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On writing-1: Plagiarism at the Washington Post

If you blinked a couple of weeks ago, you might have missed the meteor that was the rise and fall of the career of Ben Domenech as a blogger for WashingtonPost.com.

This online version of the newspaper is apparently managed independently of the print edition and has its own Executive Editor Jim Brady. For reasons that are not wholly clear, Brady decided that he needed to hire a “conservative” blogger for the website.

The problem with this rationale for the hiring was that no “liberal” counterpart blogger existed at the paper. They did have a popular blogger in Dan Froomkin, someone with a journalistic background, who wrote about politics for the Post and who had on occasion been critical of the Bush White House. As I have written earlier, Glenn Greenwald has pointed out that anything but unswavering loyalty to Bush has become the basis for identifying someone as liberal, and maybe Brady had internalized this critique, prompting him to hire someone who could be counted upon to support Bush in all his actions.

For reasons that are even more obscure, rather than choose someone who had serious journalistic credentials for this new column, Brady selected the untested 24-year old Ben Domenech. It is true that Domenech was something of a boy wonder, at least on paper. He had been home-schooled by his affluent and well-connected Republican family. He then went to William and Mary and wrote for their student newspaper The Flat Hat. He dropped out of college before graduating and co-founded a conservative website called Redstate, where he wrote under the pseudonym Augustine.

His father was a Bush political appointee and his new online column for the Washington Post (called Red America) said in its inaugural posting on March 21 that young Ben “was sworn in as the youngest political appointee of President George W. Bush. Following a year as a speechwriter for HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson and two as the chief speechwriter for Texas Senator John Cornyn, Ben is now a book editor for Regnery Publishing, where he has edited multiple bestsellers and books by Michelle Malkin, Ramesh Ponnuru, and Hugh Hewitt.”

Not bad for a 24-year old without a college degree. And his bio lists even more accomplishments. But getting his own column in WashingtonPost.com was the peak. Soon after that things started going downhill very rapidly.

His decline began when bloggers looked into his writings and found that, as Augustine, he had written a column of the day of Coretta Scott King’s funeral calling her a Communist. This annoyed a lot of people who then started looking more closely at his other writings. It was then that someone discovered that he had plagiarized. And the plagiarism was not subtle. Take for example this excerpt from his review of the film Bringing out the Dead.

Instead of allowing for the incredible nuances that Cage always brings to his performances, the character of Frank sews it all up for him.

But there are those moments that allow Cage to do what he does best. When he’s trying to revive Mary’s father, the man’s family fanned out around him in the living room in frozen semi-circle, he blurts out, “Do you have any music?”

Now compare it with an earlier review posted on Salon.com,

Instead of allowing for the incredible nuance that Cage always brings to his performances, the character of Frank sews it all up for him. . . But there are those moments that allow Cage to do what he does best. When he’s trying to revive Mary’s father, the man’s family fanned out around him in the living room in frozen semi-circle, he blurts out, “Do you have any music?”

Or this sampling from P. J. O’Rourke’s book Modern Manners, which also found its way into Domenech’s columns:

O’Rourke, p.176: Office Christmas parties • Wine-tasting parties • Book-publishing parties • Parties with themes, such as “Las Vegas Nite” or “Waikiki Whoopee” • Parties at which anyone is wearing a blue velvet tuxedo jacket

BenDom: Christmas parties. Wine tasting parties. Book publishing parties. Parties with themes, such as “Las Vegas Nite” or “Waikiki Whoopee.” Parties at which anyone is wearing a blue velvet tuxedo jacket.

O’Rourke: It’s not a real party if it doesn’t end in an orgy or a food fight. • All your friends should still be there when you come to in the morning.

BenDom: It’s not a real party if it doesn’t end in an orgy or a food fight. All your friends should still be there when you come to in the morning.

These are not the kinds of accidental plagiarisms that anyone can fall prey to, where a turn of phrase that appealed to you when you read it a long time ago comes out of you when you are writing and you do not remember that you got it from someone else. These examples are undoubtedly deliberate cut-and-paste jobs.

Once the charges of plagiarism were seen to have some credibility, many people went to Google and the floodgates were opened, Kaloogian-style, with bloggers all over poring over his writings. Within the space of three days a torrent of further examples of plagiarism poured out. These new allegations dated back to his writings at his college newspaper and then later for National Review Online, and Domenech was found to have lifted material from Salon and even from National Review Online, the latter being the same publication for which he was writing, which adds the sin of ingratitude to the dishonesty.

On March 24, just three days after starting his Washington Post column, Ben Domenech resigned under pressure. Soon after, he also resigned as book editor at Regnery.

What can we learn from this? One lesson seemingly is that people can get away with plagiarism for a short while, especially if they are writing in obscurity for little known publications. While he was writing for his college newspaper and even for his own website, no one cared to closely look into his work. Even his future employers at WanshintonPost.com did not seem to have checked him out carefully. Apparently his well-connected family and sterling Bush loyalty was enough to satisfy them that he was a good addition to their masthead.

But as soon as a writer becomes high profile, the chances are very high these days that any plagiarism will come to light.

At one level, this is a familiar cautionary tale to everyone to cite other people’s work when using it. For us in the academic world, where plagiarism is a big no-no, the reasons for citing are not just there are high penalties if you get caught not doing it. The more important reasons arise from the very nature of scholarly academic activity, which I shall look at in a future posting.

To be continued. . .

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