Saturday, May 7, 2011

Margaret Wente: photo funnies, laziness, and plagiarism

I try to avoid Margaret Wente. "Mom, she's writing about the urban elites again", my son will yawn at breakfast. But the photo accompanying "Fear and loathing among the eastern elites" May 7, 2011) was curious. It showed how Wente's stock character, the 'snobby eastern urban elite', had "demonized" Stephen Harper. The unidentified photo illustrated the "vitriolic animosity" - "the hatchet job the Liberals have done" on Harper, and how poor Steven Harper is "routinely depicted as a cross between Darth Vader and Lord Voldemort".

I thought the picture of Harper with horns looked like something from a kid's Facebook page. So I checked. Unidentified and missing entirely from the online version (where there's a cartoon about Pakistan), the photo seems to be of this guy hiding behind John Baird - a grainy shot of an eco-activist at a 2007 demo in Stanley Park. Not "eastern", likely not "elite', and, if I had to guess, maybe anarchist or Green, rather than Liberal. Perhaps Wente doesn't choose her images, but this illustrates a deeper sloppiness.

Were the article to have used a Toronto G20 protestor instead of one from B.C., the problem remains; if you're going to complain about vitriolic demonizing, you can't compare the actions of some unsanctioned individual at a demo with the official advertising campaign of, say, the ruling party of Canada. They are not the same thing. To pretend they are is a bit like saying a squad of fully armed RCMP is equivalent to a lone guy with a stapler.

Andrew Coyne highlights the most interesting bit from Paul Wells' election post mortem- a gloating Conservative's analysis of their multi million dollar Ignatieff attack campaign:

'''They say that we try to portray Ignatieff in our ads and so on as a weak and flailing professor,' the war room staffer said. 'No, that’s how we portrayed Dion. Dion was weak, you know, Dion was ‘not a leader.’ …Michael Ignatieff, in our narrative, is a political opportunist who is calculating, who will do and say anything to get elected….He’s a schemer…He’s a malicious human being…that’s kind of the sentiment we’re getting at...With Ignatieff, it’s ‘He’s a bad man.'"

I'm not a lawyer, but I'm pretty sure any defamation decision would be heavily influenced by whether the offending material was a handmade poster or a national advertising campaign in heavy rotation during the Academy Awards and the Superbowl. People would rightly see the damage from one as being qualitatively and quantitatively different from the other. That's 'natural justice' or (if you're an old-fashioned Mike Harris Conservative) "common sense". But Ms. Wente would have us believe they are the same thing.

Wells also describes how Patrick Muttart (later fired from Harper's 2011 campaign for allegedly shopping a fake photo of Ignatieff to Sun Media), "had the party register a website in Montenegro so its URL could be, reinforcing the notion that the Liberal was 'just in it for me.' They stuffed it full of embarrassing old quotes. Ads ran for weeks on television and radio."

I thought some dumb kid had set up that site, but now we learn it was the PMO.

Is it elitist to say the picture in Wente's article is cheap? Wente, a private school gal with no kids, from a wealthy family, who hobnobs with the Bay Street set and writes for the most elite paper in the country, regularly tells us how anti-elitist she is. My definition of 'elitist' would be someone who is privileged, arrogant and lazy, and Wente is arguably all three.

Wente: Laziness or plagiarism?

Possible plagiarism has already been discussed. But there are lots of other examples, like this:

Wente writes about Hernando de Soto in "The bad-paper trail: Where are the toxic assets?", Globe, May 2, 2009. Almost identical wording had appeared in de Soto's Cato Institute profile:

Wente: "delivering formal property rights to poor people can bring them out of the sway of demagogues and into the modern global economy…"

Cato Institute: “Delivering formal property rights to the poor can bring them out of the sway of demagogues and into the extended order of the modern global economy”.

Wente: “For his challenge to the status quo, the Shining Path, the Peruvian Marxist terrorist group, targeted him for assassination. His offices were bombed and his car was machine-gunned. Today, the Shining Path is moribund, and Mr. de Soto continues his passionate mission”.

Cato Institute: “For his efforts, the Peruvian Marxist terror group Shining Path targeted him for assassination. The institute's offices were bombed. His car was machine-gunned. Today the Shining Path is moribund, but de Soto remains very much alive and a passionate advocate…”


I'd ignored Wente since finding a bunch of similar stuff in her articles a few years back, but a quick look at recent work shows she's still up to her old tricks.

Here are some bits from Wente's recent piece on the Gulf Oil spill:

Wente: “Red snapper are unbelievable right now,” one fisherman said. “You could put a rock on the end a string and they’d bite it.”

AP: "Red snapper are unbelievable right now," said Mike Carron, head of the Northern Gulf Institute in Mississippi. "Now you could put a rock on the end of string and they'll bite it."

Lifting that quote from a 2010 AP report, Wente also turns Dr. Mike Carron, a scientist at Mississippi State University, into "a fisherman". Sloppiness, or anti-elitist reflex?

Wente: “People are having a hard time accepting it. Me, too,” says Ed Overton, a chemist at Louisiana State University. “There are things that are wrong. There is still oil out there. But it is not nearly as bad as I expected it would be a year later.”

Press Register: "People are having a hard time accepting it. Me too,” said Ed Overton, a chemist at Louisiana State University…. "There is still oil out there. But it is not nearly as bad as I expected it would be a year later.”

Wente: most scientists believe the Gulf is in surprisingly good shape. When three dozen of them were asked to rate the current health of the Gulf’s ecosystem on a 1-to-100 scale, they gave it an average grade of 68 – not bad, considering that, before the spill, they gave it a 71.

Fox: More than three dozen scientists grade the Gulf's big picture health a 68 on average, using a 1-to-100 scale. What's remarkable is that that's just a few points below the 71 the same researchers gave last summer when asked what grade they would give the ecosystem before the spill.

Even the Fox article, like the others, goes on to acknowledge that the Gulf is not in good shape, but Wente studiously avoids the thrust of each article she cribs from. Here's just one more early example:

In “Not every girl can be a winner” (also May 2, 2009), Wente denounced the Girl Guides for introducing “body image” badges to combat anorexia.

Wente offers quotes, without attribution. Two of them had appeared in a 2004 article by Frank Stephenson in Research in Review.

Stephenson: "Or so says Martin Seligman, an outspoken critic of the self-esteem movement. Seligman considers self-esteem exercises a menace to society... 'What I think has gone wrong,' Seligman says, 'is that we now think we should inject self-esteem directly into our young people, as opposed to producing warranted self-esteem, which I believe comes from doing well with the people you love, doing well in sports, [and] doing well in school.'"

Wente: “Among the biggest critics of the self-esteem movement is cognitive psychologist Martin Seligman. ‘We now think we should inject self-esteem directly into our young people, as opposed to producing warranted self-esteem, which I believe comes from doing well with the people you love, doing well in sports, doing well in school,’ he said. In his view, self-esteem exercises are a menace to society”.

Wente doesn't credit Stephenson' at all, even though the words she uses to describe Seligman’s views - “self esteem exercises are a menace to society”, are his.

Stephenson also summarizes the work of his colleague Roy Baumeister, who Wente also quotes.

Frank Stephenson: "As a graduate student Baumeister had accepted claims for the benefits of self-esteem uncritically... Baumeister set out to answer the...question, ultimately publishing several even-handed appraisals of self-esteem...'People who have elevated or inflated views of themselves tend to alienate others,' the report states."

Wente: "'People who have elevated or inflated views of themselves tend to alienate others,' wrote social psychologist Roy Baumeister, who used to believe in the importance of instilling self-esteem, until he reviewed all the research".

The Baumeister quote is buried in a long report co-authored by Jennifer Campbell, Joachim Krueger, and Kathleen Vohs, but it appears as a header in Stephenson's piece. Wente uses the highlighted quote, attributing it to Baumeister, without crediting the report's other authors, and again without citing Stephenson.

Wente claims that the Guides’ decision to introduce badges related to healthy body image is a bad idea, omitting the most relevant findings in Stephenson’s article, which contradicts her claim.

Frank Stephenson: "But low self-esteem does play a substantial role in eating disorders, a big problem, particularly for young women. Today's teen and college-aged women face a national epidemic of anorexia and bulimia, two closely associated emotional disorders that can be fatal if not treated. A great deal of evidence indicates that feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing-low self-esteem-are in fact risk factors in disordered eating, Baumeister's report noted. Work by Kathleen Vohs, one of the report's authors, for example, found that bulimia is strongly associated with low self-esteem".


I'm no expert on plagiarism or inadequate attribution, but Wente's practices seem not dissimilar to David Warren's, which the Ontario Press Council found lacking. And amongst academics and teachers whom Wente regularly faults for being soft on plagiarism, some examples from her own work would likely merit a fail. That she gets away with it perhaps indicates the different rules that apply to 'eastern urban elites'.


  1. Stupid and lazy. What a national treasure. ugh.

  2. Good God. Didn't they fire Dick Beddoes for just one such infraction back in the day? Lifting some text from a gay rights pamphlet, IIRC?

    Standards have surely slipped at the Mop and Pail.

  3. "Standards have surely slipped at the Mop and Pail. "
    I guess they're applying the standards usually used at Bell, where theft is the norm unless its you stealing from them.

  4. Wente challenges our assumptions. That's a good thing.

  5. True- any assumption I might have had that she was a journalist who relied on careful and intelligent research, disappeared some years ago.