Lying and stealing

plagiarismWhen I was a junior in high school, I took an independent study from the resident journalism teacher. I was supposed to study something about feminism and write a lengthy report on it. Well, I was also the yearbook editor and involved in a gazillion other things and I never really understood my assignment so when I still had another few pages to write and a deadline looming, I plagiarized significant passages from one of the textbooks I was using. It took her months to figure out where I stole the words from, but when she did, she promptly changed my grade to an F and called my parents. My mom was a fellow public school teacher and my dad was a pastor in our small town.

It was excruciatingly embarrassing to go through and my parents and siblings were deeply ashamed. This probably helps explain why my parents — in the section of the yearbook where other parents placed ads gushing over and praising their children — wrote “Mollie Kathleen — you have certainly made life challenging.

The incident left a deep impression on me. Where I had been a stellar and confident student, I became much more cautious and reserved. I realized that I was copying or plagiarizing regularly and that the deception had creeped into other areas of my life. My parents punished me, talked to me at length about the Seventh and Eighth Commandments, and told me to take the time I needed to turn my life around. Getting busted and being forced to come clean affected where I went to school, how much time I spent on my work, the career path I chose and even how I interacted with people.

Almost 15 years later, my past is not completely escapable. Editors frequently tell me I source too much information in my stories. My quotes never read as nicely as other reporters because I take them down word for word instead of cleaning them up like most folks do. And feel compelled to be very open about this incident because it seems only fair that editors and reporters know they are dealing with someone who was capable at one time of stealing someone else’s words.

And the thing is — getting busted for plagiarism was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I can not tell you how thankful I am that someone caught me and cared enough about me to hold me accountable. I can not tell you how thankful I am that my parents not only punished me but helped me overcome my problems. I became a much better student in the long run and much more honest.

I’m writing all this because today the Washington Post accepted the resignation of a blogger they had hired only a few days ago. Ben Domenech, who has written for a number of media outlets, has, it seems, repeatedly and brazenly plagiarized. And journalists get busted every few days or months for this. As the Post says:

Plagiarism is perhaps the most serious offense that a writer can commit or be accused of. Washingtonpost.com will do everything in its power to verify that its news and opinion content is sourced completely and accurately at all times.

Journalism is unique in that it relies on trust between the reader and writer. And when that trust is destroyed, the quality of the relationship suffers horribly. We also forget that, for a profession that tends to ignore or deemphasize religious influence, our journalism standards are indelibly linked to religious values of telling the truth, taking care of our neighbors, not coveting the work of others, etc.

Ben Domenech needs to take full responsibility for his errors, repent of them and change his behavior. But the good news, which he needs to hear and probably won’t hear much of as people attack him in the next few days, is that he can be forgiven for what he has done and he can rebuild trust with his colleagues, family, friends and the public.

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  • http://www.newpantagruel.com dk

    If Domenech had a journalistic career to lose, it should be over and done with. However, by his own description, he is not a journalist. Maybe he can still aspire to be one, if that’s what he wants. Good luck with that.

    In professions that rest on a measure of public trust, when that trust is broken, it is restored by purging the guilty. This has nothing to do with forgiveness. You can be forgiven, but you can never fully recover lost trust. The public is not your family or your church. It’s too big and always has an unforgiving element, which is generally a good thing.

    Admittedly the world of blog polemic and punditry complicates this kind of situation. Blogs have influence and some degree of trust but apparently not a whole lot, or else it varies widely from blog to blog. Many are like talk radio–full of swagger, meanness, and theatrics that used to be but are not now allowed in “the press.” Weirdest of all, inaccuracy abounds but is also much more transparent.

    When it comes to intellectual theft, are serious political bloggers more forgiving than journalists? Tough one, given that serious political bloggers sometimes are journalists or get accepted as quasi-journalists by professional journalists.

    The problem with intentional, repeated plagiarism is that it indicates laziness, a lack of ethics, talent, and sense. It’s not an “oops” moment. It’s stuff that runs deep, especially in plagiarists who make excuses and thin denials.

  • http://areyoudressed.blogspot.com Molly

    This is all over the internets, apparently.

  • http://www.lightreflected.org prof B

    Man this is something I and my colleagues really agonize over–how to convince students of the lesson you learned 15 years ago. If you can go on-line and get/buy an essay and not get caught, why write their own paper? We now use a plagiarism service to help stop that, but it’s not always successful, I know. I may circulate this among my dept.

    As for DK’s comment above, I don’t agree that once you’ve broken public trust in this way, you can never be trusted again. One big key to restoring that, though, is true repentence, and it doesn’t seem like any of the folks who’ve been busted for this (Blair, Kelly, et al) have really exhibited that. Frustrating. There is a differene between forgiveness and restoring trust, but I think you have to leave open the opportunity for the latter.

  • Tim J.

    I haven’t been reading the politics section of my blogroll for the past several days, so I wasn’t even aware of this whole thing until today when it ended. At any rate, you can find Ben’s side of the story here:
    http://www.redstate.com/story/2006/3/24/151255/259

  • HokiePundit

    So…if he had murdered someone at the age where he is said to have plagiarized, it would’ve been expunged from his record by now. According to his rebuttal, one allegation basically is that he plagiarized himself, several more are that he had similar work to those working off the same source materials, and finally that as a 17-year-old Freshman, some of his reviews weren’t completely his own (regarding this, he blames his editor and his own naivete).

    This just smacks to me of pure partisan hatred against a young conservative Christian.

  • Stephen A.

    Yup. plagiarism’s bad. This young man erred.

    But he wrote a partisan political blog.

    Or am I missing the religious angle here, other than the fact of his violation of God’s commandments, which are pointed out here in the post (but weren’t really mentioned by that printed “Post”?)

    As for the facts, they are stunningly against his claims on innocence. This young Christian wrote a rather tawdry piece on “partying” that was obviously lifted from a PJ O’Rourke story, nearly word-for-word.

  • tmatt

    Most college writers want to write opinion rather than news.

    They can make it up and not have to deal with other people and accuracy.

    But it’s hard to mine you own brain forever.

    IMHO, about 95 percent of all problems in college journalism are linked to opinion and commentary pieces. This is why I have always pushed by students to seek basic news skills first.

  • tmatt

    ” … YOUR own brain… ” Obviously.

    I have seen cases in which people claim plagiarism and what happened was that both reporters were using press kits for, let’s say, a new movie. Or they were interviewing a person who tended to recycle his or her own sound bites. The only time I have been accused of plagiarism was the latter. The person used the same quotes, word for word, in many interviews and various writers quoted and paraphrased off those quotes.

    But that simply cannot explain all that is present in this case.

    I think that the WashingtonPost.com crew needs to find itself a real journalist on the other side of the culture divide. Oh my, would I love to nominate several!

  • Michael

    Bravo, Terry. While “real journalists” have had their own problems with plagarism, it appears Domenech’s main problem was that he never really spent time learning to be a journalist but was always a pundit, an opinionator, and a provocatuer. When the ideas seem more inportant than the process, you are willing to cut corners. That’s probably why his initial reaction was to view himself as a victim. He was defensive about his ideas without seeing his process was so wrong.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Late last night, Ben Domenech publicly admitted his errors — an important first step on the recovery process.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    I have seen cases in which people claim plagiarism and what happened was that both reporters were using press kits for, let’s say, a new movie.

    This brings up something that’s been bothering me for a few years: Is it right for a reporter to recycle material from a press kit unattributed? Plagiarism issues aside, how does it serve my interests as a reader? It might have made sense 20 years ago, but nowadays if I want to read a press release I can get it straight from the horse’s web server.

  • Michael

    I’m curious about the reaction within Christian journalists’ circles about the latest scandal.

    Along with Jack Kelly and Maggie Gallagher, this is the third journalist/pundit in three years who was strongly identified with religious conservatives and social conservatives who has ended up in an ethics scandal. If these were African Americans–like Jayson Blair–there would be a drumbeat of conversation about the role race, if any, played in these ethics problems. Are similar conversations taking place among people who would like to see more religious conservatives in journalism?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    1) The whole press kit excuse is laughable. I review movies and books frequently. Press kits include background information such as where the film was shot, details about the cast, etc. — but nothing that would explain the plagiarism of the case we’re dealing with here. The OTHER thing usually included in press kits, however, are favourable reviews. But people can’t claim they didn’t know those are off-limits for theft.

    2) Michael — If we’re going to include pundits there are a heck of a lot more than the ones you mentioned. Although I actually think Maggie Gallagher’s case is different — she didn’t take money to write pieces favourable to the administration. She was a contractor with HHS *and* she wrote columns about issues the administration agreed with. But her ideas never changed. This is far different than some other folks implicated in, say, the Education Department scandal. Anyway, as for conservative or Christian journos, I think Kelly is the only one of note. Even Domenech is not a reporter. And I think the simple truth is that the sinful condition does not discriminate against left or right or up or down or black and white. I mean, my 3-year-old niece just lied to my parents this week. We should stop acting surprised when people sin. Condemn it — most definitely. But come on — if people knew the darkness in our hearts? We’d be so humiliated we could never leave our homes or face our friends.

  • http://www.newpantagruel.com dk

    Until we live in a theocracy, the “sin” here is irrelevant. Ethical lapse is what matters here, and it should not be relativized into nothing because of some asinine reference to “all have sinned.” This sort of thinking is deeply disturbing.

  • Daniel

    Gallagher was paid by national magaazines and newspapers for her ideas, while also being on the payroll of the administration. While it isn’t as exteme as Armstrong Williams, it was an appalling lapse in judgment for someone who has made her career as a writer.

  • http://www.lightreflected.org prof B

    Yeah–the press kit thing is lame: no self-respecting journalist [ok, ok . . .] would substitute something from a press it for legit quotes. Most of the folks I know (I hope all of them) who review/write about music for the pubs I do wouldn’t do that. And the eds. woudn’t tolerate it.


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