Devil is in the details

devil The Fort Wayne News Sentinel broke a fascinating story: Native Tim Goeglein, the White House's liaison to conservative Christians, was guilty of plagiarizing columns for the paper. Here is what reporter Ashley Smith wrote in her lede:

Since 2001, Harding High School graduate Timothy S. Goeglein has been a White House aide, a liaison to conservatives and Christian groups. Since 1985, he has written guest columns for The News-Sentinel, his hometown paper.

Both stints came to an end Friday, after Nancy Nall, a blogger and former News-Sentinel columnist, found Goeglein had plagiarized a column on education published on Thursday's editorial page.

The lede was pregnant with Godbeat possibilities. What did Goeglein help accomplish for conservative Christians during his tenure? How did Goeglein reconcile his role with his admitted plagiarism? Alas, Smith's story typified the coverage about Goeglein's misdeeds: it failed to provide any detailed answers. On what would seem to be an intriguing story mixing human interest and religious politics, reporters gave only generalities.

Take The Washington Post's story on Saturday. Reporters Michael Abramowitz and William Branigan explained Goeglein's job at the White House this way:

Current and former administration officials described Goeglein as a well-liked, mid-level staffer at the White House who worked closely with former top aide Karl Rove and other key officials in outreach to conservatives, especially evangelicals and other Christians.

A past aide to former Republican senator Daniel R. Coats of Indiana and to onetime presidential hopeful Gary L. Bauer, Goeglein regularly kept in touch with conservative activists and religious leaders, helping promote Bush's agenda and fielding complaints or concerns. He regularly attended the Wednesday Group, a weekly meeting of top Washington conservatives organized by anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, often bringing senior officials and Cabinet officers with him, Norquist said.

The passage was less than revealing. Perhaps the reporters were on a tight deadline. Maybe so, but they failed to provide their readers with a follow-up story.

This was important news. According to a 2004 profile of Goeglein in the Post, he played key roles in winning support for President Bush's Supreme Court nominees, AIDS initiative, and faith-based plans. And it's not like the Post hasn't written detailed follow ups about fallen White House aides.

Smith's story in The News Sentinel provided only a bit more information about Goeglein's duties and accomplishments. It noted his work on the AIDS and faith-based initiatives.

To its credit, The News Sentinel followed up their original story. And a good thing, too: the paper interviewed Goeglein, and he gave an interesting answer for why he copied the work of others in his columns:

Contacted Sunday, the Fort Wayne native attributed the plagiarism to shortcomings in his character: "Pride. Vanity. It's all my fault. It's inexcusable. What I did is wrong. I categorically apologize."

In other words, Goeglein admitted that he succumbed to two of the seven deadly sins. That's interesting, but as far as readers are concerned, underwhelming, if admirable. How did he justify his plagiarism? Did it trouble his conscience? Did he consider what he did sinful?

Give me a story. The devil really is in the details.

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