2012 Villain: Margaret Wente
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2012 Villain: Margaret Wente

Nominated for: plagiarism, and laziness of epic proportions.

Torontoist is ending the year by naming our Heroes and Villains: the very best and very worst people, places, things, and ideas that have had an influence on the city over the past 12 months. From December 10 to 19, we’ll unveil the nominees, grouped by category. Vote for your favourites from each batch, every single day! On December 19 and 20 the winners from each category go head-to-head in the final round of voting, and on December 21, we will reveal your choices for Toronto’s Superhero and Supervillain of the year.

Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente has long been criticized for the views she expresses in her work—for perpetuating gender essentialism, for instance, or for rather bizarrely asserting that contemporary 20-something men “are in an arrested state of adolescence” because women will have sex with them.

It wasn’t garden-variety gender politics that pushed Wente into a particularly unflattering spotlight this year, however, but accusations of plagiarism. First detailed by Carol Wainio, an adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa who also maintains the media-watchdog blog Media Culpa, those accusations concern columns dating back to 2009. Wainio described multiple incidents in which passages seemed to be lifted—some rephrased and some taken directly—from published sources including the Ottawa Citizen, Foreign Affairs, and the New York Times, with no citation or attribution to the original authors.

After Wainio published some of her findings on September 18, several days passed before Globe public editor Sylvia Stead responded, and not very reassuringly: she referred to Wainio as an “anonymous blogger” and noted that “there appears to be some truth to the concerns but not on every count.” Her remarks primarily addressed the more minor accusations.

That reaction was met with almost universal criticism: from John Miller, former head of Ryerson’s school of journalism; from Colby Cosh of Maclean’s; and even further afield, from the Guardian. Things devolved further: at one point, Stead accused Miller of poor journalistic judgment because he did not wait for her response before publishing his piece, and why should anyone expect her to check email for something like this over the weekend? It was September 24 before Globe and Mail editor-in-chief John Stackhouse finally weighed in, indicating that there would be unspecified disciplinary action against Wente, and that the paper would reorganize its chain of authority so that Stead would no longer report to him but to the publisher directly. (Along with many others, we found that response unsatisfactory.)

What cements Wente as a villain in this situation isn’t her initial transgressions but rather her own response. In a piece titled “Margaret Wente Defends Herself,” she portrayed herself as an embattled journalist, targeted by “people who don’t like what I write.” In this non-apology, she wrote that “I’m sorry for my journalistic lapses, and I think that, when I deserve the heat, I should take it and accept the consequences. But I’m also sorry we live in an age where attacks on people’s character and reputation seem to have become the norm.” Wainio, in turn, wrote that she was saddened that “Ms. Wente uses the large readership offered her to direct the attack not at colleagues of her own size and weight, but at the smaller people–the readers. Because that’s all I am. A reader—who reluctantly set up a blog to record issues newspapers had neglected to set right.”

Perhaps more troubling than the original accusations are the fact that they seem to be ongoing: Media Culpa‘s most recent entry is dated November 20 and once again details attribution issues with one of Wente’s more recent columns. It seems that long-term consequences, or even any tightening of editorial standards where Wente are concerned, are not forthcoming from the Globe and Mail, nor is Wente particularly interested in improving her own standards of writing. For the triumph of ego over journalism and hubris over ethics, Margaret Wente has earned a spot on our villains’ list.

See the other nominees in the Culture and Sports category:

Factory Theatre Board of Directors

Losing their community’s trust.
  NHL Lockout

Taking hockey away from us.
  NFB Funding Cuts

Forcing the Mediatheque closure.

John Farrell

Checking out even before he left the team.
  CBC Funding Cuts

Weakening one of our national institutions.
  Sedwick Hill

For the untimely death of the Toronto Underground Cinema.

Cast Your Ballot

CORRECTION: 2:44 PM As pointed out by a commenter, we failed to include links to some source material originally. We regret the omission, and have added them.