Goeglein, post-Google.

Friday, February 29th, 2008

Whoa, I can feel the server churning, rumbling the floorboards, serving up pages at a frenetic page under my feet. Well, wait, it’s actually in California somewhere, not here, and it’s not an old-fashioned newspaper printing press belching soy-based ink, but the effects are much the same when people read, react, and change happens. Quickly.

This leap day is one where my college friend Nancy has, after a moment of curiosity and a few minutes of constructive Googling, turned up a big story that could (we’ll see) cost someone at the White House his job. Nancy’s online home is just one of our little ragtag family of sites, so I’ve been keeping an eye out to make sure the server can keep up with the heightened interest.

‘Copycat’ is a simple story of plagiarism, well told, well documented. Nancy published it on nancynall.com at breakfast-time, and before long, the comments on her weblog post began to fill, with the vast majority expressing outrage at White House staffer and Fort Wayne op-ed contributor Tim Goeglein and congratulating Nance on her efforts. There were a handful (one, really) contrary opinions posted…basically taking the position that Nancy should be as offended by Barack Obama’s ‘plagiarism’ of his campaign co-chair, but that comment itself was quickly (and intelligently) debunked by subsequent comments.

At 10:34, one on Nancy’s commentators posted the results of his googling another Goeglein column, and found yet another case of pilferage, this time (amazingly) from a Washington Post reporter.

It’s no small irony (as the “another cases” start to pile up) that one of Nancy’s favorite shows has a serial plagiarist as one of the recurring plagues cast upon Baltimore.

Although she has never had any admiration lost on Goeglein, I know Nancy does have friends remaining at the paper and worries about the painful steps they’ll have to go through to make it right.

Those steps began at 11:10 am eastern, when the news-sentinel.com site posted:

Tim Goeglein, former Fort Wayne resident and now a special assistant to President George Bush, has been accused of plagiarism over a guest column about education that we carried on our editorial page on Thursday. While we look into the matter, we have taken the column down from our Web site. We are also checking out previous guest columns of Mr. Goeglien’s that we published. We will promptly report what we find.

At 11:34 am, The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette reported:

A Fort Wayne native and White House official acknowledged Friday he copied large portions of an essay that appeared in a Dartmouth College publication and presented them as his own in a News-Sentinel column.

“It is true,” Tim Goeglein wrote to The Journal Gazette in an e-mail. “I am entirely at fault. It was wrong of me. There are no excuses.”

Just before noon, another nancynall.com commenter has posted more similarities in another Tim column, and minutes later, a guy who knows his way around programming languages produced a ‘diff file‘—the Goeglein text computationally overlaid on that of his plagiarism victim…a great way to use visualization to communicate a point.

At 12:21 pm, the News-Sentinel published a short piece by editor Kerry Hubartt saying in part:

He [Goeglein] has apologized to the editors of The News-Sentinel and also said there may be other previous columns he has written for The News-Sentinel that also may contain plagiarized material. We have found material in at least two other previous guest columns lifted from other sources without attribution and are continuing to check other previous submissions.[…] We will not publish writings by Goeglein in the future.

And with a whiff of arrogance that bespeaks old media, there’s NO mention of the key fact that their former columnist was the one who made this morning’s discovery. I hope Hubartt at least writes Nancy a nice thank-you note.

(Update) At 2:08 pm, Washington Post reporter Dan Froomkin tells the tale…and does mention Nance. At 2:45, word spreads. Drudge. Breitbart. Wonkette, who, tongue in cheek, calls her a “lady blogger” with a “lady blog.” A reader on the News-Sentinel site says Goeglein was caught in the Nall of America…heh. Nance’s post now has more than 150 comments. At 2:57, Terence Hunt of the AP files a story that quotes White House spokesperson Emily Lawrimore: “His behavior is not acceptable and we are disappointed in Tim’s actions…He is offering no excuses and he agrees it was wrong.” The piece mentions Nancy by name, and thus, when it appears on the News-Sentinel site, is the first acknowledgement “in the paper” of the source of this revelation. At about the same moment, Editor and Publisher pushes out a piece headlined “Scandal Involving White House Plagiarist Spreads.

Wow, internet speeds, indeed.

I rock back in my chair and look at my scatter of browser windows from this morning and I marvel at how this story has moved…with more substance than radio or television and with way way way more immediacy than newspapers or magazines can muster. This is a modern process, and it’s playing out with journalistic quality and the multiplier effects of 1) immediate transmission and 2) many eyes and hands on the job willing to take a little of their own time to push the story a little further down the pike.

Part of this process is the active commenting, and a bigger part is the ecosystem of larger-readership bloggers picking up the story, linking to it, advancing it. I suspected premier journalism blogger Romanesko would pick up the story and run with it…and its not surprising that high-visibility blogs like Atrios and Talking Points Memo would get on the story. These “liberal” blogs of course don’t think much of anyone at the White House (nor do I), but they perform a valuable distribution function, getting the story out there in front of eyes of people who would be outraged by the conduct. The question is, if you only read “conservative” blogs, will you be getting this story? Will you care?

After my last weekend at the Computation & Journalism conference a week ago, where I developed concern that the modern online equivalent of journalism—let’s just say ‘blogging’— doesn’t necessarily have the hard work, precision, and impact of its ancient-age predecessors…well, if we had a world of people doing good work like this from their kitchens and home offices, I wouldn’t miss any of the old media, not one bit. Now, we just have to figure out a model to pay them for their efforts, or economically grant them the independence so they have the luxury of being able to do this kind of work and keep the kids in nice clothes.

(End-of-the-day-update:) Just like the finale of All The President’s Men (the movie, not the book)…except accelerate it to 21st century speeds. The dominoes continue to fall, until a press release at dinnertime brings the inevitable end to the story. 250+ comments from Nancy Nall’s readers—an essential part of the equation, but probably a footnote in the mainstream media coverage. The server didn’t go down. One more of the president’s men did.