Tuesday, May 19, 2009

MoDoGate: By God, Fire Somebody!

Slate's Jack Shafer tries to defend Maureen Dowd:
Many a plagiarist in the past has blamed his theft on over-work, a sick child at home, alcohol use, mental illness, workplace harassment, or a dying parent in the hospice. Others have blamed the sticky cut-and-paste function of their word processors or claimed the words that they copied weren't that unique, so what's the big deal? Or they've appealed for a get-out-of-pillory-free card because they didn't deliberately copy that passage.
Dowd isn't offering any of these cop-outs. I hope I'm not reading too much into her fragmentary responses, but she appears to understand that neither carelessness nor intent constitutes a plagiarism defense.
As a member of the zero-tolerance school, I'm certainly not prone to forgive Maureen Dowd for this, especially because:
  • A. She lifted an entire freaking paragraph. You could perhaps cut her slack for a bit of parallel construction, a similarity of phrasing, but she just outright stole a 43-word sentence that she used as the penultimate paragraph of her column. Ben Domenech was publicly flayed for less.
  • B. She is a columnist. Look, I spent many years in the newspaper business. A reporter rushing to beat a deadline on a hard-breaking story can be let off with a reprimand if caught carelessly omitting an attribution (e.g., "the Associated Press reported") on B-matter he cribbed from the wires. But Dowd is only required to file twice a week, and she is a senior staffer writing for the op-ed page. For her to be cutting-and-pasting from her IM window straight into her column is simply not acceptable.
Again, I make reference to the Domenech affair. What got Domenech canned at the WaPo was not anything he'd done at the WaPo, but rather the discovery that he had plagiarized in stuff he'd previously written elsewhere. And the damning thing, at least to me, was that Domenech had done this in film reviews and other feature-type stuff -- for example, his NRO take on Britney that transparently borrowed ("Lip Smackers . . . Catholic schoolgirl uniform . . . midriff") from a Salon article.

Most of Domenech's borrowing, however, was student writing and at least he had the excuse of youth, a mere lad of 18 at the time of his Britney article. This requires me to digress and reiterate my Grumpy Old Newspaper Guy complaint -- "I've got ties older than you, kid!" -- against the Wunderkind Syndrome in modern journalism.

Kids are being permitted to run before they have been taught to walk. It's all fine and good for student journalists to do ignorant opinion pieces and puerile features in campus papers. (I got my start doing rock-music reviews for the JSU Chanticleer, forgotten wretchedness I hope never again sees the light of day.) But when they get into real-world jobs, they ought not be indulged in their arrogant belief that they're the Second Coming of Lionel Trilling or Lester Bangs or H.L. Mencken.

The job of a beginning journalist's first editor is to pound some humility into the kid's soul. Make him pay his dues by reporting crappy little stories where it's all drudgery and no glory. Hand him a stack of press releases and have him compile the "community briefs" column that runs on Page B2. On the sports desk, the junior staffers are generally required to put together the round-up of box scores and league standings that run in agate type on Page C4, hence the phrase "agate maggot" for the low man on the sports-section totem pole.

Maureen Dowd was never an agate maggot, but you can't say she didn't pay her dues. She started with the old Washington Star, worked at Time magazine, did a stint on the metro beat for the New York Times and was a mature 33 before she became the paper's Washington correspondent. It took her nine years from there to get onto the op-ed page (where, as many victims of her A1 "reporting" insisted, she should have been assigned long before).

MoDo is no Ross Douthat -- the boy is twenty-freaking-nine! -- and therefore she should know better than to stick a paragraph of unknown provenance into her column. I said when this was first reported that the mysterious "friend" who gave her that paragraph was probably her editorial assistant. If my hunch is right, the assistant should be fired.

Whatever the backstory, somebody must be fired. My God, the brilliant Rick Bragg got fired from the New York Times merely for relying on a hired stringer to help him with a "toe-touch" byline. (Trust me, folks: If a "toe-touch" byline is a firing offense, we need to discuss how many White House correspondents ever filed a Bush-at-the-Texas-ranch story from Waco with a Crawford dateline, which is to say, all of them as far as I know.)
"Even reading and watching all the news, there is no way to know the truth -- except to be there."
-- Hunter S. Thompson,
Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72
More even than her plagiarism, this is really the indictment of Dowd, an indictment that could be extended to many others in the commentariat: They're not doing any original reporting.

I always recommend Robert Novak's The Prince Of Darkness to anyone who wants to understand how real reporters get their scoops. As Thompson said, you have to be there, or at least pick up the phone and talk to the people who were. For some reason, it seldom occurs to these op-ed divas to go out to the scene -- a congressional hearing on Gitmo detainees, for example -- and report what they actually see and hear themselves.

What? Sulzberger wouldn't pay MoDo's cab fare to Capitol Hill? Leon Panetta wouldn't return the call if his secretary handed him the message that Maureen Dowd of the New York Times had requested an interview?

By God, fire somebody!

UPDATE: What part of "fuck you, Steve Benen" is so hard to understand? Benen asserts without evidence that liberal blogs are better, citing liberal blogger Nate Silver for corroboration -- because that really proves it, you see?

Benen boast about readership, slagging Michelle Malkin (8 million visits per month) and Hot Air (17 million/mo.), when anybody can plainly see that Benen's own blog gets 1/10 the traffic of Hot Air. And yet Benen would have us believe that MSM journalists are more likely to read liberal blogs simply because liberal blogs are more popular.

Also note that, whereas Michelle Malkin comes from a journalism background, Benen has never been anything except a professional liberal/Democrat shill: Clinton White House speechwriter, Democratic direct mail writer, congressional campaign flack, spokesbot for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

You're a damned two-faced liar, Benen, and no real journalist could ever possibly respect a two-bit political hack like you.


  1. All Douthat is doing is scribbling some ideas. Who cares if he barely has hair on his chest? We've got officers in the field running the wars' nitty-gritty who're 23, 24, far younger than Ross D. Who even cares about the NYT OpEd page, anyway?


  2. " I said when this was first reported that the mysterious "friend" who gave her that paragraph was probably her editorial assistant. If my hunch is right, the assistant should be fired."

    No, because it means that MoDo isn't being 'assisted' but rather having the 'assistant' write columns for her, which perhaps appear before her for a blessing before being posted. If anything, this is an aggravating factor, similar to a professional in a field passing off a flunky's work as being the professionals, without carefully reviewing it first.


  3. I despise Maureen Dowd, and all others of her kind. Give me the chance, and I'd waterboard Frank Rich until he's a whimpering, thumb-sucking lump in the corner. Oh, wait. Never mind, no waterboarding required to achieve that. He's already there.

    Seriously, though, I do consider MoDo to be one sexy chick. With that Irish red hair and attitude, mm mm mm!

    OK, back on topic: You're right, of course. Someone should be fired for this, especially if the "source" is her editorial assistant. Plagiarism is plagiarism, plain and simple. And this little episode is indicative of how lazy these folks are. Frankly, it boggles the mind. Can't even write your own "opinion" without having to copy someone else's work!

  4. As long as we're talking about accuracy in journalism perhaps you might want to re-write this line:

    "My God, the brilliant Rick Bragg got fired from the New York Times merely for relying on a hired stringer to help him with a "toe-touch" byline."

    Bragg WAS NOT fired for relying on a stringer. He was suspended for NOT CREDITING the stringer. It was not NYT policy to credit stringers; so Bragg was suspended for not adhering to a policy that didn't exist.

    Bragg, rather than accept the suspension, resigned.

    Rick Bragg Quits At New York Times
    Departure Follows Comments That Roiled Scandal-Shaken Newsroom

    By Howard Kurtz
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, May 29, 2003; Page C01

    The New York Times newsroom has erupted in anger over reporter Rick Bragg and his aggressive defense of relying heavily on stringers and interns, with many reporters denouncing the practice and insisting that's not the way they do business.

    Bragg, who had made plans to leave the newspaper this summer after being hit with a two-week suspension, yesterday "offered his resignation, and I have accepted it," Executive Editor Howell Raines told the staff in a memo. "We know this has been a difficult period. We have full confidence in our staff."