Washington Post on Domenech: "We did plenty of background checks"

The Web site's executive editor denies it hired the disgraced blogger because of right-wing pressure.

Published March 24, 2006 9:54PM (EST)

Jim Brady, executive editor of Washingtonpost.com, told Salon Friday that Post editors had thoroughly vetted young right-wing blogger Ben Domenech before they hired him to write for the site. He said editors saw no "red flags" that Domenech was a plagiarist. Domenech resigned from the Post site Friday after bloggers discovered that he'd copied entire passages from publications, including Salon and Rolling Stone, while he was working for his college newspaper. After he graduated, he wrote articles for the National Review Online and New York Press that also contained plagiarized passages.

"We obviously did plenty of background checks" on Domenech, Brady said. He explained that Post editors read "basically everything he'd written" during the past few years and spoke to many people who had previously worked with Domenech -- "both people he referred us to and people we found on our own," Brady said. Plagiarism, though, is not an easy thing to spot, Brady suggested. "We did a lot of vetting but that's a difficult thing to catch someone on."

Brady said that Domenech had "not necessarily admitted to the fact that he did or didn't do it," and that the Post site -- which is managed separately from the print version of the Washington Post -- had not come to any conclusions on whether Domenech was guilty of plagiarism. "But certainly there was enough smoke there and not any good explanations to convince me otherwise," Brady said. He added that if Domenech had not offered to resign, the paper would have fired him. (Domenech did not respond to Salon e-mail inquiries for comment.)

In a post Friday on RedState.org, Domenech defended himself from the charges and blamed a college editor for inserting text into his stories. "My critics have also accused me of plagiarism in multiple movie reviews for the college paper. I once caught an editor at the paper inserting a line from The New Yorker (which I read) into my copy and protested. When that editor was promoted, I resigned. Before that, insertions had been routinely made in my copy, which I did not question. I did not even at that time read the publications from which I am now alleged to have lifted material. When these insertions were made, I assumed, like most disgruntled writers would, that they were unnecessary but legitimate editorial additions."

Domenech also wrote that he had personally received permission from writer P.J. O'Rourke to do a "college-specific version of his classic piece on partying." (O'Rourke could not be reached for comment.) Domenech claimed that an article he wrote for the New York Press, which lifts many passages from the Washington Post, was not an instance of plagiarism but instead reflected the fact that many reporters were there. "So it is no surprise that we had similar quotes or similar descriptions of the same event," he wrote. "I have reams of notes and interviews about the events of that day. I also went over the entire piece step by step with NYPress editors to ensure that it was unquestionably solid before it ran."

Steve Weinstein, editor of the New York Press, told Salon he didn't remember Domenech. "We've had four editors since then; I'm afraid he's lost in the mists of time. Can't help you."

Many critics of the paper have wondered why the Post chose Domenech in the first place. Domenech has never worked as a full-time reporter, and though he did help create the popular conservative blog RedState.org, his blogging experience was paltrier than that of many on the right. Critics state that Domenech, the self-proclaimed "youngest political appointee of President George W. Bush," and one-time speechwriter for Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn, was more of a political operative than a blogger.

Brady said the site picked Domenech for two reasons: He's conservative and he's provocative. Brady denied that the paper hired Domenech as a way to deflect criticism from the right that Dan Froomkin, one of its most popular columnists, is too liberal. "That's not true and it never was," he said.

"We looked at a lot of people," Brady said of the selection process. "We didn't have anybody on the site who is on a consistent basis discussing issues of conservatives, someone who's loyal to the cause of conservatism and not the administration. We were looking for people whose opinions are not necessarily in line with the majority of people who read the site. We wanted to create a little bit of buzz and controversy as well." And Domenech, Brady said, fit the bill. "He was provocative."

In the end, of course, the decision created the wrong kind of controversy. "The lesson we've learned is that if we go back and do this again, we'll probably look more in the traditional journalist community," Brady said. "We still want someone who's provocative."

And the site still wants someone on the right. "A conservative columnist, a conservative blogger, whatever it ends up being. Certainly we're looking, but I don't know the time frame," Brady said.

Asked if the site is looking for a liberal, he said, "Potentially, potentially."

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

MORE FROM Farhad Manjoo

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