By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 16, 2010; C01
The White House ripped CBS News on Thursday for publishing an online column by a blogger who made assertions about the sexual orientation of Solicitor General Elena Kagan, widely viewed as a leading candidate for the Supreme Court.
Ben Domenech, a former Bush administration aide and Republican Senate staffer, wrote that President Obama would "please" much of his base by picking the "first openly gay justice." An administration official, who asked not to be identified discussing personal matters, said Kagan is not a lesbian.
CBS initially refused to pull the posting, prompting Anita Dunn, a former White House communications director who is working with the administration on the high court vacancy, to say: "The fact that they've chosen to become enablers of people posting lies on their site tells us where the journalistic standards of CBS are in 2010." She said the network was giving a platform to a blogger "with a history of plagiarism" who was "applying old stereotypes to single women with successful careers."
The network deleted the posting Thursday night after Domenech said he was merely repeating a rumor. The flare-up underscores how quickly the battle over a Supreme Court nominee -- or even a potential nominee -- can turn searingly personal. Most major news organizations have policies against "outing" gays or reporting on the sex lives of public officials unless they are related to their public duties.
A White House spokesman, Ben LaBolt, said he complained to CBS because the column "made false charges." Domenech later added an update to the post: "I have to correct my text here to say that Kagan is apparently still closeted -- odd, because her female partner is rather well known in Harvard circles."
CBS executives at first defended the column, noting that it appeared in an opinion section that contains contributions from blogs and publications on the left and right.
Dan Farber, editor in chief of CBSNews.com, said that Domenech's column "just got through our filters" and that if his staff had seen "a controversial statement like that, we'd want to get more evidence of its accuracy" before publishing it. "But once it is out there," Farber said, "the better approach is just to address it head-on rather than trying to sweep it under the rug."
He changed his mind about yanking the column after receiving an e-mail from Domenech, which the blogger also sent to The Washington Post. Farber said in a statement that "after looking at the facts we determined that it was nothing but pure and irresponsible speculation on the blogger's part."
"I offer my sincere apologies to Ms. Kagan if she is offended at all by my repetition of a Harvard rumor in a speculative blog post," Domenech said. CBS initially added that statement to an editor's note that also reported the White House denial.
In his e-mail, Domenech said that the naming of an openly gay justice would show "how far we've come as a society" and that this "will be an issue of political discussion, whether we like it or not."
Domenech is editor of a year-old Web site called the New Ledger, from which the CBS column was reprinted. He is also editor of the City, a religion-oriented publication of Houston Baptist University.
The Post's Web site briefly hired Domenech as a conservative blogger in 2006. He resigned three days after his debut after a flurry of plagiarism allegations that were trumpeted by liberal Web sites. The sites found signs of plagiarism in a movie review he wrote for National Review Online and, earlier, in his writing for the College of William & Mary's student newspaper.
Domenech maintained that he did not knowingly use other people's writing without attribution but said the "firestorm" had "reached the point where there's nothing I can really do to defend myself."
Rumors invariably raise a difficult journalistic choice: whether to report on them and give them credence, or withhold them and fail to acknowledge what insiders are discussing. Marc Ambinder, a blogger for the Atlantic, wrote Monday about what he called "a baffling whisper campaign" about Kagan "among both gay rights activists and social conservatives. . . .
"So pervasive are these rumors that two senior administration officials I spoke with this weekend acknowledged hearing about them and did not know whether they were true. . . . Why is she the subject of these rumors? Who's behind them?"