Saturday, March 25, 2006

Ben Domenech, part I: Why does this always happen at age 24?

In cyberspace, plagiarism is almost as easy to detect as it is to commit. University of Virginia physics professor Lou Bloomfield has even developed anti-plagiarism software, available for free download at his website, and he uses it every semester to catch cribbers in the act. So there's no excuse, really, for the Washington Post not to have caught Ben Domenech earlier than it did. Yet once again, an assortment of individual bloggers triumphed where the mainstream media failed. On hearing that Domenech was slated to write a new conservative blog for the Washington Post, the left-wing blogosphere went to work, and promptly discovered that Domenech had plagiarized entire articles for his college newspaper, along with film reviews for National Review Online.

The entire affair instantly reminded me of "Ruthless" Ruth Shalit, another hot young conservative writer whose meteoric career crashed and burned amid allegations of theft and deceit. A friend of mine was a coworker of Shalit's just prior to her heady days of journalistic fame; he remembers her as driven and assertive. Perhaps that drive was part of the problem. In 1995, when she was 24 -- the same age Domenech is now -- Shalit wrote a lengthy cover story for the New Republic on alleged racism in the Washington Post press room. The article was later found to contain gross misrepresentations and outright falsehoods. Further investigation into Shalit's other articles revealed plagiarized passages.

Shalit wasn't the only one who suffered. Her editor at The New Republic, a hard-driving young conservative named Andrew Sullivan, also paid a heavy price. During his brief tenure Sullivan enjoyed shaking up the magazine's image and playing the provocateur, even starring (quite controversially) in his own Gap clothing ad. But he lost his position at The New Republic largely over the Shalit affair, and with it most of his prestige. Because his sins were matters of indulgence rather than dishonesty, he managed to bounce back from disgrace. It happened partly through two books -- Virtually Normal and Love Undetectable -- which not only became required reading for a then-nascent Gay conservative movement, but also established Sullivan as a Gay spokesperson who could write to a mainstream audience. But Sullivan's return to prominence occurred mainly through a weblog that, over the past five years, has become one of the most influential and oft-referenced punditry sites on the Internet.

After more than a decade, Shalit has not made a splashy return to the public sphere. It's a safe bet Domenech won't, either. He's managed to go Shalit one better -- becoming a has-been, a cautionary tale, and a late-night punchline all before the age of 25. Usually you have to sing in a boy band to do that. One can only imagine that for the young man himself, as for the young woman before him, this has got to sting.

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