Benny Johnson, a former writer at Glenn Beck’s the Blaze, has been fired from Buzzfeed for 41 instances of plagiarism (gotta love those odd-numbered lists!). In an apology note published on Buzzfeed, editor Ben Smith wrote:
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…
Benny’s editors — I, Katherine Miller, John Stanton, Shani Hilton, and McKay Coppins — bear real responsibility.
Couple of things.
First, Smith’s statement that Buzzfeed has a “fundamental responsibility” to be honest with readers “about who wrote words on our site” seems like a given, but in fact represents something of a change in position for the site.
A year ago, Poynter reported that Buzzfeed had posted cartoons by Matt Bors without attribution. When Bors sent a bill for the work, Buzzfeed refused to pay. A similar story, this time involving a photograph, was reported by Slate later that year. On the second occasion, Buzzfeed agreed to pay $500 to charity. Back in 2012, Gawker’s Adrian Chen explicitly warned of Buzzfeed’s plagiarism problem — but, appropriately enough, even that post was based on a previous piece by former Pando writer Farhad Manjoo.
The idea, then, that Buzzfeed is shocked, shocked that one of their contributors would be ripping off other people’s work is the funniest thing since… well… this Onion article from last year lampooning Buzzfeed for plagiarism.
There’s a more serious angle, though, to Benny Johnson’s firing for being dishonest with readers that doesn’t seem to be being discussed. Back in January, David Sirota wrote on Pando about Johnson’s claim — also on Buzzfeed — that high ranking government officials had made death threats against Edward Snowden.
Specifically Sirota discussed whether there should be a presumption of authenticity when anonymous sources are cited by Buzzfeed. He argued that, without proof of prior dishonesty, there’s no reason why Buzzfeed generally, or Johnson specifically, should be doubted when he says that the Pentagon wanted Snowden dead…
[L]egitimate skepticism about slant is different from presuming – without proof – that direct quotes from government officials are outright fabrications. In the same way that isn’t the presumption for quotes published by similarly positioned media orgs (Politico, Roll Call, or even the New Republic, which has a storied history of fabulism), it shouldn’t be for Buzzfeed or any other major outlet, unless there’s either A) a known history pattern of deliberate fabrications from that institution or B) proof that the specific quotes in question are fabrications. That truism holds up regardless of whether you happen to loath or love Buzzfeed in specific.
Following Sirota’s argument (which I’m inclined to agree with), Johnson’s firing this week changes the situation dramatically, not just for Johnson, but also for Buzzfeed. By their editor’s own admission, Buzzfeed did not properly monitor Johnson’s work, allowing his dishonesty to go unnoticed.
For that reason, absent serious house-cleaning, there can no longer be an assumption of honesty on the part of any of the site’s reporters, whether in attributing the wording of articles or entire anonymous quotes.
Buzzfeed has worked incredibly hard to position itself as a trustworthy news source, along with all the cat videos. Benny Johnson’s dishonesty just set those attempts back significantly.