On May 5th, Georgetown University announced the complete list of honorary degree recipients and commencement speakers across all the graduate and undergraduate schools. Among those to be honored is Gregory Coleman, a president at BuzzFeed, who will give the commencement address for the McDonough School of Business.
For those who are unaware, BuzzFeed is a 21st century, social media based news company which is built upon attracting maximum page views from the millennial generation. BuzzFeed came to prominence by proliferating “top 20” lists, interactive personality quizzes/tests, homemade video content about common situations, and short political and entertainment news articles/reports. BuzzFeed’s content is generally low quality clickbait, but is highly targeted and attractive to a small group within the population. BuzzFeed, an openly liberal news organization, has been criticized for their continuous stream of content attacking President Trump. Buzzfeed’s most notable accusation included an unfounded report regarding the fabricated sexual misconduct of President Trump while on a trip to Russia. Buzzfeed is currently being sued for publicizing this false dossier.
Aside from the issues of Buzzfeed’s journalism tactics, Georgetown’s decision to invite Mr. Coleman is questionable at best due to the near constant stream of plagiarism and copyright infringement accusations aimed at BuzzFeed over the last several years. In 2012, Gawker first documented several specific instances where BuzzFeed literally copied and pasted blocks of text from other sites, with absolutely no attribution. In 2013, Slate documented ten separate instances of BuzzFeed using photos from other sources without proper attribution or paying for the rights to use these images.
BuzzFeed minimally acknowledged these accusations, while attempting to redirect the public’s attention to other targets. In 2014, BuzzFeed acknowledged the accusations of plagiarism, and made one writer the scapegoat for the ongoing accusations, most of which were completely unrelated to the work of that author. At the same time, BuzzFeed attempted to deflect public attention by creating their own accusations of plagiarism and publicly attacked other sites for stealing BuzzFeed content.
The problem is that accusations of copyright infringement and plagiarism against BuzzFeed have not ceased, and have been documented as recently as July. Despite BuzzFeed’s proclamations of reform, multiple owners of independent YouTube channels have accused BuzzFeed of deliberately stealing their content. Akilah Hughes, a popular sketch comedy creator on Youtube, compiled a comprehensive piece documenting several instances of BuzzFeed stealing ideas from her and other YouTube channels, and even created a petition to encourage advertisers to stop supporting BuzzFeed’s video.
My primary concern is that Georgetown
invited Mr. Coleman to speak at graduation and even plans to present him an honorary degree. Like every academic institution, Georgetown has a zero tolerance policy for plagiarism and even created an Honor Council for the express purpose of helping students identify and prevent plagiarism. As a university, Georgetown has largely succeeded in instilling a culture in which cheating, plagiarism, and content theft without proper attribution are all universally condemned. For the few students who fail to adhere to these standards, the penalties are harsh. Students suspected of plagiarism often automatically fail the class, and can receive penalties as extreme as financial restitution or even expulsion (pending the results of the appeal process).
However, Georgetown’s commencement speaker invitation and honorary degree presentation to Mr. Coleman cannot be reconciled with this policy. As a president in the upper management of BuzzFeed, Mr. Coleman is inherently responsible for ensuring that all within the company act professionally and ethically at all times. It might be understandable if the accusations against BuzzFeed were isolated, or if they had ceased after BuzzFeed had taken appropriate action to rectify the issue. But as I have documented, this is far from the case.
It seems that BuzzFeed has determined that generating attractive content and attracting advertising dollars are more important than ethical content attribution. This may work for BuzzFeed’s business model, but it is a repudiation of the Jesuit values and ethics which Georgetown works so hard to promote.
For these reasons and more, the invitation and the presentation of the honorary degree to Mr. Coleman are extremely damaging to Georgetown. Georgetown’s administration chose to honor the president of a company which has systematically passing off others’ content as its own. If Mr. Coleman had taken those actions as a student, he never would have received a degree.
Georgetown would like to honor its alums who achieve high levels of success in their chosen career paths, especially those with relevance for the graduates. But honoring alums cannot come at the expense of overlooking the core values on which the University is built upon. Mr. Coleman should be held to the same standards as every student to whom he will be speaking at the commencement ceremony.
Georgetown must ensure that its future commencement speakers have conducted themselves with honor, integrity, and demonstrated a commitment to the values which make Georgetown the University that it is.