Hundreds of bloggers wanted to know: What could Jim Brady of Washingtonpost.com have been thinking? After he assigned a blog to RedState.com co-founder Ben Domenech, readers swiftly exposed the 24-year-old’s astonishing achievements in plagiarism. When moved to file original copy, Domenech often explored the literary crawl space dividing provocative and repugnant. He had called Coretta Scott King a “Communist,” described cartoonist Ted Rall as “a steaming bag of pus,” and once stated that members of the judiciary are “worse than the KKK,” according to a blogger who cataloged his name-calling style.
After less than a week and just six postings, Domenech “resigned” from his Red America blog, and the blogosphere pummeled Brady. (Disclosure: Brady and I both work for Washington Post Newsweek Interactive, and I consider him a friend. I haven’t talked to him or anybody at the Washingtonpost.com about this.) Why hadn’t the Washingtonpost.com performed the sort of due diligence on Domenech that would have revealed him as a plagiarist before giving him a blog? What business did they have hiring a Republican operative in the first place? One who delighted in slinging ugly language at his political foes? One who was barely out of diapers?
To begin with, I don’t know of any editor who, absent an inkling, conducts a plagiarism investigation before hiring a writer or assigning a piece. The working assumption is that no writer would lift another’s words any sooner than he would murder a baby to see if he could get away with it. But that working assumption may dissolve as plagiarism software improves. Poynter Institute plagiarism maven Roy Peter Clark offers newspaper editors a 12-point method for rooting out plagiarists, the last four points being “Pray,” “Pray,” “Pray,” and “Pray.”
So, if we’re going to take Brady to the woodshed for not knowing his young new writer was a plagiarist, let’s reserve room for the dozens of editors at top newspapers, magazines, and book publishers who’ve repeatedly published the work of accused serial plagiarists. There’s Jayson Blair of the New York Times and Ruth Shalit of the New Republic; Mike Barnicle of the Boston Globe and Michael Olesker of the Baltimore Sun; and best-selling historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose. See also this article from the July/August 1995 Columbia Journalism Review that reviews the cases of other journalists accused of plagiarism.
If political activism should have disqualified Domenech from an opinion gig, we ought to apply the same standard to columnist-commentators William Safire, Pat Buchanan, George Stephanopoulos, James Carville, Peggy Noonan, Paul Begala, Mary Matalin, Tim Russert, Dick Morris, David Gergen, Chris Matthews, Joe Scarborough, Tony Blankley, and other politicos who have joined the commentariat. (Wait a minute, maybe that’s a good idea!)
The first bloggers who criticized Domenech for heaving nasty words at public figures weren’t objecting to his language but to his hypocrisy for advocating civil discourse in his Washingtonpost.com blog while practicing the opposite elsewhere. Their point is well taken, as long as nobody intends to exclude from polite political conversation people (like me) whose vocabulary tends toward the vile and hurtful. (However, back in February, MyDD.com’s Matt Stoller did detect racist impulses in a RedState.com posting by “Blanton.”)
Domenech’s critics have cited his youth and relative lack of experience in their various excoriations, but promoting writers to do work beyond what their age and résumé would recommend isn’t necessarily a bad idea. Look at the careers of Michael Kinsley, Michael Lewis, Cameron Crowe, Lester Bangs, and Ted Conover, who accomplished much in the field when still green. Or look at current tyro Joshua Foer, a former Slate intern. (I offer no comment other than this on the career of the young Stephen Glass.)
I’m as delighted as the next press critic or blogger to catch journalists making things up, plagiarizing, taking bribes or giving them, deliberately libeling people, blackmailing people, lying to sources, or forging documents. I approve when newspapers and broadcasters assign internal reports or external investigations to get to the root cause of the perfidy. But I think the profession needlessly exhausts itself trying to figure out why journalists misbehave. You might as well as ask why people cheat and steal.
Bad journalism, I fear, is a necessary byproduct of good journalism. Unlike the legal and medical professions, no guild or licensing board exists to prevent people from penning opinion columns or articles. This free entry means that nobody need present a credential if they want to spout off or report a piece or pursue a journalism career. The more authoritarian a society, the more likely it is to license journalists.
As former Independent editor Ian Hargreavesputs it in Journalism: A Very Short Introduction, societies that guarantee free speech make everybody a potential journalist. The entry of every uncredentialed and unschooled writer into the ranks of journalism is a healthy sign of free speech, he writes, continuing:
Even to place a heavy emphasis upon training or professional standards can diminish this necessary freedom; just as free expression guarantees tolerance for pornography and bad novels, so too, it must avert its eyes from bad journalism. The alternative turns journalism into another branch of established power.
That Jim Brady erred in appointing Domenech is an easy call to make now. The speed with which the left-wing blogs devoured Domenech and made a playpen of his bones indicates it was an easy call the day Brady hired him. But to draw from this screw-up that Brady mustn’t tap a young, political charged, slightly hypocritical, or nasty writer to replace his disgraced blogger would be a mistake. And in interviewing new candidates for the job, I wouldn’t waste any more energy on vetting them for plagiarism than giving them news stories about the recent unpleasantness. It’s nobody’s fault but Domenech’s that he committed career suicide.
Only a fool learns from experience.
I’ve made every important mistake 15 or 16 times—the unimportant ones 500 or 600 times. Send news of your best mistake to firstname.lastname@example.org.(E-mail may be quoted unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)