Benny Johnson—the slick, serially plagiarizing cat formerly known as “BuzzFeed Benny”—is now officially the poster boy for white-privilege, double-standard journalism.
How that happened is the new answer to the immortal question of the late Baltimore-born entrepreneur and philanthropist Reginald F. Lewis: “Why Should White Guys Have All the Fun?” Because, well … they’re white guys. And not only do white dudes have all the fun after fudging it up, but—as we’ve known since American antiquity—they can actually refresh their careers when they do so.
Which was really the point Washington Post political writer Ben Terris was driving at in this unbearably offensive “white-guy privilege” piece wherein he pens the resurrection of Benny Johnson. Because, as the title itself suggests, absolutely, yes: “You Will Believe What Happened Next.”
The rewind in this sordid tale of white-dude skulduggery begins with Johnson being caught red-handed “less than a year” ago—as Terris tells it—blatantly plagiarizing 41 known pieces of famous BuzzFeed political news. So famous had Johnson become while literally ripping rhymes off the words of others that folks had come to know him as BuzzFeed Benny.
Rightly so, BuzzFeed fired him. But, breaking professional-rebound records all over, within three months Johnson had landed a sweet gig writing for conservative scratch pad IJReview.com—and then actually managing other writers shortly thereafter. See? Amazing! And now he’s got Terris to tell us how, yes, any white-dude writer can commit the cardinal crime of plagiarism and get back on his feet in no time!
This was white guys, courtesy of a white-owned mainstream news publication, flaunting their whiteness and telling the nonwhite rest of us to kiss that side of the moon if we couldn’t get down with it.
But let’s keep it real: What Terris won’t tell you is that, if Johnson had been black, this would have played out much differently. We’ve seen this episode before, but with black faces. Former New York Times journalist Jayson Blair, once a rising star like Johnson, was caught lifting dozens of articles back in 2003, and it got so bad, he went to rehab and ended up life-coaching. Former Washington Post journalist Janet Cooke was caught fabricating one 1981 story for which she’d won a Pulitzer—and can’t even re-enter the business that took Johnson back after he faked skills on 41.
Not that outrage at Johnson’s luck of the white-privilege draw makes what Blair or Cooke did right. At issue here is the question of why—all things supposedly fake equal—Johnson and countless guys like him get the luxury of second-chance makeovers after egregious acts of professional misconduct. As a black writer, I don’t believe I’ve even dreamed of lifting someone else’s work. Because most of us have standards like that.
What’s just as head-banging sick is that not only do journalists (or any professionals) of color not have that sort of luxury, but it’s also hard enough being a high-quality, nonplagiarizing, slave-at-it black writer as it is, attempting to break through the gilded glass walls of elite media institutions. A habitually plagiarizing white journalist rebounds quickly at a time when dominant outlets steadily find creative ways to largely lock out or harass black journalists, writers, commentators and experts. In its recently released “State of the News Media” report, Pew Research discovered that the number of black journalists in the mainstream newsroom “has remained” at 4.8 percent over the “past five years”—even though blacks are more than 13 percent of the population.
Also at issue is how a relatively inexperienced click-bait hack like Johnson becomes an overnight leading voice in political journalism via plagiarism and then strikes gold in short, post-fired fashion, when highly experienced political analysts, writers and commentators of color barely get regular play in the pages of spots like BuzzFeed, much less the majors like Politico, National Journal or The Hill.
Those in the political-media business will outright block the lot of honest, qualified political minds of color from writing original thoughts on the latest trends, polls and campaigns in politics (save for the occasional race piece), out of a long-held assumption that we don’t know the space. Yet here we have living proof of someone who lacked the intellectual capacity to grasp that space and went so far as to casually steal the sweat of others in order to put on a phony show. And got rewarded for it. It’s the stuff American dreams are made (up) of.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.