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The Tentacle


March 30, 2006

Disaster at The Post!

Tony Soltero

Once upon a time, in another world, in another era, The Washington Post was a great newspaper. The Post was serious about the practice of journalism and investigative reporting, and it was not shy about revealing uncomfortable truths about our government, even if it meant upending established power structures actually, shining a bright light on the practices of these power structures was The Post's job.

And it performed this job admirably, eventually exposing, through the indefatigable efforts of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, the craven corruption of Richard Milhous Nixon. This was the free press doing what it does best holding our leaders accountable for their actions. And the nation was rid of an obnoxious, power-abusing president as a result.

The Post of today resembles The Post of the Nixon era about as much as today's version of General Motors measures up to the formidable automaker of yesteryear. Its once-proudly-independent editorial board has plunged off an Acapulco cliff, blatantly shilling for the Iraq war at every step and continuing to cover for and apologize for President George W. Bush even as it has become obvious to the majority of Americans that the man is an ideologically-bankrupt walking disaster.

The Posts stable of op-ed writers includes its share of respectable conservatives and shrill right-wing ideologues, which is fine. With but with one exception (E.J. Dionne), its "liberal" columnists are forever walking on eggshells, tiptoeing through muted criticisms of the farthest-right government in American history, afraid of showing any kind of aggressiveness, and taking more issue with liberal Democrats than with Republicans. Its news coverage has become sloppy and overtly dependent on White House talking points, even when these feed the paper misleading, easily-refuted information. The most blatant instance of this was its regurgitation of the untruth that Jack Abramoff gave money to "both parties."

But as disappointing as The Post's descent from its pinnacle has been, the drama of the past week was still astonishing.

To recap the story, the newspaper, which features regular columns by radical lefties like George Will and Charles Krauthammer, and the newspaper, whose editorial board continues to celebrate the wisdom of the Iraq war, caved in to pressure from right-wing interest groups to rectify its (strictly imaginary) "liberal bias" and hired a new "conservative blogger," a 24--year-old college dropout (from a wealthy, politically-connected family) by the name of Ben Domenech. And it refused to hire a corresponding liberal blogger for balance.

Now, Mr. Domenech had superficially impressive credentials. He was a featured contributor to RedState.com, one of the leading conservative blogs. His writings were laced with their share of wit and attitude, as one would expect from a young hotshot. He had been published in prominent right-wing publications like the National Review.

And it is a good thing to see established media organs look to the blogosphere for talent. Even though The Post needed another right-wing contributor like Imelda Marcos needed another pair of shoes, he did seem to bring something to the table the objections raised by the progressive blogosphere centered not upon Mr. Domenech himself, but on The Post's failure to also recruit a liberal.

But there was a problem with Mr. Domenech. A big one. His witty musings turned out not to be his own. It turned out that Ben Domenech was a serial plagiarist, cheerfully ripping off phrases from sources as diverse as liberal web magazine Salon.com and conservative satirist P.J. O'Rourke. He even lifted paragraphs off his host newspaper! Talk about getting your money's worth; Michael Olesker should have been so thorough.

How did we find out? Did The Washington Post do what most prospective employers do, and conduct its own background check and turn up these instances of gross misconduct? Did The Post properly vet this hire?

Nope!

Less than 48 hours after Mr. Domenech's first screed hit the cyberwaves, an inquisitive contributor to Daily Kos did a little googling, and by the next morning he had unearthed literally dozens of "borrowings." The evidence spread quickly throughout the blogosphere, and ultimately became so overwhelming that even right-wing blogs began calling for Domenech's scalp. Not long after that, Mr. Domenech stepped down from his new job.

I wouldn't worry too much about young Ben. He's probably got a lucrative future in talk radio. But this bizarre sequence does lead one to worry about The Washington Post. How could such a reputable newspaper manage such a comically inept hire? Has The Post so completely abdicated its commitment to real journalism to the point where it is going out of its way to hire whatever right-wing shill comes knocking? Doesn't anybody in The Post ever use Google?

If anything, this is simply another data point in the increasingly rapid transfer of news credibility from the traditional media to the blogosphere. The traditional media institution kowtowed to the imaginary objections of right-wing groups, tossed its journalistic integrity to the wind, and attempted to appease these right-wing groups with a blind crony hire.

The blogosphere stepped in, blew the whistle, and called out the traditional media institution, which was forced to own up to its mistake. It becomes less surprising every day that newspaper readership is dropping so steadily.

As disheartening as the last few years have been at The Post, culminating in last week's fiasco, the newspaper still features its share of outstanding journalists, committed to truth and facts. Hopefully this experience will encourage the newspaper brass to engage in some honest self-examination, followed by a renewed commitment to return The Post to the honorable position it used to hold in our media culture.

Our country needs the same courageous, independent Washington Post it had in the Nixon years.

Now more than ever.



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