How my blog started the avalanche that buried presidential aide Tim Goeglein.

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March 3 2008 4:02 PM

Gone in 60 Seconds

How my blog started the avalanche that buried presidential aide Tim Goeglein.

Tim Goeglein
Tim Goeglein

I spent much of last Friday being congratulated for "brilliant reporting" that consisted of a minute's worth of typing on my laptop. That's how long it took for me to notice what seemed to be merely a case of egregiously obscure name-dropping ("A notable professor of philosophy at Dartmouth College in the last century, Eugene Rosenstock-Hussey, expressed the matter succinctly. "), paste the name into Google, and discover the entire sentence, Rosenstock-Hussey and all, had been lifted from a previously published essay by Jeffrey Hart in the Dartmouth Review.

The plagiarism was in a column for a newspaper I used to work for, the News-Sentinel of Fort Wayne, Ind. The piece was a guest op-ed about the importance of a good college education written by Timothy S. Goeglein, a top aide to President Bush. A Fort Wayne native, he was a hometown boy made good, hired by Karl Rove in the Office of Public Liaison. Goeglein was the White House's go-between to religious groups, a "pipeline to the president," as the Washington Post called him. Why he felt the need to contribute entirely nonpolitical columns to the hometown paper, and to the one with the smaller circulation (Fort Wayne is the smallest two-daily market in the country), was, until last Friday, a mystery.

Finding the theft took 60 seconds; drafting a post for my blog, about an hour. I held it overnight to give my ex-colleagues a little notice and published it at 7:38 a.m. Friday. It was linked pretty quickly by Romenesko and then by some of the big-traffic amplifiers (Talking Points Memo, Atrios). I figured the story would get some notice, but I was unprepared for the turns it would take.

After posting the original entry, I thought I'd poke around in some of Goeglein's other published work and see whether anything else turned out to have been borrowed. As a journalist whose formative years took place in the 20th century, I thought of that, quaintly, as a "second-day" story.

"Second-hour" would have been more accurate. By the time the post started drawing traffic, other readers were having the same idea. At 11:03 a.m., a commenter called the Kenosha Kid noted duplicate passages in a Goeglein column on Hoagy Carmichael and a Washington Post piece on the same subject by Jonathan Yardley. At 11:30 a.m., the Journal Gazette, the other daily in Fort Wayne, had a story up saying Goeglein had come clean in an e-mail, taken full responsibility, and said, "[T]here are no excuses."

I'd expected a more typical explanation, something about multiple windows open on the computer desktop, sloppy cutting and pasting between notes and drafts, something that was at least remotely plausible and face-saving. But surely Goeglein knew what else was coming.

At 11:59 a.m. and noon, two other commenters on my blog, Adam Stanhope and Grytpype Thynne, had found more wholesale borrowings, these in a piece on composer Gian Carlo Menotti. The original, by Robert R. Reilly in Crisis magazine, was written in the first person and contained such observations as, "Despite criticism, Menotti never surrendered the role of beauty. We can now hear one of his strongest expressions of it in the appropriately named Missa: O Pulchritudo. … My first reaction was: What kind of cultural prejudice kept this recording on ice for 25 years?"

Goeglein lifted it all, right down to Reilly's first reaction about cultural prejudice.

From there, it snowballed. By day's end, the official count of cut-and-paste columns was 20 out of 38 submitted since 2000, but the paper's reporters continued to check, and on Monday the total was revised to 27. Goeglein submitted his resignation on the way out the door Friday, less than 12 hours after my first posting.

Saying the news cycle moves at an ever-increasing pace doesn't even qualify as a cliché anymore. But this felt like a new record. Reporting in one minute, writing in one hour, a whole career undone in one day. Reading the comments piling up on the original post was a surreal experience, as one reader after another checked in with evidence, with links. It was journalism as hive mind. "Everyone wants to play now," someone wrote after posting a link.

I spent much of the weekend thinking about all this. My ex-colleague Leo Morris, who edits the op-ed pages Tim used as his canvas for all those years, did as well and wrote on his blog: "This wasn't mere hardware-pushed speed—a breaking news story for which people all around the world could see a grainy cell-phone photo five minutes after it happened. This was the online dynamic—people talking about the story and adding to it as it got bigger and more complex throughout the day."

The story was new media, but, ironically, at its core was a very old-media concern—getting the little things right. Friday night, I got an e-mail from a fan of that notable Dartmouth professor of philosophy whose name started this whole thing. And guess what? Jeffrey Hart misspelled his name. It's Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, not Eugene, not Hussey. When I entered the misspelled name into Google, it only turned up a couple pages of hits, and Hart's essay was on the first page, so I spotted it right away. But if Hart had spelled the name correctly and Goeglein had pasted it as such in his own column, Hart's decade-old Dartmouth Review essay, which mentioned the professor only in passing, would probably have been far back in the queue in the 20,000 Google hits his real name gets. And I probably would not have seen it—after all, I was just trying to find out how "notable" he was.

Nancy Nall Derringer is a freelance writer and editor based in Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich. She blogs most days at nancynall.com.