Over the weekend, news splashed across the web that journalist Benny Johnson, the ex-plagiarist from BuzzFeed, is back in the game. This time as a social media guru for National Review. To many, the big surprise was that his resurrection–my apologies for comparing him to Jesus–came just 43 days after his firing.
That isn’t an incredibly long time to feel an itch let alone remorse and reflection about behavior that some deem the worst a journalist can do. But then again, for a 24-hour news cycle, it must feel like 10 lifetimes. Like, come on, that was so one month and 13 days ago.
Politico‘s Mike Allen, who is not small potatoes in Washington, gave him a strong nod and was the obvious choice to inject him back into This Town‘s journo-ecosystem. Ben Smith, his ex-boss who fired him and made him a sacrificial lamb for a site that notoriously culls its stories from others, and former coworkers, White House correspondent Evan McMorris-Santoro, and self-appointed Twitter ombudsman Andrew Kaczynski, all heartily patted him on the back and showered him with online kisses.
“Congrats Benny, I know you’ll do good stuff,” tweeted Smith, journalism’s current Grand Poobah.
“Thanks Ben,” Johnson replied, striking a warm father-son tone.
When Libby Watson, a researcher for Media Matters, reacted with laughter, saying,”hahahahahaha Benny at NRO is so perfectly fucking awful,” Kaczynski gave the internet his blessing: “Benny knows what he did was wrong and deserves a shot at redemption. He’s a good person.” Watson apparently disagreed: “I’d quite like to be a social media director, maybe i should just plagiarize a bunch of shit.”
HuffPost‘s White House correspondent and MSNBC “Morning Joe” regular Sam Stein smooched Johnson along with the others. “Congrats to @bennyjohnson on new gig. people deserve 2nd chances,” he wrote. “Glad to see him land on his feet.”
Johnson reacted with a whimsical air.
“Oh, hello again! What did I miss?” he singsonged in his first tweet since July 26, when he apologized for cutting and pasting other people’s work, including from an intern at National Review — hey, who cares? Totes welcome to the office!
One longtime Washington editor who didn’t want his or her name mentioned explained why Johnson was able to resurface so quickly. “The reason is simple,” the editor said. “Benny knows how to attract web traffic and that is very attractive to media outlets.”
Another reporter remarked, “I think a lot of it is Buzzfeed-specific, everyone loves John Stanton. Consider for a moment how unforgiving le tout DC would be if Benny hailed from Politico.”
Allen offered a more obtuse explanation of why he survived his plagiarism, which included having a “youthful digital fluency” and an ability to incite mockery with his red state instincts.
But it’s not just Allen, the anonymous editor, the BuzzFeeders and Stein. Many others share a sympathetic view about what Johnson did and are reluctant to say what punishment, if any, he deserves.
“When Mike Allen suggests that such infractions would, years ago, been an automatic death sentence to a career, he ignores that fact that a lot of journalistic crimes went unreported or unnoticed in the era before the Internet,” said Steve Friess, a freelancer, former Politico reporter and University of Michigan journalism instructor, in an interview with The Mirror. “So it’s not even fair to compare. We hear so many of these plagiarism tales now because it’s so much easier to become aware you’ve been ripped off and then the Internet helps that news sweep across the industry at a different pace. Plenty of young journalists have had bad moments that they overcame that might have been bigger scandals under the wrong circumstances–myself included–to become fine and reputable reporters.
Friess feels for Johnson.
“I have a lot of sympathy for people who get caught in these sorts of messes,” he said. “There’s so much schaudenfreude out there, so much eagerness to demolish young careers. These kids need to be held accountable, they need to understand their sins and show contrition for them. But they don’t need to be expelled if someone with a heart decides to give them second chances.”
He explained the mindset of reporters who get into trouble.
“Some are the work of serious sociopaths — Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass,” he said. “Others are just reckless and stupid. A reporter writes a tweet he or she thinks is innocuous or amusing and suddenly they’re branded for life as the person who mocked Appalachians as in-breeders or whatever. The ways to accidentally sabotage yourself on a grand scale are so much more numerous now than ever before. I have sympathy for anyone who becomes an Internet punchline. It’s impossible to respond to it. Look, he’ll be very carefully watched. if he doesn’t learn from this and do better, he’ll be flushed away sooner or later.”
One renegade journo who feels no sympathy for Johnson? GotNews‘ Charles C. Johnson spared him and National Review no mercy as the news broke this weekend. At the same time, one must recall that Johnson offered to help him find legal counsel to sue BuzzFeed.
“Benny Johnson hiring is fucking disgusting,” Johnson groused in an email to Tom Kludt of Talking Points Memo.
Funny enough, Kludt pointed out that soon-to-be Bloomberg News‘ Dave Weigel‘s complimentary tweet about Johnson’s hire received no retweets. OMG!!!! Say it isn’t so.
The Mirror requested comment from Johnson via direct message.
“Bringing him on is a tacit admission that they need to take their online presence and new media outreach to the next level,” said Matt Lewis, a media writer for The Daily Caller and The Week. “What we know about him is he gets new media — and that he is someone who isn’t antagonistic to their conservative worldview. There aren’t a ton of people out there who fit that profile, who sort of lean right and get how to drive memes and web traffic — and the sort of irreverent Yolo-style he defined at BuzzFeed.”
But National Review?
“Of all the outlets that might have made this move, I am a bit surprised National Review was the one, because they have this very august and proper image,” added Lewis. “But if they can combine their tradition of conservative opinion and policy expertise — and also appeal to young, irreverent, tech savvy people — that’s gold.”
Correction: The Mirror incorrectly referred to Libby Watson as Libby Nelson. Watson works for Media Matters, as noted correctly above. Nelson works for Vox Media.