Take The Best and Leave the Rest

By Ray Schultz

Max Shulman should be alive to see this. The creator of Dobie Gillis wrote a story in 1948 or so in which Dobie has to turn in an English paper or flunk out of college.

Fortunately, his girlfriend works in the library, and she loans him her pass. The night before the paper is due, he goes down into the deepest stacks, finds a dust-covered book of essays that hasn’t been checked out since 1920, copies one in its entirety and hands it in.

But this backfires. His professor is so impressed with the piece that he enters it into in a statewide competition. Dobie is a finalist, and wins a trip to the state capital. Then it turns out that one of the judges, a bearded, white-haired old man who can barely walk, is the author. Dobie has visions of the electric chair.

The winner is announced—it isn’t Dobie. But as he is leaving, the old man stops him and says, “Mr. Gillis. I’m very flattered that you chose my old essay to copy. Of course, you understand I couldn’t give you the prize.”

Such was college humor in the 1940s (as well as I can remember the story). And the punchline was that Dobie, who inspired a generation of high school goof-offs on TV, got away with plagiarism.

Not everyone does. You can be expelled from school, fired from your job, have your book recalled or be turned into a national laughingstock while your husband runs for president. But Benny Johnson has.

Remember Benny? He was fired by BuzzFeed in 2014 after readers found “41 instances of sentences or phrases copied word for word from other sites,” as editor Ben Smith put it in a blog post, according to Mashable. Unlike Dobie, who at least stole a distinguished essay, Benny allegedly copied listsicles and other trashy material.

It should have been a career destroyer. But he landed on his feet—he’s now working for IJReview. And he was outraged last May because Gawker threw in a little sneer about the plagiarism after he beat them on a story, according to Betsy Rothstein writing in The Daily Caller.

“This is the 4th time this year that Gawker has been forced to aggregate news that I broke,” he wrote on Facebook, according to Rothstein. “This must be hard for their editors who so joyously cheered my ‘demise’ in journalism. Every time they have to push one of my stories, they leave me a little love letter at the bottom of the article. Like Babe Ruth said, ‘It’s hard to beat a person who never gives up.’”

These days, there are two capital offenses in journalism: making up facts, and plagairism. If you believe the folklore, both practices were more common years ago, and you were just as likely to be fired for missing a story while sleeping off a hangover.

How did Benny survive in the age of instant online scrutiny? Probably because he draws traffic.

Well, far be it from me to deny redemption to Benny, or anyone. But spare me the excuse that he never went to J school, as some apologists have suggested. Do you have to go to J school to learn that it’s wrong to murder or steal? Most of us are taught in first grade not to copy our friend’s test papers.

Related posts:

41 Shades of Gray

Enough Storytelling—Let’s Tell the Truth

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