Early in their careers, journalists are instructed never to write profiles of their personal friends and to disclose if they have non-professional relationships with any of the subjects they are assigned to cover. But when social-media platforms allow people share extensive visual documentation of their lives, the meaning of the word “friendship” starts to dilute into something unfamiliar. Look no further than the latest bit of internet outrage over Washington Post reporter Ben Terris‘s profile of former BuzzFeed staffer Benny Johnson.
Gawker reporter J.K. Trotter took issue with Terris’s profile of Johnson as he rebounds from infamous plagiarizer to the “content director” at the right-wing, BuzzFeed-y startup IJReview.com. Trotter’s beef: Johnson’s “comeback profile” was written by his “friend,” Terris, based on a string of social-media photos of the two.
“What kind of journalist would forgive Benny Johnson?,” Trotter wrote. “The answer seems to be: ‘A journalist who happens to be friends with Benny Johnson.'” The judgment has been echoed by legions of blog commenters and Twitter users, further convinced that Washington’s media industry is just a big orgy of professional back-scratching. If that’s true, though, then this mishegas is just one more dulling example of the “writer-writes-about-another-writer.”
But the outrage manufactured over Terris’s article hinges on Trotter’s insinuation that Terris and Johnson are friends. That also happens to be where Trotter’s argument unravels. It redefines friendship from a social, emotional bond between people to a virtual trail of incidental engagements.
Terris, to the best of my knowledge and confirmed by him Wednesday morning, is not friends with Johnson—they just happen to have crossed paths many times, as people in the same industry are inclined to do. Terris writes profiles of politicians and media figures for the Post‘s Style section, and Johnson makes viral content about politicians and media figures for IJReview, so it’s highly plausible they have interacted on occasion. They are also working in an age when people—especially journalists—often share their travels on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and other widely digested online platforms. And Johnson, for all his documented stumbles, is more gifted with social media than most of his contemporaries. Why not show the world an encounter with Garth Brooks while covering a party for former President George H.W. Bush? Does that single photo mean Terris, Johnson, and the country-music legend are a tightly knit trio? I’m friends with Terris, but he’s never mentioned his new buddy Garth.
That’s because in internet culture, a few shared digital breadcrumbs are enough to brand two people as friends, even if their real-world relationship is merely a string of professional interactions at industry events. How can I be sure of this? Easy: I’ve known Ben Terris since college. I sometimes run into Benny Johnson at events to which we are both invited, which is not that many—he covers national politics; I’m the guy who complains about pandas.
But, like many other journalists who have bumped into Johnson over the last few years, I have my own social-media history with Johnson. Here’s a quick story about four guys named Ben, or variants thereof. The photo above was taken last October at a dinner at Mount Vernon hosted by the Distilled Spirits Council, which seated me at a table with Benny Johnson. It was the first time I’d met him in person–we’d interacted on Twitter a few times. The photo was taken after the Distilled Spirits Council’s communications director, Ben Jenkins, realized Johnson and I were both wearing gray flannel suits and gingham shirts. Of course this meeting of two guys with similar names and wardrobes had to be broadcast to the world. A fourth guy named Ben—Terris—tweeted at us that he was bummed to be missing the “Ben caucus.”
(Just so it’s clear to everyone at Gawker: there is no secret “Ben caucus” in which Johnson, Terris, Jenkins, and I—along with the Associated Press’s Ben Nuckols, National Journal‘s Ben Pershing, the Guardian‘s Ben Jacobs, MSNBC’s Benjy Sarlin, Johnson’s former boss Ben Smith, Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilley, Poynter’s Ben Mullins, New York Times Jets scribe Ben Shpigel, Streetsblog’s Ben Fried, the Ann Arbor News‘s Ben Freed, and the ghost of Ben Bradlee—plot to force even more people named Ben into the media landscape.)
Including that sartorial convergence, this Ben’s relationship with Benny Johnson is a string of random encounters at parties and other events. I knew nothing of his personal life until Terris unpacked Johnson’s post-BuzzFeed retreat to Chincoteague Island with his girlfriend, a detail, it turns out in the reporting, Johnson sometimes retells with only slightly more veracity than one of his BuzzFeed articles.
Johnson is gregarious and quick to chat up people he’s never met. He also posts a lot of photos of himself with the people he meets. Does every photo taken with other people count as evidence of a lasting friendship? Jeez, I hope not. Imagine how much additional correspondence you’d stack up if you had to keep ties with everyone who ever shared your iPhone’s lens. Johnson would never have time to put together his lists of GIFs. But when our lives are told by platforms that define even the most casual digital relationships as “friendships,” it’s easy to see the line blurring between professional friendliness and actual friendship built on shared interests and life experiences. If every reporter who writes about media promised never to write about anyone with whom they’ve bumped into at work, there would be no more media-personality profiles, and what, then, would the internet have to rage about?
People who jumped right to Trotter’s “discovery” of a bunch of Twitter photos would do well to read, possibly for the first time, Terris’s original story and see if it’s really as rehabilitative as Gawker’s making it out to be. Or perhaps they’ll just see this and decide to debunk this article as one more obnoxious DC journalist defending another. If they need to find me, I’ll be at the Ben caucus.