Oh what a tangled, crabby web Benny Johnson weaves.
Nobody went crabbing. Nobody whisked him away on a boat after BuzzFeed fired him last year for 41 acts of plagiarism. And nobody tucked his cell phone away in a safe to shield him from the ugly things being said about him online. Think handbag, not big iron container with a spinning lock.
Just what was real about The Washington Post‘s profile on Johnson?
Well, all of it — to a degree.
The story captured him and simultaneously fact-checked his anecdotes. A profile in which the writer continuously vets what comes out of the subject’s mouth? That doesn’t exactly scream warm and close friendship.
On Tuesday, WaPo Style writer Ben Terris — he’s the one who broke the story of ex- Rep. Aaron Shock‘s (R-Ill.) Downton Abby-themed congressional office — came out with a piece on Johnson’s journalism comeback.
BuzzFeed’s famous firing of Johnson came in July, 2014. Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith initially defended him as one of the Internet’s “deeply original thinkers.” But then the editors conducted a thorough investigation of his work and unearthed the plagiarism. They eventually found and deleted a lot of instances of subpar journalism, but no one else got canned for it.
No matter. In September, Johnson quickly rebounded at National Review.
But he never really wanted to work there — and it showed. He barely tweeted and when he did, his heart wasn’t in it. He left after six months to work for IJReview.
After the WaPo profile on the former serial plagiarist published Tuesday afternoon, Terris quickly acquired a credibility problem: Gawker exposed him as a friend of Johnson’s and declared the profile a “mostly flattering” rehabilitation piece that was not deserved.
Gawker‘s evidence of “friendship” is rather hilarious and speaks to the site’s naiveté about Washington closeness. Its home base is Manhattan — how could they know? Proof is a parade of selfies of Terris and Johnson at parties around Washington. Anyone who knows Johnson even a little knows that Johnson taking selfies is like breathing for him. He has been known to take them with complete strangers.
Christopher Bedford, chief-of-staff at The Daily Caller News Foundation, is a neighbor and actual close friend of Johnson’s. Asked for deep analysis on what it means when Benny takes a selfie with someone, he replied, “I think it means you two have bumped into each other and had a shared experienced. I’ve been friends with Benny for years and have been subjected to only two selfies. Selfies build his brand — it’s part of his everyday life. It’s not a sign of friendship. Not that I think there is a problem between him and the Washington Post guy. I just don’t think there is a conflict of interest there.”
Bedford also disputes Gawker‘s claim that Terris and Johnson are in any way close. “I’ve been to his house dozens of time and have never seen this guy Ben Terris,” he said. “Whenever he comes to my house, he always brings half a dozen people and Terris has never come with him.”
Terris pointedly denied a friendship with Johnson to TalkingPointsMemo.
“Hey, man. Thanks for reaching out,” he said, sounding awfully chummy with TPM writer Brendan James. “Not sure I’m gonna be able to jump on the phone, but here’s what I have to say: I think the story speaks for itself. As for whether we are friends, we are not friends. Have I been at events with him? Of course. I am a reporter in the Style section, my job is to go to events like these…”
A WaPo spokeswoman, Catherine Olsen, backed him in a comment to Gawker, saying, “Ben would not have been assigned the story if there was a conflict of interest, such as a personal relationship with the subject of the story.”
In the story, Terris alludes to the idea that friendship and Johnson can be a murky concept.
Washington publicist Jill Collins was going through a divorce and he was there for her — she was grateful, but she didn’t quite understand why he tried so hard to cheer her up. She doesn’t consider their connection close.
Terris and Johnson undoubtedly have friends in common, CNN’s Chris Moody for one. So yes — they have hung out. And yes — they have drank together.
This is Washington, where friendship isn’t necessarily simple and can be transactional in nature, deeply entwined in what you can do for another person even if you genuinely like each other. As documentary filmmaker Patrick Gavin noted with the debut of his film, Nerd Prom, as soon as he quit Politico, the party invitations dried up practically overnight and phone calls went unreturned.
There is also the awful term “friend-sources,” coined by NYT magazine writer Mark Leibovich in a 2010 profile on Politico Chief White House Correspondent Mike Allen. If there is a king of “friend sources” in Washington — which Leibovich wrote was the “dominant hybrid” surrounding Allen — few can argue it isn’t Allen.
As described in Terris’ story, Johnson is the ultimate people person and the easiest person to run into at even the worst Washington party. If some friend sources can’t figure out where they stand with him, is anyone really harmed?
“You can argue back and forth what constitutes a friendship, but one thing that Terris got right, that he nails is Benny’s inability to separate fact from fiction,” said an industry source, who strangely and continuously uses the pronoun “it” to describe Benny. “You have to just be willing to take Benny as a caricature. It’s based on a real person but it’s a blown out cartoon version. He’s based on fact in a bubble of fiction. He hugs everybody.”
The above reader thought the profile was a little too glowing. “He inserted a few not so complimentary things in so it appeared fair,” said the source. “It’s gross. Really, I think it’s a blow job.”
But not everyone thought the WaPo story was biased in Benny’s favor.
“I didn’t think it was ass kissing,” said a D.C. journalist. “Thought it was good. The kicker doesn’t make Benny look good. I don’t really care that Terris has had drinks at parties with Benny. Lots of good stories, and access, come by meeting people at these things.”
Another D.C. reporter basically believes the story was balanced. “I thought it was fair above all,” said the journalist. “I thought it was clearly positive for most of it with a sly and acid-tounged jab at Benny’s character and truthfulness towards the end.”
Which brings us to a block in the road, which for some, is his plagiarism. “I don’t like anyone who plagiarizes,” said a Washington-based writer. “It’s not hard to write originally. To consciously choose not to shows laziness.”
A longtime Washington editor marveled that Benny had survived the plagiarism and thought the story was beyond kind.
“It’s a flattering piece, no doubt,” said the editor. “Benny is an interesting guy, and it’s amazing how quickly he’s bounced back. Washington does love the comeback story.”
Asked to elaborate on why the story is so positive, the editor replied, “It’s a story about someone who committed a mortal sin in journalism — plagiarism — and somehow continues to work in the field. That was just not possible even five years ago. Also, his excuse doesn’t fly. Admit you were wrong and move on. The necessity of getting something up fast is never a valid excuse to not credit another news outlet.”
“Such a tangled web,” the industry source remarked, referring to parts of the story that the WaPo reporter ultimately proves never really happened. “Kind of like ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman.'”
Well, maybe not as bad as President Bill Clinton lying about sex with a White House intern.
But more like truth as a moving target in some of the tales he tells.