At bloggerheads: Margaret Wente

Last week, I asked a little question: looking at a particular column, I asked whether Margaret Wente should be subject to the same penalties she recommends for students who commit plagiarism.  It generated a lot of interest.

Readers might have expected a full explanationfrom Ms. Wente for a column Editor John Stackhouse has said“did not meet the standards of The Globe and Mail”. But I was saddened to read this:  

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.

Globe editors have spent countless hours reviewing every complaint from her, and have been quick to correct the record when warranted. The Globe has also published a letter from her that was critical of my work. Her latest allegations, over a column that is three years old, were retweeted by a number of people who didn’t bother to think twice – or ask for a response – before helping her to smear my reputation.

Did I “accuse” Wente of “stealing”?  No.  I laid texts side by side, provided links, attached dates, and noted many instances where words were identical, near identical, lacked quotation marks, and asked: would this be plagiarism if a student handed it in?  Wente doesn't fully acknowledge the fact that this will be the 6th or 7th ‘correction’ I’ve identified (depending how you count) in just over a year. Contrary to what she says suggests, I never used the term “serial plagiarist”.  But if it were hockey, 3, 5 or 7 would count as a “series” and win you the title.

Nor are they trivial.  In the past I showed that material used without attribution by Wente to create a character she presented as “the face of the Occupy movement” originated on an unrelated website and that "John"the Occupier actually had nothing to do with the protests.  In my bloggingly humble opinion, the only difference between this and the fabulism of Jonah Lehrer is that Lehrer took the trouble to write the material himself, while Ms. Wente’s profile and some quotes (like anotherrecent example) had already appeared on someone's blog.  Yes, a blog. Given that, Ms. Wente might be inclined to give bloggers a little credit, literally and figuratively.

What is most saddening about Ms. Wente’s response though, is that rather than acknowledge the articles in major outlets like MacLean's, The National Post , and J Source  - all of which take her to task for plagiarism in much harsher terms than I - 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. 

I believe that record speaks for itself. 

For me, regular column space on the Opinion Pages of a publication like The Globe and Mail is a privilege – a blank space given to someone to inquire about, and think through, big issues.  It should set standards we expect students and kids to follow.  And it carries responsibilities.

I’m glad that the Globe and Mail has acknowledged its mistakes in this instance and that its Public Editor will now report to the Publisher. 

Addendum – List of previous Margaret Wente corrections

May 13, 2011, print edition:

A quotation about the abundance of red snapper in the gulf of Mexico, in a column of April 26, should have been attributed to Michael Carron, chief scientist of the Northern Gulf Institute. 

June 3, 2011, print edition:

The words “Americans…are fighting and dying, while the Afghans by and large stand by and do nothing to help them” in the Focus section of March 12 should have been attributed to Dexter Filkins in the New York Times.

2 separate items in one column November 5, 2011: 
Editor's note: Clarifications: John, who’s pursuing a degree in environmental law, is not part of the Occupy movement.
The following sentence is a paraphrase, not a direct quote: They are what the social critic Christopher Lasch called the “new class” of “therapeutic cops in the new bureaucracy.”
December 29, 2011: 
An Editor's Notewas added to the online column to address an attribution error in relation to this claim: “Today, Christianity claims 2.18 billion believers – a third of the world’s population. By 2050, Christians will outnumber Muslims 3 to 1.  These and other fascinating facts come from a comprehensive new report on global Christianity from the Pew Research Center."
The article has been pulled, so I’d have to consult the archives to find the correction.
“Untitled” note appended to column, July 28, 2012:
The Episcopalian Church in the United States is equivalent to the Anglican Church of Canada and not the United Church. Mormons are strongly encouraged, but not required to do mission work. An earlier online version of this story, and Saturday's original newspaper version, were not clear.
Letter to the Editor, September 1, 2011:
Political Leaders Are So Often Fooled By The Mirage Of Green Jobs (Aug. 25):Using one California example, Costco, Margaret Wente claims Dalton McGuinty’s proposed electric car chargers will be a waste of money.
Costco’s “legacy” chargers can’t be used for new electric cars. Costco outlets would need major upgrades to power the Leaf, Volt or Prius. Costco couldn’t even use a government upgrade grant, because, as reports, only “half of the company’s ‘legacy chargers’ are inductive and eligible for the state replacement program.”
Similar to Mr. McGuinty’s proposal, though, are the thousands of new chargers being installed at McDonald’s, IKEA, Best Buy, Google, General Electric, Holiday Inn, St-Hubert, Metro, and Rona, to name just a few, all the kind of chargers that drivers could actually use with new cars.
But compared with otherinstances documented on this blog (browse the archive), the ‘selective’ nature of these corrections raises the question of why others – which seem more serious - were not similarly addressed.  With all due respect, I think that question stands.