this is, I’d have no complaint.)

In conclusion, I will write you a little poem, a joyous ode to intellectual theft:

Plagiarize!

Let no one else’s work evade your eyes!

Remember why the Good Lord made your eyes!

So don’t shade your eyes!

Plagiarize! Plagiarize! Plagiarize!

Thank you. You are too kind.

I am proud of my doggerel.

But that was Tom Lehrer, circa 1962.

This article was adapted from Gene’s July 29 live chat, which contains more discussion on this topic.

Gene Weingarten is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and writes "Below the Beltway," a weekly humor column that is nationally syndicated.
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