Journalism has two cardinal sins: don’t lie and don’t steal.
Lying has generally been considered the worse of the two. Janet Cooke, Jayson Blair, Jack Kelley and Stephen Glass know the repercussions all too well. Each one was caught lying and completely blacklisted from the industry.
But this doesn’t seem to be the case with plagiarism.
The most recent example is BuzzFeed Political Editor Benny Johnson. Johnson was caught plagiarizing no fewer than 41 times. In one of his more popular pieces “How Well Do You Know Basic U.S. Politics,” Johnson even stole Wikipedia of all places.
BuzzFeed took immediate action and fired him on July 24. His name was disgraced across the journalism world, including an article called “The ravages of BuzzFeed’s Benny Johnson” by the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple.
“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,” Wemple said. “Plus, ‘training’ should never be required to teach people not to steal the work of others.”
We’re taught this from day one. Even before we become journalists, our parents teach us “don’t steal.” Training is never a real factor.
But in the industry, this is not the case. The National Review hired Johnson a little more than one month later as the Social Media Director. The position was created specifically for him.
So instead of being disgraced, as we’re all told will be the case from the start of our careers, Johnson was rewarded in a sense. He was not made to be a pariah, but was in fact lauded for “owning up” to his mistakes.
And the journalism world seemed to forget that just a short time ago, this man was derided, chastised and thought as forgotten. But the praise poured in for the National Review and Johnson.
Even the Columbia Journalism Review praised the hire. The publication said it was a move in the right direction for the National Review, a conservative publication that has failed to reach a viral audience.
“In this sense, the august National Review is playing catchup. And Johnson’s hire is a low-risk, potentially high-reward bid to shrink that gap. If his personal history is any indication, he has the viral know-how that the conservative news outlet needs. But that same history likewise calls for intense scrutiny of anything he touches — be it from his new editors or anonymous media watchers online.”
It was a “savvy” hire since Johnson knows how to finagle “clickbait,” the most profitable form of online journalism today. Clickbait, the new way to lure readers in, is a headline or concept that draws the reader in, not dissimilar to front page headlines of the past. BuzzFeed and Upworthy are the kings of this concept, with their “10 ways to…” headlines and “You won’t believe what happens next” promises.
And it might be a good business decision. BuzzFeed is effective. Videos, ‘90s kids posts and cat videos are high-traffic items on the internet. One of Johnson’s most popular pieces explained the 2013 government shutdown in Jurassic Park GIFs. He is a man who knows how to adapt to – or possibly manipulate – the online environment.
So this might be where journalism stands today. Accountability can be skirted for sheer profitability. While the National Review is a far cry from The New York Times, Boston Globe or Baltimore Sun – publications that fired or accepted the resignation of reporters and columnists who plagiarized – it still sees itself as a news outlet.
Now it sees itself as one where plagiarists are welcome.
But this can’t be considered entirely the National Review’s fault. It isn’t the first to hire someone accused of plagiarism. Fox News and the Washington Times hired Monica Crowley after she submitted plagiarized work to the Wall Street Journal. The New York Daily News hired Mike Barnicle after his ousting from the Boston Globe.
Even journalism organizations don’t exempt themselves from this kind of behavior. The Knight Foundation’s mission statement includes the passage “Our goal at Knight Foundation is to preserve the best aspects of journalism and use innovation to expand the impact of information in the digital age.” Yet they found it appropriate to pay self-plagiarizer Jonah Lehrer a speaking fee.
This is the world of journalism we live in today. Clickbait is more valuable than any measure of integrity. At the end of the day, this is a business, and this is the business we have to live with.
Seth Richardson is a student in the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield. He is also a contributor to the Daily Caller out of Washington, D.C.