Friday, March 24, 2006

Plagiarize THIS!

Ben Domenech is OUT at the Other Paper (OP), and thanks to Julian Sanchez at Reason for the alert.

I've never understood out-and-out plagiarism. When I screw up, it's always an original screw up. I think I've invented new genres of journalism faux-pas -- but at least they're all mine. And if I was phoning it in from a bar in Brooklyn, I wouldn't dateline it from Baghdad. (Look, it's a West Virginia tobacco field!)

The first big plagiarism scandal at the OP I remember was Ruth Shalit, and I suspect that what Domenech did was basically what Shalit did: Accidental "cut and paste" plagiarism, an ever-present hazard of the digital age.

Shalit was very good at using Nexis searches to gather facts for the news-feature profiles she did at the OP. But the problem there is, in the process of assembling a story from Nexis files -- and this is true of just about any computer-assisted writing -- it is possible to forget what is from your sources and what is your own original wording.

I've never had this problem, but that's probably because I'm Old School, having learned the trade as a first-source reporter: There wasn't anybody to plagiarize from, because I was the only journalist covering whatever it was I was covering. Something else -- and I thank an old editor buddy Chris Barker for this early lesson -- one of my duties at my first newspaper job was compiling press releases for "news briefs" columns. Chris said, "ALWAYS re-write the press release. For one thing, PR people can't write worth crap. Also, there is another paper on the other side of town that gets the same press releases we get. If you don't re-write the press release, it might look like we're copying stuff from the competition."

But the OP puts an emphasize (especially in its Style section) on a certain attitude-laden snarkiness, which Ruth Shalit had in abundance. So she would do this shake-and-bake thing with Nexis research, interviews and a generous helping of snark and -- voila! -- a Style profile. Somewhere along the way, however, she forgot to re-write or attribute the stuff she got from Nexis and thus she appeared to be taking credit for stuff that other people had written.

I imagine that, coming from a blogospheric background, Domenech hadn't been schooled in the High School of Journalism Ethics as practiced by the Grand Poobahs. He probably culled a phrase here and a sentence there and slapped them into his columns and never thought about it. Technically, sure, it's plagiarism, but it's plagiarism without malice.

Having often been a Career Day speaker at schools and having at times supervised interns, I've sometimes quoted the old maxim that the three most important rules in journalism are accuracy, acccuracy and accuracy. But I always add that the second three most important rules in journalism are attribute, attribute, attribute. "The sun will rise tomorrow morning, forecasters said."

This is another lesson I learned early from Chris Barker. We were doing the "fall prep football preview," and I had interviewed the Pebblebrook High coach. I made the mistake of writing something like:

Coach Jones believes his Pebblebrook Falcons have the talent and speed to compete for the 5-AAAA East title this season.
"Wrong," said Chris. "You have have no idea what Coach Jones 'believes' or doesn't believe. You can't read people's minds. You know what he said, but you don't know what he thinks." And so the story was re-written:

The Pebblebrook Falcons have the talent and speed to compete for the 5-AAAA
East title this season, Coach Jones says.
So, always attribute. The problem for a columnist or a feature writer, of course, is that adding all those clunky attributions -- said, said, said -- can spoil the smooth flow of a story. The kind of snarky stuff that makes for an OP Style profile does not lend itself to "according to Justice Department sources familiar with the case" kind of attributions. The OP writers want to include biographical background info on Catherine Harris or Barbara Mikulski -- boilerplate stuff, in most cases -- without having to include an attribution.

That's fair game to an extent: A fact is a fact. Nobody owns a fact. Just because Associated Press was the first to report a given fact does not mean that every future reference to that fact must credit the AP. (It is, however, a common matter of professional courtesy, especially when covering a live breaking story, to give a hat-tip to whoever it was that broke a big scoop. But that courtesy has a short shelf life. You are not absolutely required, in 2006, to write: "The involvement of Nixon administration officials in the 1973 break-in at the Watergate Hotel, first reported by Woodward and Bernstein. ....")

But you can avoid plagiarism by: (a) using your own words to characterize basic factual material from secondary sources, and (b) using direct or indirect quotes, with attribution, when reporting anything distinctive or potentially controversial derived from a secondary source.

The Kossacks are claiming credit for exposing Domenech's plagiarism. OK. Whatever Domenech's errors, DomenechGate is not exactly like faking a 1973 National Guard document on Word or screwing around with the Beltway Sniper investigation.

Class dismissed. Buy DONKEY CONS.


UPDATE: OK, now that I've read the OP's statement and read Domenech's statement, I'm a little less clear about exactly what the deal is here. The OP says:

In the past 24 hours, we learned of allegations that Ben Domenech plagiarized material that appeared under his byline in various publications prior to [] contracting with him to write a blog that launched Tuesday.
An investigation into these allegations was ongoing, and in the interim, Domenech has resigned, effective immediately.

Wait a minute: Domenech was hired by the OP. Then the OP learned that Domenech had plagiarized in the past.

Eh? If he didn't plagiarize anything he wrote for the OP -- if he wasn't even accused of doing that -- why would he resign? For that matter, why would the OP investigate accusations that Domenech had plagiarized for other publications?

This doesn't make any sense to me at all. If Domenech plagiarized on NRO, it's up to NRO to decide how to deal with that. But unless Domenech plagiarized for the OP, why should the OP care? This is kind of like your girlfriend dumping you because she found out you had cheated on your former girlfriend two years ago.

The OP gets up in the pulpit:

Plagiarism is perhaps the most serious offense that a writer can commit or be accused of.

No, it's not. I'd say it would be much worse to accept a Puliter Prize for a completely bogus story about an 8-year-old heroin addict. But maybe that's just me.

What gives here? I'm looking at the stuff Domenech is accused of doing -- backtracking through a series of Kossack links to get to the original stuff -- and I'm going, "OK, this is not good, but it happened years ago." Among other things, Domenech lifted from a P.J. O'Rourke book and turned it into a column for his college paper.

His college paper? Since when does anybody in the real world get hassled for what they did in college? I mean, when I was in college -- to borrow a line from Dennis Miller -- I didn't just inhale, I drank the bong water. (Yeah, bong water is nasty, but after a few psilocybin mushrooms, you don't notice it so much.)

Geezy-peezy! Domenech cribbed something from a book in a student newspaper in 1999 -- and because of this, loses a gig at the OP in 2006? What next? Will the OP launch an investigation into accusations that Richard Cohen sexually harassed an 8th-grade classmate? Will Kossacks start digging around and discover something hideously kinky that George Will did in 1977?

If this is all they had, Domenech should never have quit.

Look, journalists are people, and people screw up sometimes. In which case you say, hey, I screwed up. But liberals ges away with this crap all the time and only rarely, only in the most egregious cases (Rathergate, "Tailwind," Jayson Blair) do they pay any price at all.

Meanwhile, the NY Times' correction page has become almost a running joke. You pick up Monday's NY Times and it says: "Half of what was in Sunday's paper was wrong."

Then you pick up Tuesday's NY Times and it says: "OK, we goofed: actually 63% of what was in Sunday's paper was wrong. And 63%, according to experts we consulted, is more than half. By the way, contrary to our Monday front-page story, Paraguay is not 'a small coastal province of Lithuania,' but is in fact an independent nation that we now have reason to believe is located somewhere south of New Jersey."

But Ben Domenech quits the OP because he plagiarized something in 1999? I haven't paid that much attention to the whole uproar, so maybe I'm missing some more serious or more recent accusations against Domenech. Still, this all seems a bit over the top.

And Ben, if by some chance you're reading this: Buy DONKEY CONS!


UPDATE II: Dan Riehl at Riehl Worldview says of Domenech:

If this thing had gone on any longer I wonder if we'd get to the part where your dog ate your old notes. ...
But clearly based on Domenech's response, he wasn't the adult to make that appen, not by a long shot. Domenech and RedState need to grow up.

Hmmm. I remember during the Ann Coulter "raghead" flap some people at RedState were really going hard on Ann, so maybe as a Coulter fan I should gloat at Domenech's embarassment. On the other hand, Domenech is very young, and young people do stupid things.

Then Dan says:

As regards the [OP], I do hope they consider finding another conservative voice. And not the next Sean Hannity, but someone serious who can attract attention without simply throwing spitballs at the Left. The blogosphere needs more adult discussion between Left and Right. The [OP] would be a very appropriate place for it to start.

A rare thing when I disagree with Dan, but:

  • "Throwing spitballs at the Left" is such fun!
  • An "adult discussion between Left and Right" would probably be about as fruitful as an "adult discussion" between me and my 3-year-old. Once the Right says, "Markets work, low taxes foster economic growth," and the Left answers back, "NAZI!" -- well, where does the "adult discussion" go after that?
  • Conservatives need to get over their idea of capturing or converting "mainstream" institutions for the Right. The OP, while not nearly as leftist as the NY Times, is never going to be a daily version of Human Events. And while there might be some advantage to having a platform within the OP for occasional bursts of common sense (George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Ann Applebaum on a good day), I can't see the value-added of having some token young conservative blogger there.
Better that conservatives should focus on developing and building their own independent institutions. If the liberals then try to play catch-up by creating their own faux-conservative niches, OK. But hoping for some conservative pundit to earn the MSM Seal of Approval strikes me as a waste of hope.