The big kerfuffle in the blogosphere this week was the debacle at WashingtonPost.com and their rather short-lived conservative Republican blogger. RedAmerica, as they named the blog (after rejecting RedDawn as being too obviously pro-gun), was written by a young well-connected blogger named Ben Domenech. I really don’t follow political blogs very much because the signal-to-noise ratio is just horrendous, so I was unfamiliar with RedState, where Domenech, who seems to like the color red, wrote under the pseudonym Augustine (a gimmick he probably lifted from Enders Game).
Well young Ben came out guns ablazing. In his first post he tiraded against the “shrieking denizens” of the left, who immediately took umbrage and started turning over rocks looking for something to throw at him. Ben immediately apologized for calling Coretta Scott King a “communist” while the rest of the country including our president was eulogizing her.
Then the charges of plagiarism came out. And they stuck. Liberal sites like DailyKos and Atrios began cataloging suspiciously similar phrases, paragraphs and even entire articles as fast as searches could reveal them. WaPo.com announced an investigation and Domenech resigned. His entire blog lasted less than 100 hours. Joel Achenbach, a real journalist and the WaPo's top blogger basically says good riddance.
I really don’t care about Ben’s politics or the extremely poor judgment on a lot of levels that the Post showed in hiring him. I‘m more interested in the plagiarism aspect which is extremely perplexing. I disagree that plagiarism is the worst offense a journalist can make. Blatant libelous character assassination is the most criminally actionable, but since the burden of proof is so high in the US, Tom Cruise and Roman Polanski and others with a beef with the press run to the more sympathetic British courts. I would even call outright fabrication even worse than plagiarism. As Janet Cook, Stephen Glass, and Jayson Blair have shown, the actions of one person can severely tarnish the reputation of a whole organization and reinforce suspicions about the entire journalism industry.
Plagiarism in the internet age is paradoxical because it is so easy to do yet so easy to detect. My wife found the winning poem in a contest at her school a little better than the student’s previous work would suggest she was capable of. A trial membership at an anti-plagiarism website immediately revealed the poem as copyrighted material. Definitely easier to detect than it was in John Kelly’s day.
Domenech’s “borrowing” was so irrefutable that his ostensible right-wing friends like Michelle Malkin, who he had worked with, had to back away. Rather than ‘fessing up immediately, Ben went to the plagiarist’s stock list of excuses. They include in decreasing plausibility:
Yellojkt's Top Ten Excuses Used by Plagiarists
- My notes were poor and I didn’t realize it was a quote and not my own thought.
- It was an editing error. The attribution got lost in revision.
- I referenced the source once and that should be enough.
- That idea is in the public domain and I didn’t get it from the person accusing me.
- It was a youthful indiscretion.
- I was just using the press release, that’s what it’s there for. (Corollary: I didn’t steal from him, we both stole from that guy.)
- I didn’t copy. I changed a bunch of words.
- People do it to me, so what’s the big deal?
- The source said I could use it and just doesn’t remember now.
- Someone else did it and signed my name to it.
Sometimes the reasons make sense. Dan Brown is defending himself for his ideas in The DaVinci Code using a combination of excuses 3 and 4. And I think that line of thought has some validity. Plenty of authors have written about Jesus and Mary Magdalene hooking up. Memory and Google fail me, but I’m pretty sure one of the Dangerous Visions collections from the 60s had just such a story.
Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has emerged only slightly battered using reason 1 and 2. A slew of pro-Walmart apologists are hiding behind the cover of 6. While Ben didn’t use the whole list, I think he invented items 9 and 10, perhaps the only original thoughts he has ever had. He finally took full blame in a rather defensive non-specific way and is now on his way to being a cause celebre and a martyr.
Accusations of plagiarism can be a career-ending death-blow. Newspaper columnists seem particularly susceptible as high profile cases like Mike Barnicle of the Boston Globe have shown. Something about the high volume of deadline writing and the tendancy to annoy people that may want to get back at you makes for a dangerous combination.
Here in Baltimore, highly respected columnist Michael Olesker resigned from the Baltimore Sun after reports from the local weekly alternative City Paper raised some questions. As David Simon explains, columnists have a tough time because they often have to summarize an issue in the news before opining on it. In Oleskar’s case, his little summaries were too often too similar to previously printed descriptions. The Sun never quite used the “P”-word, but they did say his stuff did not meet their standards for attribution. I think the cases they dug up are pretty slim, but based on the shabby treatment the Sunpapers has given their columnists in the past (see my mourning of Jules Witcover), I think the powers that be decided to err on the side of lower overhead.
In college, I was accused of plagiarism by a professor because she did not think the word “hegemonistic” was within the vocabulary of an engineering student. The word did not appear anywhere in the source and was my own interpretation. I had to meet with her and trot out my Model United Nations geek bona fides to convince her. She gave me and A on the paper, but I still got a B for the course.
What is the take-away lesson for bloggers? Cite and source. A whole page of hot links can look a little Christmas tree like, but it shows you know what you are doing and that you give credit where credit is due. I don’t know where I heard that first, but it seems like good advice.