Friday, March 24, 2006

The Domenech Fiasco

As those of you who read a lot of blogs undoubtedly know by now, there's been a firestorm in every corner of the blogosphere this week over the hiring by washingtonpost.com of a prominent young conservative blogger, Ben Domenech, one of the founders of redstate.org (where his handle has been Augustine), to do a new blog called Red America. At first the furor was over (1) why the Post site (independent of the newspaper, BTW) felt the need to set up an abrasive conservative blog, without at least creating a progressive counterpart, (2) various aspects of Domenech's background as the scion of a well-connected conservative family, and (3) several dumb and offensive things he's said, such as calling Coretta Scott King "a communist" the day after her death.

In this early phase of the controversy, it was a classic left-right battle. But almost effortlessly, several progressive bloggers came up with an ever-escalating series of examples of plagiarism by Domenech going back to college newspaper work, but continuing with pieces for professional organizations like National Review Online. Conservative bloggers quickly split between some who defended Domenech, and others who distanced themselves. And the fracas ended today with Domenech's resignation from washingtonpost.com, and a statement by the site's managing editor wishing him good riddance and apologizing for the fiasco.

Considering how long it took for earlier plagiarism scandals at major newspapers to come to light and bite the perpetrators and enablers in the butt, the lightning speed of the whole affair was impressive. To the extent you care about exposing plagiarists, it's a good argument for the value of a wide-open blogosphere that can often serve as the enforcer of journalistic ethics, not just as a rules-free zone.

As for Domenech's underlying sin, I generally dislike getting too self-righteous about other people's destructive habits, especially after they are exposed, since the Good Lord has a strong tendency to punish first-stone-throwers. But I have to say, plagiarism--like, say, upper-class kleptomania--is one sin I really have a hard time accepting. It combines sloth, avarice, and pride--three of the Seven Deadly Sins, no less--and is especially incomprehensible for someone who, like Mr. Domenech, does not seem to have been under any kind of extreme deadline pressure.

Plagiarism, of course, is a lot easier than it was back in the day. For Old Folks like me who learned the writing craft on a Selectric II typewriter, and had to go to an actual library to do research, plagiarism would have been entirely too much work. Why not just write the thing yourself? (The parallel sin Old Folks tend to commit is self-plagiarism, which is the literary equivalent of telling your friends, family and colleagues the same damn stories over and over again). The ease of cutting-and-pasting, and the vast candy-store of online stuff to steal, has to increase the temptation. But technology giveth, and technology taketh away, and as Ben Domenech has now discovered, it's real easy to search your online writing, pick out a few passages, google the words, and see if anything identical or very similar pops up. If it does, and it was published earlier--kaboom!

Whatever it means for Domenech, for washingtonpost.com, or for a large number of disappointed and embarassed conservatives, this fiasco will probably result in a sharp drop in new incidents of plagiarism, at least among those bloggers and/or journalists who invite scrutiny.
-- Posted at 3:39 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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