Distributing Due Diligence
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.