The quick rise and fall of Ben Domenech, the Republican operative inexplicably hired to blog for The Washington Post, only to “resign” before he had been on the job long enough to learn the Post's policy on “name-calling” offers valuable insight into many topics -- Domenech himself; the nature of his RedState weblog; the efficacy and importance of committed and energetic media criticism in stopping the spread of conservative misinformation. But most of all, the Domenech debacle serves to highlight deep problems at the Post, and, indeed, the media as a whole.
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The quick rise and fall of Ben Domenech, the Republican operative inexplicably hired to blog for The Washington Post, only to “resign” before he had been on the job long enough to learn the Post's policy on "name-calling" offers valuable insight into many topics -- Domenech himself; the nature of his RedState weblog; the efficacy and importance of committed and energetic media criticism in stopping the spread of conservative misinformation. But most of all, the Domenech debacle serves to highlight deep problems at the Post, and, indeed, the media as a whole.
Domenech is a Republican activist who worked in the Bush administration and for Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and who co-founded RedState.com, a “Republican community weblog. RedState is focused on politics, and is dedicated to the construction of a Republican majority in the United States.” The Post hired Domenech to write a blog, Red America, touting his “career as a political journalist covering Capitol Hill, writing for numerous publications and working as a contributing editor to National Review Online.”
It turns out that “career” consisted almost entirely of writing he did for right-wing publications like National Review Online and Human Events while still in his teen years. And it turns out that a significant portion of his “career” as a “journalist” consisted of plagiarizing the work of others.
And his activism on behalf of the Republican Party? That all too often took the form of making bigoted and homophobic comments like calling Coretta Scott King -- on the day of her funeral -- a communist and suggesting that blogger/journalist Andrew Sullivan, who is gay, “needs a woman to give him some stability.”
Just three days after the Post announced Domenech's new blog, he “resigned” amid ever-growing evidence that what little “journalism” experience he could claim was fraudulent, consisting largely of dishonestly attaching his name to the previously published work of real journalists.
Examples of Domenech's theft are too numerous to count, and any attempt to do so would likely be outdated before it was finished. Blogs and other online news sources, including Eschaton and Daily Kos, detailed and publicized example after example of his plagiarism.
But enough about Domenech; those interested in further details can read Media Matters' complete coverage, including the two letters we sent the Washington Post -- the first demanding an explanation for Domenech's hiring, the other calling for him to be fired for his bigoted and homophobic comments -- and an action alert urging readers to contact the Post's ombudsman. Those seeking still more information about Domenech will find it at sites like Eschaton, Daily Kos and Firedoglake, The American Prospect's Tapped blog, in Joe Conason's "A portrait of the blogger as a young plagiarist," and elsewhere.
Let's move on to the Post.
Domenech's hiring was widely seen as a sop to the right, as The American Prospect's Greg Sargent described it. Sargent argued that it is probable that the Post hired Domenech to “balance” Post online columnist Dan Froomkin, about whom conservatives frequently complain:
Let's review this r-e-a-l-l-y s-l-o-w-l-y. There are two differing accounts of the motives behind washingtonpost.com's desire to hire a conservative blogger. One was offered by [Post ombudsman] Deborah Howell. On Dec. 11, she wrote that Froomkin's column was “highly opinionated and liberal” and that [Washingtonpost.com executive editor] Jim Brady was considering “supplementing it with a conservative blogger.” The other version was offered by Brady himself. In an interview posted two days later on Dec. 13, he said that “the desire to bring on a conservative blogger has never been related to Dan.” Those two versions are plainly at odds with one another.
I've made my case. I say Howell's is more likely true because: (A) she wrote it before the Froomkin blow-up had started, while Brady was doing damage control in the midst of a raging controversy that had been precipitated in part by the very suggestion that a conservative would be hired to balance Froomkin; (B) Howell would have no conceivable reason for making that up out of thin air before anyone was paying attention to this; (C) she was writing in an unguarded moment, not yet aware that the notion of balancing Froomkin with a conservative would be controversial. (D) Post brass was clearly feeling the heat from Republican criticism of Froomkin; and (E) after the Domenech hiring exploded, Opinion editor Hal Straus didn't deny a connection between Domenech's hiring and right-wing angst about Froomkin when given the chance. Is it possible that Howell was lying or wrong about Brady's intentions? Anything's possible -- but the evidence strongly suggests otherwise.
Assuming Sargent is right -- and it seems likely that he is -- about Domenech being hired to “balance” Froomkin, it suggests a craven eagerness by the Post to appease right-wing critics -- and a dangerous lack of understanding of the enormous differences between Froomkin and Domench.
As for those differences, the most important and basic one is that Froomkin has the background of a person who should be employed by a major media outlet; Domenech does not. Froomkin is a journalist with 18 years of experience, roughly a decade at the Post alone. Domenech, on the other hand, is a partisan political operative who acknowledges “I'm not a journalist.” “Balancing” a journalist with a conservative is something that television news/debate shows do frequently, as Media Matters has explained. But here, The Washington Post went beyond the standard (troubling) practice of “balancing” a conservative journalist like Paul Gigot with a neutral reporter like John Harwood or Gwen Ifill -- the Post “balanced” a journalist with a political operative.
After Domenech's resignation, Brady acknowledged this point in an article by Post media critic Howard Kurtz:
On liberal blogs and Web sites -- Salon's lead story this morning was “A Portrait of the Blogger as a Young Plagiarist” -- many commentators said there was no equivalence between a Republican activist who co-founded the site RedState.com and Post.com journalists who are viewed as leaning to the left. Brady said that was a “fair criticism” and one he will keep in mind in looking for another conservative blogger. “We're certainly likely to look for someone with a more traditional journalism background,” he said.
But given that the difference between a journalist and a political operative should have been obvious all along, this raises several questions: why wasn't the problem clear to the Post before they hired Domenech? Or was it, and the Post didn't care? Who was responsible for Domenech's hiring? What is the Post doing to ensure that this sort of thing doesn't happen again? Why didn't the Post acknowledge the validity of this complaint when it was first raised, rather than after Domenech resigned? Had evidence of Domenech's plagiarism not surfaced, would Brady ever have acknowledged the obvious problem?
And, perhaps most of all, why did Post employees -- including Brady, Kurtz, and reporter Dana Milbank -- dismiss criticism of the Post for hiring a political operative if the Post now concedes that the criticism is fair?
On Wednesday, March 22 -- the day after Media Matters sent a letter to Brady pointing out that Domenech is a Republican operative rather than a journalist -- Kurtz dismissed criticism of the Domenech hire:
I don't get it. One conservative blogger? It's not like The Post doesn't have a left-leaning blogger, or liberal columnists. Is the New York Times a GOP mouthpiece because it employs David Brooks and John Tierney? If people don't like what Domenech has to say, don't click on him. It's not like you can say “cancel my subscription!” since the Web site is free.
But Kurtz was distorting the complaints about Domenech. Media Matters never complained about the Post hiring “one conservative blogger” ; nor was the criticism of the Post among liberal blogs focused on Domenech's conservatism. It was focused on the fact that he was a partisan operative, a bigot, and a bit of a jerk (we'll get to that last one shortly). Kurtz simply wasn't accurately representing criticism of the Post, conveniently distorting it into something easier to rebut. Now that Brady has acknowledged the issue, will Kurtz apologize to the critics whose complaints he distorted? Will he apologize to the Post colleagues whom he likened to a partisan activist?
It's also worth noting for the record that Kurtz's “one conservative blogger” comment also distorts the current ideological makeup of Post bloggers. Without attempting ideological categorization of everyone who blogs for the Post, a quick glance at the roster finds that Ron Nessen, who served as press secretary to Republican President Gerald Ford, is a Post blogger who uses his position to take substance-free cheap shots at progressive organizations. And Kurtz himself is among the Post's bloggers; his handling of the Domenech matter does little to dissuade the many people who sense an undue conservative influence on his work.
Kurtz wasn't alone in distorting the argument Media Matters and others made against Domenech's hiring. Post national political reporter and “Washington Sketch” columnist Dana Milbank did the same in a March 24 online discussion:
I must say I'm underwhelmed by the hysteria over having a conservative voice on the website. Unlike the paper, which has limited column inches, the website has unlimited room, and if people don't like what somebody is writing, they don't have to read it.
Of course the “hysteria” had little to do with “having a conservative voice on the website,” as Milbank damn well knows. He knows it because the “hysteria” was about Domenech's bigotry and lack of qualifications. He knows it because there is no similar “hysteria” over other “conservative voices” on the Post website. But most of all, he knows it because he knows the complaints were that Domenech isn't a journalist. As Milbank wrote in the online discussion:
What I don't understand (although I haven't inquired) is why the website couldn't recruit somebody with more stature to do the job. This city is crawling with good conservative journalists with lots of heft. Domenech may be a smart fellow, but he's 24 years old and tells Kurtz “I'm not a journalist.” I think that makes him the only “blogger” on the site who's not a journalist.
Milbank knew that the complaints weren't about Domenech being “a conservative voice on the website” -- but distorted the complaints anyway, in order to take a cheap shot at progressives.
Speaking of cheap shots at progressives, Domenech's first post on the Post payroll consisted of a vitriolic assault on a large segment of the Post readership. Domenech attacked “the shrieking denizens” of the Democrats' “increasingly extreme base,” calling them “unhinged” and “motivated by partisan rage.”
Less than two months ago, Brady wrote a column for the Post's website in which he denounced the insults allegedly hurled his way by readers. Explaining why he closed down the comments section on the Post blog during the Deborah Howell-Jack Abramoff controversy, Brady wrote: “If I had let them, they would have obliterated any semblance of civil, genuine discussion.” Brady continued, pointing out that the “Post site's standards ... don't allow profanity or personal attacks.”
What is calling your progressive readers -- and given the demographics of the Washington, D.C., metro area, such readers are likely a majority of the Post's subscriber base -- “unhinged” and “shrieking” and “increasingly extreme” if not a personal attack? Brady -- and anyone else at the Post -- who sniffs at the poor mean bloggers and readers who are mean to them would do well to consider this double standard. Dana Milbank calls post readers “hysterical” ; the Post's new hire calls them “unhinged” and “shrieking” ; and yet Brady says in an interview: "[I]f you want to viciously attack and insult Post or Post.com staffers or other blog commenters, then go somewhere else to do it."
The Post simply cannot have one standard for what readers are allowed to say about Post employees and another for what Post employees are allowed to say about readers.
Yet even after Media Matters pointed out this double-standard, Brady remained silent about Domenech's insults of his readers. The Post even told Greg Sargent, in explaining the Domenech hire, that it “hires writers for their ability to add something substantive to the national conversation.” That was after Domenech unleashed his stream of insults.
Back to Kurtz: in an article that appeared before Domenech's resignation, Kurtz downplayed the evidence of Domenech's plagiarism, as Media Matters explained:
In his March 24 Media Notes Extra column, Kurtz also minimized allegations of Domenech's plagiarism -- the very allegations that forced Domenech's resignation half a day after Kurtz wrote his column. In purporting to address those allegations -- which included Domenech signing his name to a column in his college newspaper that appears to have been lifted entirely from conservative humorist P.J. O'Rourke's book Modern Manners: An Etiquette Book for Rude People (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1990) -- Kurtz mentioned only two minor examples from Domenech's college days:
Kurtz was presumably referring to this March 23 posting (4:18 p.m. PDT) on Daily Kos, and this March 23 posting (5:29 p.m. ET) on Eschaton. Kurtz simply ignored the O'Rourke allegation, even though the Daily Kos post Kurtz referred to contained side-by-side comparisons of Domenech's column and specific passages in O'Rourke's book. The weblog Your Logo Here was the first to post a comparison of both texts on March 23 (3:05 pm, presumably PDT).
Additionally, Kurtz made no mention of the fact that allegations of Domenech's plagiarism are not limited to his college paper. A commenter on Daily Kos noted that Domenech, a one-time contributing editor to National Review Online, apparently lifted material from a Cox News Service article for an NRO movie review.
By suggesting that the allegations of plagiarism by Domenech were limited to movie reviews for his college newspaper, Kurtz avoided questioning Domenech about the other allegations, including Domenech's apparent wholesale theft of O'Rourke's material. Apparently questioning Domenech only about the movie reviews, Kurtz then simply repeated Domenech's defense of himself: “Domenech said he needed to research the examples but that he never used material without attribution and had complained about a college editor improperly adding language to some of his articles.” Kurtz gave no indication that he tried to contact the editor Domenech tried to implicate.
Remember: Howard Kurtz is one of the Post's star reporters. He writes regularly for the print version of the Post, he writes a blog for WashingtonPost.com, he holds weekly online discussions with readers, and he hosts his own weekly television show on CNN. He is, perhaps, the nation's most famous and influential journalist working the media beat. And this is the best he could -- or would -- do? Creating straw-man versions of the arguments people made against Domenech, then knocking them down, and minimizing evidence of plagiarism by a colleague?
After Domenech resigned, Kurtz gave online readers a somewhat more critical -- though still spotty -- look at the evidence against Domenech. Where was that when Domenech was still employed by the Post?
Of all Washington Post employees, none has as much direct responsibility for responding to reader complaints as ombudsman Deborah Howell. Already widely disparaged for ridiculing or ignoring reader concerns, Howell gave critics even more ammunition by deflecting questions about Domenech. After Media Matters urged readers to contact Howell and urge her to address the matter in her weekly column, Howell reportedly began sending email responses saying:
The Washington Post has not hired him. The website has. The two are under totally different management. He will not be working for the newspaper. If you want to complain to the right person, try firstname.lastname@example.org.
Only one problem: Howell has previously addressed “the website.” In a December 11, 2005, column, Howell described Froomkin -- who writes exclusively for the web page -- as “highly opinionated and liberal” and argued that the name of his column should be changed.
Howell and the Post owe readers yet another explanation: what, exactly, is her role in relation to the website? Did she behave inappropriately in discussing Froomkin in her column? Or is she perfectly able to discuss Domenech now? Why the inconsistency? Most of all, why does the Washington Post employ an ombudsman who is prone to deflecting, ignoring, and ridiculing reader concerns?
Where does that leave us?
- WashingtonPost.com executive editor James Brady denounces progressive readers who “insult” Post employees, but hires employees who insult progressive readers.
- The Post hired a Republican operative to write a blog, equating that partisan political activist with its own reporters.
- The Post's media critic repeatedly downplayed and distorted progressive criticism of the newspaper in order to dismiss it.
- Post national political reporter/columnist distorted progressive criticism in order to dismiss it, while insulting readers.
- The Post's ombudsman feels free to comment on WashingtonPost.com bloggers who she thinks are liberal, but deflects questions about a Republican operative hired to write for the website.
Now, throw in a few more things worth remembering about the Post:
- The Post has paid nowhere near as much attention to evidence that President Bush is breaking the law by authorizing domestic wiretaps without a court order as it did to President Clinton's comparatively insignificant relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
- Post polling director Richard Morin and Deborah Howell have given misleading, nonsensical, and insulting reasons for the Post's refusal to ask a poll question about whether people support impeachment proceedings, claiming among other things that such a question would be biased -- even though the paper asked such questions about President Clinton.
- In 1994, the Post called for an independent counsel investigation of the Whitewater deal, even while acknowledging that “there has been no credible charge in this case that either the president or Mrs. Clinton did anything wrong.” Now, the Post says there is evidence that President Bush's domestic spying operation is illegal -- but it won't call for an independent investigation.
- And more.
And it becomes clear: there is something deeply wrong with The Washington Post, and firing -- er, accepting the resignation of -- Ben Domenech isn't enough to fix it.
Today's Boston Globe reported yet another example of President Bush's belief that he is above the law:
When President Bush signed the reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act this month, he included an addendum saying that he did not feel obliged to obey requirements that he inform Congress about how the FBI was using the act's expanded police powers.
The bill contained several oversight provisions intended to make sure the FBI did not abuse the special terrorism-related powers to search homes and secretly seize papers. The provisions require Justice Department officials to keep closer track of how often the FBI uses the new powers and in what type of situations. Under the law, the administration would have to provide the information to Congress by certain dates.
Bush signed the bill with fanfare at a White House ceremony March 9, calling it ''a piece of legislation that's vital to win the war on terror and to protect the American people." But after the reporters and guests had left, the White House quietly issued a ''signing statement," an official document in which a president lays out his interpretation of a new law.
In the statement, Bush said that he did not consider himself bound to tell Congress how the Patriot Act powers were being used and that, despite the law's requirements, he could withhold the information if he decided that disclosure would “impair foreign relations, national security, the deliberative process of the executive, or the performance of the executive's constitutional duties.”
The statement represented the latest in a string of high-profile instances in which Bush has cited his constitutional authority to bypass a law.
Bush's expansive claims of the power to bypass laws have provoked increased grumbling in Congress. Members of both parties have pointed out that the Constitution gives the legislative branch the power to write the laws and the executive branch the duty to ''faithfully execute" them.
Bush's signing statement on the USA Patriot Act nearly went unnoticed.
Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, inserted a statement into the record of the Senate Judiciary Committee objecting to Bush's interpretation of the Patriot Act, but neither the signing statement nor Leahy's objection received coverage from in the mainstream news media, Leahy's office said.
Yesterday, Leahy said Bush's assertion that he could ignore the new provisions of the Patriot Act -- provisions that were the subject of intense negotiations in Congress -- represented ''nothing short of a radical effort to manipulate the constitutional separation of powers and evade accountability and responsibility for following the law."
''The president's signing statements are not the law, and Congress should not allow them to be the last word," Leahy said in a prepared statement. ''The president's constitutional duty is to faithfully execute the laws as written by the Congress, not cherry-pick the laws he decides he wants to follow. It is our duty to ensure, by means of congressional oversight, that he does so."
This is, to put it simply, a Big Deal. The president of the United States, who we already knew to be ignoring the law in conducting domestic wiretapping without a court order, now says he doesn't have to comply with legal requirements that Congress be kept informed of the FBI's activities. In other words: President Bush doesn't believe he has to follow laws designed to prevent the government from going too far in encroaching on the rights of the American people.
And, as Leahy noted, the media ignored it.
And now that The Boston Globe has disclosed this latest example of Bush's brazen disregard for the law -- even for the laws he signs -- what is the reaction?
CNN spent most of the morning breathlessly reporting that murder charges have been brought against the wife of a slain Tennesse pastor -- a tragic story, to be sure, and one that is of great import to those who knew the deceased.
But it simply is not a national news story -- or shouldn't be, if we had a media with any understanding at all of proportionality.
Murders, missing white women, car chases, shark attacks, runaway brides -- these should be local-interest stories, at best. The President of the United States announcing his intention to disobey a law meant to protect Americans from undue government intrusion in their lives? That's a national news story.
Yet CNN viewers aren't told about it. Nor are CNN.com readers -- visitors to the cable channel's web page at 11:30 this morning saw the minister's wife story take up nearly half the screen. And the other stories CNN.com featured prominently? “Professor killed in France chemistry college blast” ; “Cruise ship fire survivors count themselves lucky” ; “Report: Police suspect Holloway died from alcohol, drugs” ; “Tom Cruise jumping on furniture again.”
No mention of the revelations in the Boston Globe article. None.
"Vacation tragedies" and local crime reports, but nothing about the national tragedies and crimes that actually affect all of us.
And this is nothing new to CNN. While the nation faces serious problems, CNN takes an unserious approach to news. As we noted when CNN's Paula Zahn criticized Democrats during State of the Union coverage:
If people think Democrats lack ideas, it is largely because news organizations ignore the Democrats' ideas. It's because Paula Zahn devotes an hour every night not to assessing the political parties' policy proposals, but to urgent topics like “Breast Milk Black Market” ; “Oprah Flip-Flops on Controversial Book” and “New Clues in Missing Honeymooner Case?” -- and those are all from a single edition of Paula Zahn Now. Other recent editions have focused on "A Life Changed By Cosmetic Surgery," the always-popular "Googling For Pornography," and the pressing question: "Can voodoo make a comeback?"
A Norwegian pop star dealing with death threats because of a music video. Why some are calling it an elaborate publicity stunt. Tune in at 8 p.m. ET.
But why pick on Zahn? CNN's March 24 daytime news programs featured wall-to-wall coverage of the minister's wife -- but no mention of the revelations in the Globe article. Not surprising for a cable “news” channel that virtually ignored the Downing Street memo until pressure from Media Matters and others forced them to take notice:
Still, CNN.com readers are better off than CNN viewers. Since last week, when we noted the network's failure to give the matter more than a passing mention, and wrote that “it's a dark day when CNN's 'witheringly bad' and 'excruciatingly empty' blog segment actually does a better job of covering the news than the rest of the network," CNN has mentioned the memo only twice more -- one of them coming in another “Inside the Blogs” segment on May 12.
There's something seriously wrong with a cable “news” network that virtually ignores a secret intelligence memo that suggests the Bush administration deliberately manipulated intelligence in order to support its policies; virtually ignores a letter signed by 89 members of Congress demanding an explanation -- but covers the fact that one of those congressmen writes about it on his blog. CNN's Wolf Blitzer, who boasts nightly that he brings his viewers “hard news,” hasn't covered the memo; at CNN, such news is left to “Inside the Blogs.”
What was CNN covering instead of the Downing Street memo? The "Runaway Bride," of course.
Jamison Foser is Executive Vice President at Media Matters for America.