Still Getting the Story Wrong
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Still Getting the Story Wrong

On Margaret Wente, the Globe and Mail, and public trust.

Last night, the public finally got an official statement on the Margaret Wente plagiarism scandal from both the Globe and Mail‘s editor and Margaret Wente herself; this morning the Globe‘s public editor, Sylvia Stead, provided an updated response of her own, which in part serves as a mea culpa.

These official statements were, to say the least, mistakes.

For those who have not been paying attention, Roy Greenslade’s summary of events at the Guardian and Chris Selley’s subsequent rundown at the National Post will give the full picture. The short version is as follows: Globe columnist and Big Journalism Name Margaret Wente was accused of plagiarism by Carol Wainio, a media-critic blogger, who writes at Media Culpa in a blog post which can be read here. The article went viral. After a couple of days’ worth of silence from the Globe, eventually their public editor, Sylvia Stead, wrote (for the first time) about the issue. And here we are.

Wente’s “apology” column is, unsurprisingly, barely an apology. Her explanation for work that would get any university student severely disciplined (if not failed or even, if it were part of a pattern, expelled) is that the sources which her plagiarized column bore a remarkable similarity to somehow made their way into her notes, and that she accidentally thought when writing the column that the notes were her own original thoughts. Or, in other words, Wente’s explanation is that she was sloppy and unprofessional. Never mind that this is not particularly believable (this was more than one missing quotation mark, and the column simply fails to mention one of Wente’s sources, a piece written by Dan Gardner and published in the Ottawa Citizen—which should have been mentioned whether Wente was paraphrasing or quoting directly); it does not excuse her behaviour in the slightest, even when she apologizes for it a week after being called out. What did Wente expect? “Oh, you were just being professionally negligent? Well, that explains everything. Never mind.”

Globe reporters, replying before their editor-in-chief did.

But Wente’s statement isn’t just tone-deaf and hard to believe; it is also aggressive towards her accuser.

The current firestorm started with a blogger named Carol Wainio, a professor at the University of Ottawa and a self-styled media watchdog. She has been publicly complaining about my work for years. Her website, Media Culpa, is an obsessive list of accusations involving alleged plagiarism, factual errors, attribution lapses and much else. She has more than once accused me of stealing the work of other writers with whom I happen to share an opinion.

This is a pretty transparent attempt by Wente to shift blame. It’s Carol Wainio’s fault, see. She’s an obsessive, jumped-up blogger with delusions of grandeur, who just happened to point out that Wente slipped up this one time because she’s been unjustifiably hounding poor Margaret Wente for years.

This has no place in a column that is ostensibly apologizing for what is, at best, a shocking screw-up on Wente’s part—and that assumes that you take Wente’s explanation at face value. Carol Wainio did not plagiarize the works of others (accidentally or intentionally). Margaret Wente did that, and frankly, when someone who is guilty of an error starts complaining about their accuser, it is human nature to wonder why, exactly, that person wants people to look the other way. (Wainio wrote a response to Wente today.)

But the true problem is not Wente’s “no, fuck you” non-apology. Much more important is how the Globe reacted to the accusation. Chris Selley (in the above-mentioned link) has already discussed at some length how Sylvia Stead’s initial response to the plagiarism accusations was completely inadequate. Wainio’s earlier response to Stead’s column is also worth reading, particularly given the excerpts from the private letter Stead sent Wainio wherein Stead accuses the blogger of attempting to “publicly defame” Wente with “single-minded zealotry.” (If all of that is too long for you to read, there is always this amusing Tweet from Steve Murray, which also has a funny picture.) Nowhere in her further explanation does Stead acknowledge that she attacked Wainio, and that’s the most shocking thing she did.

Since Stead’s initial response, we have now gotten the Word From On High. John Stackhouse, the editor-in-chief of the Globe boldly declared that he would defend Margaret Wente’s “right to free expression” (this provoked a loud chorus of laughter on the internet, which generally understands the difference between one’s freedom of expression and being paid to write for a living) and asserted that whatever disciplinary matters were taken were between the paper and Wente.

This latter choice is the paper’s to make, but given the stakes at hand, it comes across as tactically unwise. The media in this day and age live and die by the public’s trust in them as fair parties, and transparency in the disciplinary process can and should be a vital part of that trust. When a newspaper (or website) screws up, it needs to admit that it screwed up immediately and clearly, and if the transgression is important enough that it merits discipline, that discipline should also be made public. This is especially important when the person who screwed up is a former managing editor of your newspaper, as Wente is.

Wente’s transgressions in the column she and Stead discuss are, to be honest, relatively minor: Wente could have easily avoided any claims of plagiarism simply by changing some words to convenient synonyms and citing Gardner’s column in her own. (Had she done so, she would no longer be a plagiarist and instead simply be a lazy, uninspired writer—excuse us, “synthesist of ideas,” the new term we are apparently supposed to use to describe the process of writing a mediocre newspaper column. Which would have been an important problem in its own right, but a separate one.) This is not to say that plagiarism is not bad or should be condoned: it is and it should not. That is why it is so troubling that Wente, Stead, and Stackhouse have all narrowed their scope to focus only on one particular column, ignoring Wainio’s contention that this is part of a broader pattern of transgression. Even if Wainio hadn’t raised that more general concern, one of a paper’s first goals, if it spots ethical lapses in a writer’s work in one piece, should be to ascertain whether that is a symptom of a larger problem.

The real issue here is that, even after all of the flaccid apologies, the Globe is doubling down on upholding an editorial regime which gives its tacit approval to this sort of behaviour. It speaks to a culture of entitlement that is simply not good enough from what is supposed to be the country’s paper of record, and it is an unwise decision for the paper to make (particularly when the Globe is planning to go to a paywall-only web model in the near future).

The internet—as the Globe has discovered—really, really hates plagiarism, and really, really hates entitlement. And this response by Wente and the Globe seems as if it will inevitably provoke a response from the internet that is more substantial than silly pictures and catcalls in comments. Wente has a long record as a columnist, and by her and her editors’ responses, the internet has essentially just been invited to start checking all of her work to see if she’s lifted more than just those incidents Wainio already noticed. If politicians don’t want to get in a war of words with someone who buys ink by the barrel, then journalists don’t want to get into a war of fact-checking against an infinite army of fact-checkers with a reason to be sceptical.