Benny Johnson — the BuzzFeed writer best known for attempting to use Jurassic Park GIFs to explain the Egyptian revolution and, more recently, for plagiarizing material from Yahoo Answers, Wikipedia, and a whole bunch of other places — has been fired. In a memo sent to his staff (and Intelligencer) late last night, BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith (who defended Johnson as “one of the web’s deeply original writers” when Gawker published the first plagiarism allegations) explained that he and three other editors spent much of Friday reviewing 500 of Johnson’s posts. “We found 40 instances of sentences or phrases copied, word for word, from other sites, many of them inappropriate sources in the first place,” Smith wrote. “This pattern is not a minor slip.”
Smith went on to apologize (on his own behalf, as well as that of other BuzzFeed editors) for not catching “what are now obvious differences in tone and style” in Johnson’s work. “We will be more vigilant in the future,” he promised. In a similarly worded editor’s note published on BuzzFeed, Smith also apologized to the site’s readers. “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,” he wrote. “Plagiarism, much less copying unchecked facts from Wikipedia or other sources, is an act of disrespect to the reader.” The note includes a list of Johnson posts featuring “plagiarism and attribution issues,” ranging from “15 Tips to Avoid Eating Horse Meat” to “The 17 Best Swag Gifts Obama Has Received From Foreign Leaders” to “10 Ways America Is Still Number One.” You’d think that someone who used to work for Glenn Beck would be able to write at least the last one without help.
Meanwhile, Johnson had this to say:
Here’s Smith’s full memo:
After a review of all of his work at BuzzFeed, we’ve decided to let Benny Johnson go.
This isn’t a decision we took lightly. Shani, Katherine, and I spent today reviewing about 500 posts. In them, we found 40 instances of sentences or phrases copied, word for word, from other sites, many of them inappropriate sources in the first place. This pattern is not a minor slip. This is a breach of faith with our readers; a violation of a basic rule of writing; and the reflection of an unserious attitude to our work that is wildly out of line with both our standards and our ambition.
The most important of these principles is that we owe our readers absolute honesty. When you write, the implication is that the words are yours; if they aren’t, you’ve tricked the reader. We are in the process of correcting and noting the plagiarism.
Today’s review has also been a reminder of how much we’ve grown. BuzzFeed started seven years ago as a laboratory for content. Our writers didn’t have journalistic backgrounds and weren’t held to traditional journalistic standards, because we weren’t doing journalism. But that started changing a long time ago.
Today, we are one of the largest news and entertainment sites on the web. On the journalistic side, we have scores of aggressive reporters around the United States and the world, holding the people we cover to high standards. We must — and we will — hold ourselves to the same high standards. BuzzTeam, too, has, over the last two years, raised its game dramatically, focusing on creative and ambitious work, and increasingly careful attribution.
We, Benny’s editors, also owe our writers more: We should have caught what are now obvious differences in tone and style, and caught this very early on. We will be more vigilant in the future. We will also change our onboarding procedures to make sure that the high standards of training that come with our fellowship program extend to everyone who arrives at BuzzFeed — and particularly to those without a background in traditional journalism.
Tonight’s decision is not a knee-jerk response to outside criticism, though we are genuinely grateful to the people who helped point out instances of plagiarism. Nor is it meant as a personal condemnation: Benny at his best is a creative force, and we wish him the best. Finally, it is not a warning that you’ll be fired for a small mistake or an isolated error. We will always have a more forgiving attitude toward bold failures, innocent errors, and misfired jokes than more skittish old media organizations.
We have more responsibility now than ever now to keep raising our standards and our ambitions, and to continue getting better.
Ben, Shani, Katherine, and John