Tuesday, September 25, 2012

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 explanation from 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 another recent 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 Note was 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 Forbes.com 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 other instances 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.

29 comments:

  1. Your approach is professional, and more modest than you ought to be. You're doing a great service, and the language Wente deserves should be extremely critical and scathing. Though, you have a "moral authority". So I'll commence with my thoughts

    The Globe and Mail is a disgusting paper that tends to reflect business and market interests, and Wente is part of that thoughtless machine. She regularly pukes out garbage (for example, in a piece welcoming Conrad Black home, she essentially wrote "A lot of smart people in Toronto say Conrad shouldn't have been convicted anyways!")

    And as you point out, along with being a total fool, is also a plagiarist.

    She needs to be fired. Immediately. She should have been fired a long time ago (why was she even hired?) and it reflects very poorly on the sorry-excuse for a "national" newspaper. These "concessions" are absolutely pathetic.

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  2. It truly makes me sad that she thinks that what she has done is ok.

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  3. I think that you are doing great work. The response from the Globe would be hilarious if it didn't continue to undermine their credibility with every Sylvia Stead missive. Thank you for your tirelessness. This can only be good for Canadian media.

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  4. Couldn't agree more with Oh's comment! And Margaret Wente's writing disgusted me long before I heard about the plagiarism.

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  5. You are doing amazing work, well deserving of the attention it has recently garnered.

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  6. Congratulations on the terrific progress so far. Please don't get discouraged if the response seems weak or all this takes a while. For some of us it takes much longer.

    As another example with a strong Canadian connection See No Evil, Speak Little Truth, Break Rules, Blame Others.

    In December 2009, Canadian blogger Deep Climate found obvious plagiarism in a 2006
    report to US Congress led by George Mason University Professor Edward Wegman.

    As in Wente's case, it wasn't a one-off. [Plagiarism experts tell me that plagiarism is often repeated.] Eventually, ~80 pages were found, spread across that report, 7 papers and 4 PhD dissertations. All were reported to their university, which after 2 years, admitted only to a problem in a paper already retracted by the publisher and said it would put a reprimand in the professor's file.

    Two of the papers were written by Wegman and his past student Yasmin Said, for a Wiley journal they co-edited. One of the papers was almost entirely constructed by hacking together Wikipedia pages. Wiley let them quietly rewrite the online papers with no retraction.

    Wegman has continued to insist they would never knowingly publish plagiarized material.

    If journalism is going to continue to exist as anything respectable, journalists who actually add value should be credited as such. Part of doing that is exposing those who debase the currency of journalism (or academic publishing) by zero-value recycling.

    SO, I congratulate you again on the progress you have made already. This is hard work and often thankless, but needs to be done.

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  7. May every future Canadian (and worldwide) journalism student study this case and be better for it!

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  8. Thanks so much for doing this. Your measured, articulate, and respectful tone is an asset. It puts into sharp relief the juvenile and, at times, craven protestations of Ms. Wente and her employer.

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  9. This is what Wente wrote: "...some of whom are characterizing me as a serial plagiarist."..." I make mistakes. But I’m not a serial plagiarist."... "The third is that I am a serial offender". This is what the blogger, Wainio, said: " Contrary to what she says, I never used the term “serial plagiarist”. " Well, what would you say to that. I say Wainio is "stretching the truth". Wente did not claim Wainio used those words at all. Hmm...

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    Replies
    1. Did not claim at all? Looks to me like the author of this piece assumes that she’s included in Wente’s “some of whom” there in your first quotation. Might be wrong, but it’s a reasonable reading.

      Delete
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  11. Wente's "apology" was total bullshit. But to give her some credit, it was probably the first original writing she's done in years.

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  12. The latest response from Sylvia Steadman with respect to this incident with Ms. Wente has demonstrated to me that this needs to be referred to the owners because clearly the Editor in Chief, the Publisher and the Public Editor are not grasping the seriousness of the offense.
    1) the reply by Ms. Wente was disgraceful and demonstrated either an unwillingness to address the issue or a poor grasp of the severity of the issue at hand.
    2) The fact that the public editor chose to initially ignore the message and attack the messenger speaks very poorly to her credibility and independence.

    Please address your concerns to:

    The Woodbridge Company Limited is a Canada based holding company owned by the Thomson family and the principal shareholder of The Thomson Corporation.
    65 Queen Street West
    Suite 2400
    Toronto, ON M5H 2M8
    Canada
    Phone:
    416-364-8700
    Key Executives for The Woodbridge Company Limited
    Mr. W. Geoffrey Beattie
    source: businessweek.com

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  13. Good work in holding Wente's feet to the fire.

    I wrote a blog post back in 2006 showing how Wente had plagiarized an earlier column in the NY Times by John Tierney

    Of course the Globe just turned a blind eye as they did for so many years, but feel free to make use of it if you wish.

    Cheers,
    Declan.

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  14. A billion thumbs up for you Carol. You did your research, you document your case, your examples are not out of context. In short, you make your case. For the G&M to dismiss you, demean you, and to offer a self-serving notpology is unacceptable. I'd rather see a column by you - precisely because your blog here offers a very accessible style and solid research that is transparent. Keep it up!

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    Replies
    1. I second that! I'm glad there are at least a few ethical people like you left in the world...

      Delete
  15. "Margaret Wente suspended from CBC media panel after plagiarism row over Globe column"

    http://news.nationalpost.com/2012/09/25/margaret-wente-suspended-from-cbc-media-panel-after-plagiarism-row-over-globe-column/

    "High-profile Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente has been suspended from the media panel on CBC Radio’s Q after plagiarism allegations emerged over a 2009 column.

    “[T]he job of Q’s biweekly media panel is to scrutinize media coverage, tactics, standards, and ethics,” CBC said in a statement Tuesday. “Given that mandate, we have regretfully decided to suspend our regular freelance relationship with Ms. Wente on this panel.”"

    Irony, thy name is Wente.

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  16. I just found about this. I read the national post, it said something about someone plagiarizing and was surprised. I never heard about global whatever called, let alone a journalist/adult plagiarize.
    I'm in high school, if I did this I would get zero on the assignment and fail the class (and do it over). So thanks for bringing this up.

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  17. I think that the writer of this blog is guilty of character assassination and professional slander. Who does she think she is, one of Mao's Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution? Goodness knows I rarely agree with Margaret Wente, but I'm behind her one hundred percent. I'm a gay leftist journalist and author. I've been writing for 25 years. I've made mistakes in print too. We all have. From where I sit, the writer of this blog has a vendetta and it stinks.

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    Replies
    1. Haha...there is no vendetta. The blogger has posted some disturbing similarities. This is not a mistake - it's a planned article with purposeful lack of attribution.

      I wish it were just a sentence here or there - then we could just forget about it.

      Delete
    2. If by "vendetta" you mean a desire to enforce professional standards in mainstream print then, yes, Media Culpa is guilty as charged.

      Delete
    3. I think the writer of this blog is 300 meters tall and that red is actually blue.

      I am a 45-year old female trapeze artist and I have been performing for over 25 years.

      Delete
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  19. I have been wondering for quite some time if the G&M was doing any checking of Ms Wente's sources or facts. It appears from your excellent work that they do neither. Thank you for continuing your efforts to hold this very public voice to some accountability.

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  20. If Ms. Wente were published in the U.K. many of her personal attacks would be considered libelous. She is a woman of small character and unoriginal thought who lashes out at the world in impotence and ignorance.

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  21. I don't know for how long (a couple of decades even?) I have (occasionally, thankfully!) subjected myself to the particularly distateful ramblings of Wente, often shaking my head in utter amazement after suffering through one of her columns.

    And then I chanced upon this absolute gem of a blog! And the dark clouds parted, and the light of truth shone through!

    Keep up the fantastic work, as there are many among us who believe strongly in truth, responsibility, fairness, and ethics.

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