(Twenty times. That number is important later on, so remember it.)
The four posts I have today were actually written last night and kicked off this morning. I had planned to supplement them with two or three more I worked in with my other duties. But my day blew up from the time I opened my first e-mail this morning. It exploded over — as many of you already know by now — the Tim Goeglein affair. Since I’m the editor of the editorial page that ran his guest columns, I’ve been right in the middle of the whole thing.
Briefly, in case you are a little behind, on Thursday we ran a guest column by Goeglein, a Fort Wayne native who is now a special assistant to President George Bush. We’ve run nearly 40 since 2000. Nancy Nall, a former News-Sentinel columnist and a blogger who now lives in the Detroit area, read the column online. She noticed an unusual name in the piece and Googled it. What she found was a 1998 piece by Jeffrey Hart in the Dartmouth Review that bore an uncanny resemblance to Goeglein’s piece. Reading them side by side made it clear, in fact, that Goeglein had lifted whole chunks of Hart’s essay without attribution. No way around it — the president’s special assistant for faith-based initiatives had committed plagiarism.
That first e-mail today was a heads-up from Nancy that she was going to post on the plagiarism. I read the post, printed it out and immediately went to my boss, Editor Kerry Hubartt, and we started making plans. When there is a charge of plagiarism, there is a protocol. We verify if the plagiarism happened. If it it’s a staff member who is guilty, the staff member is fired. If it is someone else (a letter-to-the-editor writer, for example), that person is banned from the page or the paper. We start examining everything else the person has written to see if there is an isolated problem or an extensive one. We apologize to readers. We don’t have to do it too often, thank goodness. A freelancer for the Features section was banned a couple of years ago. I have banned one letter writer. Usually, this is done quietly, without much fuss or notice.
But Tim Goeglein is a member of the president’s team in a highly charged election season. No way this was going to stay a small, local story. Since this morning, the story has been all over the blogosphere — even Drudge has it now, and he gets something like 21 million hits a day. And the mainstream media have been quick on the uptake for a change. AP has it. The Washington Post has it. We’ve been fielding calls from everybody from Editor & Publisher to the local TV stations.
That’s the reason I can write this now instead of later. There was a fear that if we put too much online, either here or on the paper’s Web site, we would end up scooping ourselves, since we can’t get anything in the dead-tree edition until tomorrow. But that’s old thinking. We finally came to the conclusion that if we waited until tomorrow to tell everything we knew, everybody would get it somewhere else first. There is only one way to do this in the digital age — put what you know online as soon as you know it and keep updating it. That way, instead of just getting written about, we can be quoted, too. (The story should be up shortly, so keep checking periodically if you want to see it.)
With new information, by the way. Twenty (so far) is how many of the 38 columns we checked for which it is possible to say that Goeglein lifted whole chunks of somebody else’s writings. Hart twice. A writer for the New York Sun twice. Numerous people one time each. It’s hard for me to fathom this. If somebody lifts a line or two once, maybe it was an accident. Two or three times, somebody thinks he can get away with something. But 20 times, and not a line or two each time but whole passages? The only thing I can think is that there is some crossed wiring that causes the person to think that plagiarism isn’t really stealing.
It is, of course. Those of us in the business sometimes agonize over whether we might be guilty of it. For any given editorial, I’m likely to have read 10 to 20 articles on the subject just on the day of the writing. Is everything in my finished piece really mine, or did I inadvertenly lift a phrase or two? This incident sort of draws a line, doesn’t it? Nobody claims this isn’t plagiarism, even Goeglein, who has admitted it and apologized.
Don’t know what happens next, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Goeglein is fired or allowed to resign “to pursue other options” or whatever they say these days. The White House issued a statement saying his behavior was “not acceptable,” and that’s when he was thought to be guilty of one or two incidents, not 20.
And The News-Sentinel will keep working on what is a ticklish situation — reporting on what has become the biggest story of the day while being a central part of the story ourselves. Tricky.
It’s impossible to discover every instance of plagiarism before it hits print; that would just be too time-consuming and labor-intensive. And even if we’d had 10 people dedicated to the job, I doubt Goeglein would have been suspected. The faith-based assistant to the president filching somebody else’s words? All we can do is do what we think is right by our readers when we do discover an incident (or it is pointed out to us). I think we’ve handled everything right so far. Let me know if you think otherwise.
UPDATE: The Whie House has accepted Tim Goeglein’s resignation.