Response to The Globe and Mail

This is in response to an article by the Globe and Mail’s Public Editor, in regard to a recent post here asking whether the attribution practices of Margaret Wente constitute plagiarism. Before continuing, I’d like to commend the Globe for having a Public Editor.

Having said that, while I will give Ms. Stead the benefit of the doubt and thank her for trying to protect my privacy, it was ironic to be referred to an “anonymous blogger” - for three reasons.

1)  Several articles on alternative sites have, in the past day or so, identified me as the ‘author’ of this blog (what this indicates about the insular character of mainstream media I leave to others).

2)  Apart from that, Ms. Stead was aware of who I was.  That is because all, or almost all, of the issues identified here over the past year and more were sent to The Globe under my name, almost always before they were posted.  Indeed, that is why previous corrections and/or Editor’s Notes related to Ms. Wente appeared in the first place.
So it’s hard to understand this:

 We have looked into all of the complaints raised by the anonymous blogger regarding Ms. Wente and other writers at The Globe and Mail and made corrections or clarifications where information was incorrect or unclear.
Ms. Stead cannot credibly be suggesting that corrections were made because the Globe scans “anonymous bloggers” in search of errors?  Again, I will give her the benefit of the doubt, and assume she was respecting my privacy, and thank her for it.
3)  With their permission, I include below excerpts from a response to one of several questions from JSource regarding feedback received from the Globe and Mail:
After identifying a few attribution problems, including some which warranted correction, I received a response from Sylvia Stead (at the time Associate Editor) on May 26, 2011, addressed, Dear Ms. Wainio and Media Culpa.  It began “This is a private letter, not for publication”.

Because of that proviso, I won’t reproduce it all.  But in brief, it chided me because I “hide behind a faceless blog site to very publicly defame Canada's best known columnist Margaret Wente” with  “single-minded zealotry.”  It said the attribution problems I’d identified (straightforward side-by-side comparisons) were “defamatory of Ms. Wente”, “misguided” and “wrong.”

It continued, “Your complaint is not regarding someone else's written words, it is about a quote. A quote that is attributed to the person who gave it. This is not plagiarism”. 

(In fact the material also involved another writer’s prose, along with mis-placed or migrating quotation marks).

It concluded: “we have responded to you a number of times pointing out that you are wrong in your very public attacks on Ms. Wente. We will not respond again”.

Both Ms. Stead, now Public Editor, and her replacement, made good on that promise. 

Just prior to that email, The Globe had been obliged to correct an error I brought to them where one of Ms. Wente’s un-attributed quotes turned the scientist who gave it to AP into a fisherman.  Just afterthe email, they were obliged to attribute material which I pointed out had appeared in The New York Times prior to Ms. Wente’s article.  So my concerns were not without merit, and they were aware of a pattern.

I continued to apprise The Globe of problems. Other corrections followed - for the "John"  in Ms. Wente’s Occupy story, some improperly attributed language by Christopher Lasch, something related to a Pew report on religion, and others.

Given this, it’s hard not to assume that editors did not simply put their fingers in their ears.  And it is (again) a bit ironic that it is Ms. Stead conducting “an investigation” into the matter.

I won’t address in detail the Public Editor’s response, though I find it astonishing that it does not deal with the almost identical Dan Gardner paragraph, in which quotation marks simply go missing in Ms. Wente’s almost identical prose. Or the migrating quotation marks in regard to Collier and other writers.

I believe the side-by-side comparisons speak for themselves.  But if what we see in that article (and others) by Ms. Wente represents acceptable practice in the eyes of editors, the journalism community, and the public, so be it.

My purpose here is to let those standards be public knowledge, so that the next time a young journalist engages in a similar practice, we all acknowledge that what Margaret Wente did in that article and in others, is acceptable.  Because if it’s acceptable for the country’s premier newspaper - which, in my opinion, should set an example – then it is acceptable for everyone, including students whom Ms.Wente regularly derides.    

Sloppy attribution is more than plagiarism.  It can, and does, produce serious factual errors, and erodes public trust.  Ms. Wente’s supposed Occupy protester "John"is the most striking and serious example. In my opinion, The Globe’s correction in that case did not address what could be considered a kind of fabulism no less serious than Jonah Lehrer’s invented Dylan quote – except that Ms. Wente didn’t write it herself. Through the absence of attribution, she not only borrowed someone’s material, she created a kind of “collage” – effectively lifting a character from one situation and pasting him into another time and place to become the “face” of a movement he had nothing to do with.   To me, that's more serious than borrowing someone’s writing.  But I’m not an expert, and welcome discussion from those who are.

Are these “accusations”, as Ms. Stead contends?  I hope I’ve raised legitimate questions - backed up by thorough documentation.

Oh, and for Ms. Wente; while I do it reluctantly, and I’m not very good at it, this blogger is female.  .