Distributing Due Diligence

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Color Brad DeLong unimpressed with Jack Shafer's defense at Slate of WashingtonPost.com editor Jim Brady, who's been raked over the coals for failing to peg Ben Domenech as a serial plagiarist before he was hired as the site's token conservative blogger. But I'm inclined to think what I wrote last week is right: It's just not reasonable to have expected the paper to do the kind of checking on every new hire that, while quick and easy for a distributed blog swarm, would have been incredibly time-consuming and labor intensive for a small personnel staff. I just Googled National Review alone and came up with about 130 hits for "Ben Domenech," excluding mentions at either of the magazine's blogs so as not to pick up hits for discussion of the recent scandal. Even assuming some of those are duplicates or pieces where Domenech is quoted rather than ones he wrote, that's a hefty chunk of work from just one website. And last I checked, the NR folk were only aware of maybe three or four pieces on the site that contained lifted material. Since even the plagiarized articles weren't wholesale carbon-copies, and even the stolen prose was usually at least slightly reworded, you'd have to go through each one picking unique-sounding phrases to Google, then comb through the hits to see whether they looked like coincidences or genuine cases of copying. Are we really supposed to think that "due diligence" includes going back over years-old clips with that kind of fine-toothed comb for every new hire? Again, though easy for a dispersed community of bloggers, that's hard for a small body at an institution like the Post.

Glenn "Army of Davids" Reynolds agrees with that take, which he calls a "differential competences" model of the complementary virtues of traditional media and the blogosphere, and proposes that the former start taking more explicit advantage of the latter:

One good sign: The Washington Post is including links, via Technorati, to blogs that discuss its stories, allowing readers to quickly get multiple perspectives. The next step would be for the Post to assign some staffers to read those blog posts and look for errors in the story, correcting them and offering credit to bloggers when they're discovered. That would transform an army of kvetchers into a powerful squad of unpaid fact-checkers. (And the word "unpaid" must surely ring sweet in the ears of today's newspaper management.)

That might be another reason for the Post to consider something like the blogospheric Bake Off for new hires proposed by Jay Rosen. Before anyone signs on the dotted line, you've got a volunteer army sifting years of output from candidates, looking not only for really egregious journalistic malfeasance like plagiarism, but a broader sort of fact checking that could confirm whether the person in question tends to get their facts right, to quote people fairly, and so on.

Note, though, that this would be a case of true complementarity: It would work only—or at any rate in large part—because The Washington Post is Big Media: It's got a big enough microphone that you could actually count on thousands of bloggers to spend a couple minutes each doing the vetting. For all but a handful of the biggest blogs, that kind of effort would be hard to muster. It works, in other words, precisely because the media ecosphere is not truly egalitarian, but has a sort of hierarchy with a relatively small number of sources getting a hugely disproportionate number of eyeballs. That jibes with a point John Tierney made when I interviewed him last year: Big Media still serves as a kind of handy Schelling point to keep the dispersed power of the blogosphere focused on some common issues, so that all that distributed intelligence can be usefully aggregated.

NEXT: Tailing Taylor

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  1. I think H&R should create a seperate blog where the H&R staff discuss this “inside the media” stuff.

  2. I think the whole ‘blog fact checking power’ thing is vastly overstated. You don’t need *that* many people exposed to the text to find errors.

    I’m sure newspapers and magazines have received corrections from readers since Gutenberg, and possibly received large numbers of corrections for some things.

    The only difference between then and now is that the blogger complaints are done publicly, rather than the old-fashioned way, with a call or note to the editors. Which still happens, considering that most corrections don’t result from a blogstorm.

  3. Hak-
    Sorry you’re not interested. But judging by the comments threads on previous posts on this topic, some people are… so this is probably just an instance to make use of the “page down” button.

    Jon-
    I disagree. If you look at how this played out, it required: (1) An independent channel so that the first person who suspected copying could distribute it and have it quickly picked up by many other outlets, exposing thousands of readers to the charge. (2) Easily accessed online archives of Domenech’s past work. (3) Search technology that made it relatively easy for individuals to quickly see whether particular phrases turned up in other pieces posted on the Internet, and (4) a means of aggregating and verifying those findings. I don’t think this could have happened ten years ago; certainly not over a period of 48 hours.

  4. Isn’t the Washington Post getting into blogging something like when Cornell West put out a rap album?

    It seems awfully silly to me, like entering an aircraft carrier in a yacht race.

  5. Julian,

    Yeah, I think you’re right that at least this type of problem required the distributed effort of a blogosphere.

    I’m a little worried about MSM guys getting lax and relying on the blogosphere to do their fact checking for them, but I guess that the embarrassment of having your dirty laundry so publically aired would be a counter-incentive.

  6. Makes one wonder if the whole industry hasn’t depended on plagiary for ages.

    Similar stuff is happening in academics, right? Profs can google a suspicious phrase in a student paper and quickly discover it was written by someone else.

  7. Is this what happened to Stephen E. Ambrose? Didn’t he end up getting caught with his hand in the xerox machine?

  8. There were an *awful* lot of warning signs about Ben Domenech: from his claim that Glenn Reynolds was not a Father to his analogy Jefferson Davis : Coretta Scott King :: Patriot: Communist to his ability to find AP quotes that nobody else could to his enthusiasm for “Red Dawn” as more than another cheesy Sunday afternoon movie.

    The fact that he proved to be a serial plagiarist is an unexpected bonus which gives the story a kind of completeness never found in real life. But it’s far from the only reason to believe that Jim Brady is an idiot.

  9. Lautreamont : Plagiarism is necessary. Progress implies it. It closely grasps an author’s sentence, uses his expressions, deletes a false idea, replaces it with the right one.

  10. “This would be a case of true complementarity.” Very well reasoned. Thanks, Julian.

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