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The brutal three-day career of Ben Domenech, the WashingtonPost.com's newest ex-blogger, was characterized by Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell as "a f****n' disaster." Nobody is quite sure how it came to pass.
When WashingtonPost.com announced on March 21 that its new blogger would be Regnery Publishing's Ben Domenech, editor of such high-profile conservatives as Ramesh Ponnuru, Michelle Malkin and Hugh Hewitt, the decision surprised few regular readers of the Post. Editor-in-chief Len Downie said late last year that the White House was critical of the coverage it was getting from the Post.com's Dan Froomkin. Howell subsequently declared Froomkin "a highly opinionated liberal" and announced that Jim Brady, editor-in-chief of the WashingtonPost.com, would probably be supplementing their ranks with a conservative blogger -- in the interest of balance.
It was somewhat surprising that Froomkin, whose popular column, "White House Briefing," should be considered a "liberal" at all, as he habitually calls on both liberal and conservative sources. More and more, however, applying a critical eye and appropriate skepticism to a troubled administration results in a journalist being tagged (and dismissed) as partisan.
More surprising was the fact that Domenech could be considered a corrective to Froomkin in terms of experience. As an 18-year veteran journalist, a graduate of Yale and the editor of Harvard University's Nieman Watchdog, Froomkin had little in common with the 24-year-old Domenech who had neither finished college nor worked as a journalist.
Domenech is the son of a Bush administration official and Jack Abramoff associate, Doug Domenech. In addition to working for Regnery, he has written speeches for John Cornyn, co-founded the conservative website RedState.com and boasted that he is "the youngest member of the Bush administration." He is a self-professed, hardline GOP loyalist.
In his debut post on March 21, Domenech devoted his new column -- entitled "Red America" -- to bashing liberals and chiding his fellow Post.com employees for their ignorance about the Reagan-era Patrick Swayze vehicle, "Red Dawn." By the time Post.com opinion editor Hal Straus declared him "an internet pioneer, an accomplished writer and someone who is willing to challenge sloppy thinking even if, occasionally, he finds it on the GOP side of the aisle," the battle lines had been drawn.
By 6 p.m, that evening Atrios had unearthed a story from June of 2002 in which Domenech attributed a quote to George Bush that Bush never made and sourced it to an AP article he was never able to produce. He later retracted the story, but online curiosity about his history was now piqued. Intrepid researchers like James from Your Logo Here began looking into Domenech, and it soon became apparent that either Jim Brady was not fully aware of the person he had hired, or his judgment in doing so was questionable.
It was quickly revealed that Domenech's RedState alter ego was Augustine, who had said on the day of Coretta Scott King's funeral that she was a communist, and that it was inappropriate for the president to be in attendance. This echoed the racist critics of the civil rights movement who had used the attack to discredit the Kings around the time of the Montgomery bus boycott. Domenech was forced to make a half-hearted apology, expressing his regret that the situation was "overblown." Jim Brady declared himself "satisfied."
Others were not. Brady had already set himself at odds with liberal bloggers in January of this year. When Deborah Howell published a column writing that Jack Abramoff gave money to Democrats as well as Republicans, the liberal blogging community quickly alerted them to the fact that he hadn't. But rather than print a correction, the Washington Post adopted a "hang tough" position.
Bloggers took the fight to the Post.com's new blog. Brady quickly pulled the plug on the blog, deleted many unflattering comments and blamed it on the paper's critics, accusing them of engaging in hate speech in numerous public interviews as well as his own opinion piece. Howell eventually retracted her statement but never appended a correction to her original column.
So, it came as no surprise that the very same group of Post.com readers who felt unjustifiably denigrated in the Howell affair would quickly begin investigating Domenech's troubled history. Virtual investigation teams were set up across the blogosphere, particularly at DailyKos, and the blog swarm was rallied by people like Oregon Guy, silence and Hunter. Initial suspicions about fabrication, triggered by the four year-old AP story, led hundreds of citizen investigators to begin sifting through Domenech's oeuvre. It quickly became evident that he also had an extensive history of plagiarism.
Incidents involving original material from Salon, P.J. O'Rourke, the Washington Post and Cox News Service (which appeared under Domenech's name at the National Review Online) were coming to light at an alarming rate and appearing on Atrios' blog. Post media critic Howard Kurtz published a column on Friday morning in which Domenech accused his former editors of putting other people's words into his articles without his permission.
Readers and Democratic members of Congress flooded the Post with complaints, but Brady chose to "hang tough" once again. In the Kurtz column, Brady ignored the plagiarism allegations, adding that: "Domenech is 'controversial' and the fact that liberals object to his hiring 'shouldn't really be a shock to anybody." The Post's Dana Milbank, when questioned about the plagiarism charges, chalked them up to "hysteria over having a conservative voice on the website."
It remains unclear what happened between Friday morning and Friday afternoon, when Jim Brady announced that Domenech had resigned. Domenech returned to RedState and proclaimed his innocence, saying that author P.J. O'Rourke had given him permission to use his material in such a fashion. Both he and his fellow RedState founders cried partisan witch hunt.
Later that evening, when O'Rourke was contacted by the New York Times , he denied Domenech's claim. The National Review then apologized for printing the work of Cox News Service's Steve Murray under Domenech's byline, and the editors he accused of inserting plagiarized material into his articles dismissed such claims as absurd. Domenech made a short apology and took his leave of RedState.
The entire event seems a misguided attempt to placate the Bush administration, which the Washington Post is tasked with covering objectively. The notion that valid criticism and investigative journalism must be balanced with partisan puff pieces played out to its inevitable conclusion in the Ben Domenech affair. Have lessons been learned? Perhaps. It is doubtful that anyone with Domenech's lack of experience will follow him, or that a blogger hired to present a conservative viewpoint will be plucked from a pool of established Bush administration cronies.
But Jim Brady, the man who thought puerile tantrum-throwing belonged on the pages of the Post.com in the first place, has announced that he probably will be looking for yet another "conservative voice" for the site. Evidently Ben Domenech isn't the only one having a tough time coming to terms with his mistakes.