Sunday, January 4, 2009

Yglesias, right and wrong

UPDATED & BUMPED: Michelle Malkin calls "bullcrap." (BTW, I give Michael Goldfarb a hard time in this post, written Saturday, but I took his side today against Greenwald, so I it's not personal. I just don't enjoy being insulted indirectly. "Don't piss down my back and tell me it's raining," to quote the Outlaw Josey Wales.)

PREVIOUSLY: Matthew Yglesias:
There are tons and tons of conservative media outlets, most of them with a web presence, and the web presences of places like Goldfarb’s Weekly Standard blog would be higher if they were breaking interesting news the way ThinkProgress, HuffingtonPost, TPM, Washington Independent, etc. do. What the right lacks are people with the skill to do the job.
Having spent 22 years in the news business, I ought to resent this remark. The problem is that Yglesias's misapprehension is the fault of the conservative movement, which would rather hire pundits, wonks, P.R. flacks and media consultants than spend a dime on actual journalism.

True story: The day after my January announcement that I was leaving the Washington Times, I got a call from someone at a conservative media outfit who expressed an eagerness to hire me for an opening on their staff. Well, I had another project on the front burner, but I might be willing to talk about something down the line, and he said he'd get back to me. When he did get back to me he said he'd talked to his boss, but the boss wasn't familiar with my work and would I be willing to take a freelance assignment, sort of as a tryout?

Well . . . no. If you have a job opening on your staff, interview me. But I'm not a raw beginner who needs to prove anything to anybody, and I can get plenty of freelance assignments without kowtowing to your goddamned egomaniacal boss by writing on spec. For that matter, before I'd work for the kind of sadistic bastard who would ask me to do such a thing, I'd go drive a forklift.

Fast forward to March, after my front-burner project had ended, when I found myself sitting around the house asking, "What next?" The Pennsylvania primaries were coming up, so I went online to see if maybe there was a campaign event within driving distance, which there was. I called my friend Wlady Pleszczynski at the American Spectator and was on my way to Greensburg, Pa., the next morning.

I subsequently covered Hillary in Harrisburg, Pa., and in Shepherdstown, W.Va., covered the Libertarian convention in Denver ("best national coverage," said Dave Kopel), covered John McCain in Pennsylvania, returned to Denver for the DNC, went on the road to cover Sarah Palin in Ohio and Pennsylvania. . . . well, that's a sample. I also did some reporting and commentary for Pajamas Media and SpliceToday, all the while blogging constantly. But the one thing I didn't do is offer to write anything for that outfit whose egomaniac boss thought I should take an assignment on spec as a tryout for a full-time job.

This is not just a "How I Spent My Summer Vacation" story. Yglesia gloats that there are no conservatives who know how to do reporting, yet here I am, an experienced journalist with no small amount of Web savvy (I've even recently learned FinalCutPro), winning praise for my coverage and -- well, where are those conservative organizations lined up to hire me?

In point of fact, at a time when we are told that conservatives should be investing more in reporting, the Media Research Center just did a round of layoffs. The only recent conservative media startup, Culture11, isn't even interested in news reporting. Well, then, to read Michael Goldfarb complain that "Republicans have no equivalent outlet" to support "a bunch of right-wing Greg Sargents" -- making that complaint on Rupert Murdoch's dime! -- is slightly more than mildly ironic.

Don't get me wrong: I enjoy reading the Weekly Standard, and they do some good reporting. (Matthew Continetti's account of the Abramoff scandal was simply the best thing written on that saga.) But am I the only one who sees the inherent contradiction in Goldfarb (a) returning from a gig as a full-time professional partisan operative on the McCain campaign and then (b) complaining of a lack of fierce, independent, take-no-prisoners conservative journalism? The two functions are incompatible. If you want to be a GOP hack, be a GOP hack, but don't expect me to applaud any of your goddamned lectures about journalism.

UPDATE: Complaints from Red State give John Cole an excuse to revisit the Ben Domenech plagiarism scandal. The most memorable thing to me about that episode was the discovery that Domenech had plagiarized a Salon piece about Britney Spears for National Review Online.

Salon: This is what she looked like when you first saw her: pigtails, Catholic schoolgirl uniform, Lip Smackers baby-doll pink lips. She was a good girl, but suddenly gone bad, having tied her little white shirt in a knot over her Madonna-influenced midriff. She was a 17-year-old babe -- in both senses of the word -- who already knew too much.

Domenech: Spears first hit the music scene just last year. ... Decked out in a Catholic schoolgirl uniform -- complete with pigtails, pink Lip Smackers, and white shirt tied in a knot over an exposed midriff -- she teased at disobedience, and dangerously tempted the voyeur.

Grant that a thing is what it is, and there are only so many ways to describe Britney's appearance in her first music video. But the similarities in the space of a single sentence are too much, and the real telltale factor is the reference to "Lip Smackers." What guy knows the name brands of lip gloss?

Look, it's one thing to crib quotes or facts from other sources, but . . . you can't come up with an original description of Britney Spears? I've had my share of goofs and gaffes over the years, but that's a problem I've never had.

UPDATE II: John Cole now has buyer's remorse:
I would like to point out that the point of this post was to mock the notion that the media would not pick a right-of-center pundit . . . not to provide a forum to crap all over Ben and re-visit the plagiarism scandal. . . .
[H]e was always nice to me, and I think is at heart a decent person, so please stop it. I hate pile-ons, and I hate the notion that because someone made a mistake, their life should be ruined. That just isn’t cool.
No, but there are two things you can't do in journalism: Make stuff up (falsification) and rip stuff off (plagiarism). Plagiarism is a "mistake" in the same sense that car theft is a "mistake" and, as was revealed at the time of his firing from the WaPo, Domenech had been playing Grand Theft Auto since he was in college. Domenech's reputation as a brilliant young writer -- which is the only reason the WaPo would have given a 24-year-old such a prominent position -- was based on other people's work.

Nor was there any plausible excuse for the kind of wholesale plagiarism Domenech did. (Movie reviews? WTF?) It's useful to compare Domenech's plagiarism to the Ruth Shalit scandal. What Shalit did was to compile boatloads of Lexis-Nexis research for feature profiles and omit some of the attributions. It was wrong, but once you saw what she was doing, you understood that her crime was mainly carelessness. No such explanation can account for Domenech's collegiate habit of lifting entire paragraphs from movie reviews.

What Shalit and Domenech had in common was extreme youth, and frankly, this business of wunderkind journalism . . . Look, when Robert Novak joined the Associated Press's Washington bureau in 1957, he was 26 years old, but he had been a journalist since he was 16 (beginning as a sports stringer for the Joliet Herald-News) and had spent two years at AP bureaus in Omaha and Indianapolis. Novak writes in Prince of Darkness that when he came to Washington:
I was the only AP newsman in Washington less than thirty years old, and there were precious few under forty.
Being a member of the Washington press corps is, or ought to be, an achievement, not a place for rookies just learning their craft. If a 24-year-old wants to cover politics, he ought to be doing it in Omaha or Indianapolis, not the nation's capital -- except maybe covering the DC City Council. I don't care what your SAT score is; intelligence is not a substitute for knowledge and experience.

I never felt that Domenech's "life should be ruined," but (a) wanton, wholesale plagiarism is a career-ender in journalism; and (b) since he was hired by the WaPo specifically to represent the Right, his disgrace was an ugly stain on the conservative movement. Michelle Malkin didn't hesitate to cut him loose, even though he'd edited one of her books. Milli Vanillis, we don't need.

UPDATE III: A commenter says, correctly, that John Cole did not specifically reference plagiarism when he invoked Domenech. But it's like mentioning Stephen Glass or Jayson Blair, isn't it?

Also, I like and admire Erick Erickson, but he shouldn't attempt to excuse Ben Domenech, who burnt a bridge that others might have crossed.


  1. Well . . . no. If you have a job opening on your staff, interview me. But I'm not a raw beginner who needs to prove anything to anybody, and I can get plenty of freelance assignments without kowtowing to your goddamned egomaniacal boss by writing on spec. For that matter, before I'd work for the kind of sadistic bastard who would ask me to do such a thing, I'd go drive a forklift.

    No animus there... ;)

  2. As someone who read your blog when Cole linked to it, I found your assertion that Cole was dragging up the plagiarism scandal to be without foundation in Cole's post. Can you direct me to the what Cole said that led you to believe that he was dragging up the scandal, because, unless the mere mention of the gentlemen's name counts, I just don't see it.

    That being said, I agree with you that Cole does not seem to take the sin of plagiarism seriously enough.

  3. I'm going to stick up for Milli Vanilli. Those vocals were paid in full, work for hire, they weren't stolen from someone else.

  4. The only recent conservative media startup, Culture11, isn't even interested in news reporting.

    Actually Culture11 is interested in news reporting...we just can't afford it right now. Punditry is (relatively) cheap; news reporting is (relatively) expensive. Because we are a for-profit startup, we have less cash to spend on original reporting, though we hope to be able to add it later.

    I think this is one of the distinctions between Left and Right. The Left has many non-profits that are willing to spend money on reporting. They also have many young, fairly competent, journalists who can work for cheap. On the right, the good journalists are usually older, experienced, and rightly expect to get paid what they are worth.