35 Glass Houses at Which Websites Shouldn't Throw Stones

When Rand Paul lashed out at the media for criticizing his plagiarism, he avoided picking some extremely low-hanging fruit. Some of the revelations were reported first by BuzzFeed, which has had similar problems.

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Sen. Rand Paul has taken to lashing out at the media outlets that have been pointing out plagiarism in his speeches, but one of the outlets that's been on the beat, BuzzFeed, is more familiar than others with what it's like to be called out for taking the work of others.

Paul has been accused of lifting material from think tank reports, Wikipedia, and other sources to provide material for his books and speeches. (Among the appropriations: an extended summary of the movie Gattaca.) The Kentucky senator has largely been unapologetic for the behavior, telling National Review's Robert Costa that his office would change its policies to avoid future problems. But, Costa writes, "Paul’s repentant tone ended there."

Paul was furious, especially with the press coverage of the allegations. “It annoys the hell out of me,” Paul said. “I feel like if I could just go to detention after school for a couple days, then everything would be okay. But do I have to be in detention for the rest of my career?” ...

“What makes me mad about the whole thing is that I believe there is a difference between errors of omission and errors of intention,” he said. “We aren’t perfect and we have made errors of omission, but we never intended to mislead anybody.”

The latest round of accusations against Paul were dug up by BuzzFeed's Andrew Kaczynski, whose specialty is searching archives to uncover embarrassing details about politicians. When he reported over the weekend that several pages of Paul's book Government Bullies came from the Heritage Foundation, BuzzFeed went into a full-court press on social media, with promotion from editors (as at right) and staffers across the spectrum.

None of them found this ironic. Kaczynski works on what BuzzFeed called its "Serious" side in an ad it placed in the most recent Columbia Journalism Review in which it showed how its journalism can live side-by-side with its "Fun" listicles. At the bottom, it thanks the site's 60 million visitors for their traffic. Most of that traffic — including most of the traffic in the articles listed in the ad — comes from the "fun" side. And it's on the "Fun" side that BuzzFeed has had a repeated problem with exactly the sort of appropriation for which the "Serious" side criticized Paul.

We've been over this any number of times, but a review is in order. Lifting copyrighted images for sponsored posts. A high-traffic post pinched from Reddit. Questions about photos lifted without attribution. Copyright lawsuits from photographers. Novel interpretations of copyright law to explain the lack of credit on images. Questions about the origin of story ideas. Rampant lack of attribution on images. Story ideas bearing remarkable similarity to ones on other sites. A grudging donation to charity after lifting a photo from an angry designer. Those incidents span from 2012 until this September.

BuzzFeed, when confronted, offers consistent responses from founder Jonah Peretti. Any copyright infringement is unintentional, an error, a thing that can and will be corrected. But also: the lines here are blurry.

“There’s cases where we’ve made mistakes,” Peretti said. … He admits that the site’s paid and non-paid content has been filled with infringing pictures.(source)
"We really regret that we made these awesome, creative people upset," said Peretti. "And we would love to talk to any of them directly to figure out how to work together in the future on this stuff." (source)
"I would love if every image contained some secret metadata and a way to license that image," Peretti told me. "But the practical reality is that it is pretty challenging, particularly in the web culture of animals and the images that spread on Pinterest and Tumblr." (source)
“Is it good for the world to have a broad definition of Fair Use where people can create new things that are transformative or that people can enjoy?” Peretti said. “I think it is good for the world.” (source)
“In cases where it relates to anonymous Internet culture, we don’t have a clear policy” about when to cite your sources, Peretti says. “It’s a moving target—we think a lot about it and try to understand what’s the right way to handle this stuff.” (source)

To be clear: BuzzFeed's "Serious" side, including Kaczynski, do some good, serious reporting. It's not us that is linking that work to the more frivolous, traffic-seeking posts — Peretti does so explicitly and repeatedly. The "Serious" side isn't just a hood ornament, he wrote last year. "We love the silly, we love the substantive, and we love making advertising that is actually compelling. And when we are good at these three things it benefits everyone and the world." Sounds like a campaign slogan.

We reached out to Paul's office to see if they saw any irony in BuzzFeed's critique; ever political, they declined to offer a comment. Paul's defense to National Review, however, suggests a suitable response. "There is a difference between errors of omission and errors of intention. We aren’t perfect and we have made errors of omission, but we never intended to mislead anybody."

The important thing, Senator, is that you learned your lesson.

Photo by Ida Myrvold via Flickr.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.