Saturday, March 25, 2006

THERE ISN'T MUCH OF ANYTHING I can add to the reams that have already been written about Ben Domenech's resignation from his new blogger position at the WaPo, after being exposed as a plagiarist. (The link is to the comment at Daily Kos that started it all.)

After reading much and skimming more of the overwhelming volume of coverage at Memeorandum beginning Thursday and continuing on Friday and into today, I have a few thoughts.

First, in the future, should Ben Domenech be tempted or inclined to lecture others on personal responsibility as a conservative value, he might want to recall that when he needed to take personal responsibility for lifting the words of others without attribution, he responded by blaming the people who uncovered the plagiarism; by attacking the newspaper that hired him to write a blog; by implying that his critics on the left were "taking time out from bashing America" to attack him; and by simultaneously denying that he had plagiarized the writing of others, minimizing the seriousness of it, and using his age as an excuse.

Here is a reality check: Ben Domenech, who calls his editors at the WaPo "fools" for not anticipating the attacks on him, is himself a fool for not anticipating that his history of journalistic "sloppiness," to use his term, could be placed in a dead file and forgotten in the age of instant electronic communication. In this, his youth, far from excusing him, makes him look even more the fool. He came of age in the Internet era; he cut his writing teeth with online publications; he co-founded RedState, a popular conservative blog. The Washington Post apparently considered him blog-savvy enough to be their Outreach Director to Red America. How could he have been so clueless about the seriousness of copying and pasting entire passages from other people's writing and passing them off as his own?

Ezra Klein -- another very successful (but more ethical) blogger who happens to be in his early 20s -- spoke to this point:

In some ways, the most interesting thing about Ben Domenech's plagiarism is its discovery. If you're a young writer reading this blog, tattoo this on your typing fingers: The internet never forgets.
Most of us don't plagiarize, and, in any case, we shouldn't, so I've relatively little sympathy for cut-and-paste pieces that get inconveniently control-V'd later in life. But with so many hungry young writers founding blogs and spitting out quickly-conceived, occasionally inadvisable posts to feed their readerships, there's a lot of embarrassing material out there for those seeking to dig it up. The electric paper trail we're leaving is beyond voluminous, and the nature of the medium virtually assures that some of our droppings along the road will be, in retrospect, intellectually bankrupt, or intemperate, or obviously wrong. God knows I've got a few of those floating around. I started doing this at 18, and despite how little I know now, I knew a helluva lot less back then.

My other thought is about the reaction to Ben Domenech's plagiarism on the right side of the blogosphere. Although, to their credit, most conservative bloggers said plagiarism was unacceptable and Domenech should go, they still wanted to blame the left for Domenech's troubles.

Michelle Malkin's initial post about the firestorm was typical:

I cheered for Ben, the editor of my last book at Regnery, when he announced his new position. I criticized unhinged bloggers on the Left who leveled vicious ad hominem attacks against him. It's clear, as the good folks at Red State (which Ben co-founded) note, that his detractors were on a search-and-destroy mission from the get-go.

But now the determined moonbat hordes have exposed multiple instances of what clearly appear to me to be blatant lifting of entire, unique passages by Ben from other writers. It is one thing to paraphrase basic facts from a wire story. But to filch the original thoughts and distinctly crafted phrases of a writer without crediting him/her--and doing so repeatedly--is unacceptable in our business. Some of the cases occurred while Ben was in college; he is blaming an editor for these transgressions. But at least one other incident involved a piece he wrote for NRO after he graduated. The side-by-side comparisons of these extensive passages is damning.

I certainly understand the impulse on the Right to rally around Domenech. But I can't ignore the plain evidence. And the charges can't be dismissed as "lies" or jealousy attributed to Ben's age.

As someone who has worked in daily journalism for 14 years, I have a lot of experience related to this horrible situation: I've had my work plagiarized by shameless word and idea thieves many times over the years. I've also been baselessly accused of plagiarism by some of the same leftists now attacking Ben.

The bottom line is: I know it when I see it. And, painfully, Domenech's detractors, are right. He should own up to it and step down. Then, the Left should cease its sick gloating and leave him and his family alone.

Give Malkin credit for clearly saying that the charges of plagiarism were irrefutable, and that Domenech should resign. But also note that she just as clearly is saying that the bloggers on the left who uncovered these instances of plagiarism are crazy, unhinged, obsessed, and out to destroy Domenech. "But now the determined moonbat hordes have exposed multiple instances of what clearly appear to me to be blatant lifting of entire, unique passages by Ben from other writers." In other words, the instances of plagiarism only came to light because of the left's vicious, insane desire to destroy Ben. Obviously, now that this has come out, and since it appears to be true, Ben has to step down. But if the "determined moonbat hordes" had not been so vindictive and vicious and hateful, the plagiarism would never have been discovered and Domenech would still be blogging for the WaPo, as he should be and as he deserves to be.

If Malkin were being fair, and truly wanted to make the point that taking credit for the work of others is wrong, always; she would be writing that it's a good thing that liberal bloggers were so determined to uncover the truth and expose a serial plagiarist writing for a major newspaper: She would be agreeing that those bloggers did all serious, professional journalists and writers an invaluable service. That's exactly what Decision '08's blogger did, and I respect that kind of integrity.

Having said all this, at least one conservative blog (the only one I saw, although there may be others) condemned Ben Domenech's plagiarism unequivocally, made no excuses for it, and did not resort to dragging left-wing bloggers through the mud to make Domenech's offense appear less heinous. That blog is Captain's Quarters; here is what the Captain wrote:

The Washington Post experiment in hosting a conservative political blog has come to at least a momentary halt, as Ben Domenech has resigned in the face of allegations of plagiarism. ...
Plagiarism is a cardinal sin of writing, regardless of the format. Bloggers have just as much responsibility to credit their sources as any other writer, and the blogosphere rightly holds us all to this standard. All any of us have as writers are our own words, and when those are stolen for someone else's benefit, we lose everything. If Domenech is guilty of this offense, he will not soon regain his credibility, nor should he.
A number of bloggers have written about Domenech's end at the Post. ...
Mark Coffey also agrees with Ben's resignation:

I'm glad Ben did the right thing -- I'm sorry for the embarrassment this must cause him, but actions have consequences. Plagiarism is a very, very serious matter for a writer. It was the only decision that could be taken under the circumstances. This need not be embarrassing for other conservatives -- as I said, the idea of reaching out to the right by the WaPo was a good one. It will turn into an embarrassment, however, if we pretend this is anything other than what it is. It's not a leftwing conspiracy -- it's a problem Domenech brought on himself.

Ben himself still doesn't seem to have grasped that. His statement on RedState reviews the history of the work he did as a teenager at his college newspaper, and explains many of the allegations he has faced. Ben still considers this solely a personal attack by the left-wing zealots in the blogosphere:

The hate mail that I have received since the launch of this blog has been overwhelmingly profane and violent. My family has been threatened; my friends have been deluged; my phone has been prank called. The most recent email that showed up while writing this post talked about how the author would like to hack off my head, and wishes my mother had aborted me.

But in the course of accusing me of racism, homophobia, bigotry, and even (on one extensive Atrios thread) of having a sexual relationship with my mother, the leftists shifted their accusations to ones of plagiarism. You can find the major examples here: I link to this source only because I believe it's the only place that hasn't yet written about how they'd like to rape my sister.

I know that charges of plagiarism are serious. While I am not a journalist, I have, myself, written more than one thing that has been plagiarized in the past. But these charges have also served to create an atmosphere where no matter what is said on my Red America blog, leftists will focus on things with my byline from when I was a teenager.

I can rebut several of the alleged incidents here. The most recent accusation, is that I stole a music review from Crosswalk and passed it off at National Review Online. In fact, I wrote both lists myself; I was one of Crosswalk's music review contributors at the time.

The Left has also accused me of foisting Sen. Frist quotes and some descriptive material from the Washington Post for a New York Press article on the Capitol Shooter. But the quotes I used were either properly credited or came from Sen. Frist's press conference, which I attended along with many other reporters. So it is no surprise that we had similar quotes or similar descriptions of the same event. I have reams of notes and interviews about the events of that day. I also went over the entire piece step by step with NYPress editors to ensure that it was unquestionably solid before it ran.

Virtually every other alleged instance of plagiarism that I've seen comes from a single semester's worth of pieces that were printed under my name at my college paper, The Flat Hat, when I was 17.

Ben doesn't explain everything, and just because the left-wing bloggers were out to get him doesn't make them incorrect. The Daily Kos shows a strange piece of cribbing, as Michelle Malkin wrote, that not only occurred later in Ben's career (2001) but also shows much more intent than just cut-and-paste amnesia. ...
Ben was 19 (two years after his entanglement with the editors at his college newspaper) when these two articles appeared, and unless he wants to argue that Murray plagiarized Ben's work, I'd call that pretty damning. It's worse than dropping an unattributed quote into the review; he reworded Murray's imagery just enough to avoid an accusation that he lifted it word for word.

Ben Domenech did -- finally -- write and post, at RedState, an apology for the plagiarism that was not accompanied by defensiveness, excuses, or gratuitous attacks on the left:

I want to apologize to National Review Online, my friends and colleagues here at RedState, and to any others that have been affected over the past few days. I also want to apologize to my previous editors and writers whose work I used inappropriately and without attribution. There is no excuse for this -- nor is there an excuse for any obfuscation in my earlier statement.

I hope that nothing I've done as a teenager or in my professional life will reflect badly on the movement and principles I believe in.

I'm deeply grateful for the love and encouragment of all those around me. And although I may not deserve such support, it makes it that much more humbling at a time like this. I'm a young man, and I hope that in time that I can earn a measure of the respect that you have given me.



I'm sure those three paragraphs were among the hardest he's ever had to write.

My sense of the neoconservative and religious right-wing movement in this country is that the people who are attracted to that worldview are very unaccepting of how fragile human beings are and of how difficult it is sometimes to make the right choice or to even know what the right choice is. Perhaps this personal experience with human frailty, and of how easy it can be to do the wrong thing even when you think yourself to be a good person, will help Ben Domenech learn a little more about humility and compassion (for others as well as himself).

I hope it does.

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