When former BuzzFeed viral politics editor Benny Johnson called out another outlet for plagiarizing his work last week, the hypocrisy was too much for a pair of anonymous Twitter users.
Johnson unleashed several tweets Thursday aimed at the conservative Independent Journalism Review, which had copied and pasted his piece on George H.W. Bush’s sock preferences.
Repeat after me: Copying and pasting someone’s work is called “plagiarism” http://t.co/0Ik1dPXq1O
— Benny (@bennyjohnson) July 23, 2014
I’m gonna write “The Old Man And The Sea” by Benny Johnson, it’ll be word-for-word the original, but I’ll H/T Hemingway so its all good!
— Benny (@bennyjohnson) July 23, 2014
Great tweet @ijreview! Reminds me of a story I saw somewhere…
— Benny (@bennyjohnson) July 23, 2014
Johnson was subsequently accused of being a serial plagiarist in his own right, which led to his firing from BuzzFeed late last week.
If it weren’t for the efforts of two Twitter users known simply as @blippoblappo and @crushingbort, there’s no telling when Johnson’s flawed work would have been noticed. And if it weren’t for Johnson’s criticism of another outlet’s plagiarism, the duo probably wouldn’t have been compelled to trawl through his BuzzFeed archives.
“It was definitely prompted by Johnson tweeting about the IJReview,” @crushingbort told TPM in an email on Monday.
After setting up a blog on WordPress, @crushingbort and @blippoblappo collaborated in exposing multiple instances of plagiarism in Johnson’s work, playing a central role in a story that ushered in new scrutiny toward the editorial standards at BuzzFeed — the wildly popular site that, as Politico’s Dylan Byers put it last week, “is constantly walking a fine line between aggregation, or ‘curation,’ and theft.”
TPM interviewed @crushingbort and @blippoblappo via email on Monday.
The pair, who said they preferred to be interviewed under their respective pseudonyms, gave their thoughts on BuzzFeed, Johnson and the reaction among journalists to his sacking. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
TPM: Can you tell me a bit about yourselves?
@crushingbort: While we’d like to remain anonymous, I can definitely say that contrary to what some people have suggested, neither of us are agents of John Walsh or Gawker (or any other politician/news outlet, for that matter). There was no financial motive or personal stake in this; it was just something two people with some spare time did on a whim after it seemed like it’d probably be more than just a shot in the dark.
Tell me a bit about your blog. When did you create it?
@crushingbort: The blog was started last week once we found what looked like plagiarism from Johnson. Posting it on Twitter seemed logistically annoying, and creating a BuzzFeed community page was considered but was probably a little too cheeky.
What was the impetus for the first post? Were you motivated to start digging after Johnson’s tweet about IJReview copying his work? Did all of your reporting begin after that tweet, or had you noticed that his work was corrupted beforehand?
@crushingbort: It was definitely prompted by Johnson tweeting about the IJReview. More because BuzzFeed had been frequently criticized for taking others’ work for credit than anything else.
What are your thoughts about Johnson and BuzzFeed in general? He’s long been a bit of a punching bag among a lot of journalists. Why do you think that is? What did you find objectionable in his work? And do you think this case says something more broadly about BuzzFeed?
@blippoblappo: I think the fact that it took folks with avatars of robots and drug-taking fish to uncover Johnson’s misconduct does say something about BuzzFeed. Back in May, CNN had a similar incident where a reporter was found to have plagiarized in about 50 of her articles. The difference between that case and Johnson’s is that it was CNN’s internal standards that caught the misconduct, and relatively quickly.
Johnson had been plagiarizing for over a year and a half. If he hadn’t flagged himself with that IJR tweet, how long would BuzzFeed’s editors continued to rubber stamp his content? The likely answer to that question speaks volumes.
BuzzFeed, moreso than outlets of similar stature, puts a premium on pageviews and on making lots of “entertaining,” easy-to-read content. That kind of business model may put pressure on journalists to cut corners on procedure while giving editors so much content they can’t properly review it. In that light, the Johnson incident can be seen as the product of a bad actor working in an environment conductive to misconduct.
@crushingbort: To be honest, Johnson’s plagiarism didn’t bother me as much as his article interviewing unnamed government officials and contractors discussing how they wanted to kill Edward Snowden. Regardless of what he did, the idea that a journalist would grant anonymity for that purpose seemed to run contrary to everything reporting should be.
Johnson’s other work had managed to rub a lot of people the wrong way for some time: the listicles about how hip and cool Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were, his frankly bigoted tweets and articles about anyone who wasn’t a heterosexual white male, the trip to Fort Hood that came off as both pointless and condescending to military life, the “How To Thank A Soldier” piece hailing President Bush of all people, etc. It went beyond a conservative P.O.V. and veered into a sort of candy-coated propaganda.
That said, and this was mentioned in our last blog post, I genuinely like a lot of people/work that comes out of BuzzFeed and I’m not going to pretend like I don’t read the same listicles everyone else does about the 30 cutest baby pandas riding tricycles. But I think it’s a bad idea to mix the two.
Has Ben Smith or anyone else at BuzzFeed attempted to reach out to you two? What did you think of Smith’s response? Do you think the site will really reform some of its practices after this?
@crushingbort: I haven’t spoken to anyone at BuzzFeed about Johnson. I was surprised by Smith’s first response, but for the same reason I think it had to be completely sincere. The same goes for his e-mail to staff about improving their standards.
@blippoblappo: The underlying problems at BuzzFeed aren’t unfixable, and Smith’s statement about the editorial team tightening up standards is heartening.
I’m sure you’ve noticed the tut-tutting among some journalists who have decried some of the celebratory responses to Johnson’s sacking. What do you make of that? Do you think it’s unseemly for journalists to applaud the firing?
@crushingbort: As much as I disliked Johnson and his work, and as much as he has no one to blame for himself for lifting others’ work, I did feel a little nauseous Saturday morning when he was reportedly let go and hope he lands on his feet ASAP. Some of the tut-tutting seemed to be the usual partisan water-carrying (good example here from someone who worked for the famously benevolent Erick Erickson) but I did get a little uncomfortable with some of the piling on. On the other hand this all started when Johnson called out another outlet’s plagiarism in a public way that may very well have resulted in someone else losing their job (the IJR article was deleted so I never saw who posted it).
@blippoblappo: A lot of the personal attacks on Johnson in the wake of his firing were over the top. But plagiarism is theft, and it undermines the integrity of journalism as a profession. Journalists (and their readers) want bad actors to be called out, and its unsurprising to see reactions that reflect that.
TPM: Do you plan to continue scrutinizing BuzzFeed?
@crushingbort: This was all done on a whim and I’m not sure what we do next, but this isn’t meant to be some kind of anti-BuzzFeed initiative. Jesse Eisinger made a point I strongly agree with, which is that plagiarism is far from the worst problem in journalism. But it seems to be the one of the few that editors respond to.
@blippoblappo: I want to underscore that we aren’t looking to become BuzzFeed’s nemesis. But BuzzFeed is the face of new journalism, and the way it does business will set the bar for future outlets. In that respect, it deserves particular scrutiny.
TPM: Do you consider this to be one of your prouder moments?
@crushingbort: I hope if anything it briefly made the Internet a better place.