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Disgraced Buzzfeed Editor Finds Second Chance

Posted by Jonathan Bailey on Oct 3, 2014 2:43:20 PM

While many renowned plagiarists end up never making a return to their field, such as Jayson Blair and Kaavya Viswanathan, others do find forgiveness and wind up making a return, including Jonah Lehrer and Annette Schavan.

But while it’s always controversial when a plagiarist returns to work in their field, it’s rarely a scandal unto itself. After all, once the news cycle has moved on and the plagiarist has paid a penance, many plagiarists can successfully return to work, even if their career is always clouded by their past.

iStock_000005307207_Small-1However, the case of Benny Johnson is unusual. Where most plagiarists take and extended stretch of time away, Johnson, the disgraced former Buzzfeed editor who was caught plagiarizing in dozens of his articles, landed on his feet almost immediately.

Just barely a month after his firing, Johnson now has a new job at the National Review, where he will serve as the social media editor.  

Initially, Johnson’s role won’t involve publishing articles on the site. Instead, he’ll be managing the publication’s various social media accounts, including Twitter and Facebook. However, according to the national review “Over time, he’ll do more creative work of his own,” and may get involved in other aspects of the publication.

Still, he is not currently listed on the site’s author page.

Johnson’s soft landing caused an uproar among many in the journalism community. The Daily Caller ran the headline, “Washington Wants to Give Benny Johnson Another Chance - But Why?”. The author, Betsy Rothstein, goes on to say that the 43 days that passed since his firing wasn’t enough time to “feel an itch let alone remorse and reflection about behavior that some deem the worst a journalist can do.”

Even Newsweek hypothesized that the attention Johnson got from his scandal helped ensure his hiring, making him a household name. However, the Columbia Journalism Review said that the move was “smart” and noted that Johnson could help the National Review build up its social media brand and added that the potential for Johnson to tarnish its brand was “insignificant’ compared to the potential benefits.

As for the National Review itself, in its only statement it said that, “Benny made a terrible mistake. But he has owned up to it and learned from it…. We look forward to his helping us carry on our mission across all platforms.”

But whether 43 days is a long enough penance for plagiarism is almost irrelevant. With news last year of Jonah Lehrer’s new book deal, it’s clear that the era of consistently blacklisting plagiarists is over.

Lehrer and Johnson were both uniquely Internet-era plagiarists. They both worked as modern journalists, Lehrer as a freelancer for multiple publications and Johnson as an editor at Buzzfeed, and were caught committing serious ethical violations. Yet, in both cases, because of their prominence and knowledge, they were able to move forward with their careers, Lehrer spending just over a year and Johnson just over a month.

Instead, it is relatively unknown names like Marie-Louise Gumuchian, who was fired from CNN for plagiarizing in over 50 stories, that are most likely to never return to the field.

It seems the only way to ensure that a plagiarist never works again in the field is to keep them out of the limelight. However, that is nearly impossible as the media still finds plagiarism stories interesting and, in the process, can turn previously unknown plagiarists into household names. That virtually guarantees that someone will find reason to take them back.

As such, it’s important that publishers of all stripes think about the issue of blackballing plagiarists. When is it acceptable to publish a disgraced author? How long should a plagiarist have to wait before seeking work in the field? What roles, if any, should a known plagiarist be able to obtain?

These are difficult but important questions, especially since a plagiarism scandal is no longer an automatic ban for life in many cases. With plagiarists returning to work in academia, journalism and book publishing alike. Determining when it is appropriate to accept work from a plagiarist and under what terms is going to be critical to continuing down this path while maintaining solid ethics and avoiding reputational harm.