Saturday, November 17, 2012

Margaret Wente and The Gelber Prize

Plagiarism, 'originality failure', phantom Occupy protester – however you look at it, it’s surprising that columnist Margaret Wente was named to the jury for the Gelber Prize.  Aside from the incident that became an international story  (and resulted in her being 'disciplined' by The Globe and Mail), there are so many other reasons to wonder about the choice. 

Don’t universities take strong public standards against plagiarism?  What would the University of Toronto or The Munk School (partners in the award) do with students who engaged in these practices?

It’s not as though Ms. Wente springs immediately to mind as the country’s foremost expert in diplomacy and foreign policy – the focus of the award; she’s best known for a kind of artful contrarianism often aimed at social issues like gender and education.  Unlike journalists who also produce sustained scholarship on foreign affairs, her books are largely collections of previous columns – an anecdotal writing style with covers showing her provocatively draped in a Canadian flag.  They seem more about Wente than the world.

Given its billing as “the world's most important award for non-fiction”, you’d expect jurors to bring relevant expertise from a variety of perspectives.  But looking at the list, there’s not a lot of diversity.  Other jurors include former Globe Editor William Thorsell, who, as I think I read somewhere, shares both a work history and a country house postal code with Ms. Wente.  And Wente’s ‘originality’ problems may present other challenges in terms of range and diversity – take for example fellow juror, Walter Russell Mead.

In the last couple of years, Wente has cited the work of the “brilliant analyst Walter Russell Mead” about 7 times.  While not extensive enough to warrant the plagiarism discussion that followed the Paarlberg or Carr examples, or the ethical concerns about "John", one might still ask if some of the similarities in viewpoint or missing quotation marks in these articles amplify questions around her selection.

For example, a column Ms. Wente wrote on climate change followed one by Mead, who here puts punctuation around material he includes from The Guardian: 

“[a] Guardian investigation… found evidence that a series of measurements from Chinese weather stations were seriously flawed and that documents relating to them could not be produced.”

But as happens so often, Wente presents almost identical material with no quotation marks.

The Guardian… has found that a series of measurements from Chinese weather stations were seriously flawed, and that documents relating to them could not be produced.

In a similar article called Kyoto fraud revealed, Mead celebrated the demise of that “idiotic”, “stupid piece of counterproductive social engineering” (or as others might see it – failed international diplomacy) aimed at reducing greenhouse gases.   He argued that environmentalists got a ‘free ride from the media’ and ‘need to grow up’.  Wente seems to be singing along for a bit.

If you add up the CO2 released by the goods and services Europeans consumed, as opposed to the CO2 thrown off by the goods and services they produced, the EU was responsible for 40% more CO2 in 2010 than in 1990.

(The EU is actually responsible for 40 per cent more CO2 today than it was in 1990, if you count the goods and services it consumed as opposed to the ones that it produced.)

(Environmentalism) gets a free ride from most of the mainstream media and also the mainstream intellectual establishment. 


They got a fabulous free ride from politicians and the media…

Kyoto was as big a fraud as…


…reduction in carbon emissions… exposed as a giant fraud…

Environmentalists will only be able to help the world when they grow up. 

And, after arguing that environmentalists should forget climate change and polar bears and focus on important things - like lions and tigers - she echoes Mead’s observation: 

Please grow up, people. You have important work to do.

In other articles, both writers show their displeasure with public education and universities, arguing that we need to scrap current arrangements, and move to a more market driven approach.

Tenure is going to become much, much rarer…

Tenure will become much rarer…

Mead says classes will be taught by:
… non-Ph.D. TA’s trained to handle a particular group of courses…

…teaching loads will increasingly be handled by non-PhDs trained to handle a particular group of courses.


The natural sciences … will probably do better than the humanities…

Natural sciences will fare better than the humanities

Here, Wente gets around to mentioning Mead, but still no quotation marks:

…as U.S. commentator Walter Russell Mead remarks, taxpayers are not going to subsidize research in critical literary theory much longer.

Taxpayers are not going to subsidize research in critical literary theory very much longer. 

In Our school systems are so last century  Wente credits Mead for paraphrased material, but then uses some words that had appeared in an article by Globe colleague Gary Mason (without mentioning him):

“It is in almost every respect a system built for another age,” writes education historian John Fleming (whose views were cited in The Province newspaper). The union, the government and the school trustees, in his view, are all anti-visionary, anti-technological and completely committed to the status quo.
The historian’s name was later corrected; and Thomas Fleming’s views - at least the ones that Mason and Wente cite – seem to have appeared in The Tyee rather than The Province. Here’s Mason’s passage in The Globe a few months earlier.
“It is in almost every respect a system built for another age,” Dr. Fleming writes… the union, the government and the school trustees – are anti-visionary, anti-technological and completely committed to the status quo.
Wente then devotes a few paragraphs to Mead’s 21st century vision of education:

…groups of like-minded teachers… empowered to get together and open neighbourhood schools and run them as they see fit… determine their own curriculum, teaching materials and policies. They…would decide how big the classes would be and whether they should offer Grade 11 history, gym, music or clown lessons. Teachers would be treated as entrepreneurs and professionals… Principals would be able to recruit the teachers they want...Every so often, the students would write standard tests in core subjects, and the results would be public…
And last, in Debt ceiling chicken and the end of empire, Wente again channels Mead, who in the article she cites also writes that Medicare/Medicaid is a “catastrophe” “destroying the nation”, adding that abortion rates in the U.S. contribute to a “holocaust of youth and hope on a scale hard to match”. Wente apparently concurs:
As the thinker Walter Russell Mead puts it, the U.S. health system marries the greed of the private sector to the ineptitude of government. This health-care industrial complex will soon account for one-fifth of the economy.
No real attribution problems there, but in the same article, Ms. Wente finds efficiencies in material she reuses two weeks later.
Wente, July 30, 2011: As Fortune’s Nina Easton writes, 20 per cent of all American men are “collecting unemployment, in prison, on disability, operating in the underground economy, or getting by on the paycheques of wives or girlfriends or parents.”
Wente, August 16, 2011: These men, as Fortune’s Nina Easton observes, are either “collecting unemployment, in prison, on disability, operating in the underground economy, or getting by on the paycheques of wives or girlfriends or parents.”
Are these as serious as past instances?  No.  But they do reflect a kind of practice, a habit, and dare one say, a kind of entitlement.  Given all that, and what was pretty universally described as the dreadful way Ms. Wente and her editors dealt with the more serious instances, one has to wonder why the Gelber Prize, the University of Toronto and the Munk School chose to rely so heavily on jurors associated with that particular newspaper in their selection of assessors .

One can think of so many qualified Canadian writers with unblemished careers.  Even if one had to put so many eggs in The Globe’s basket, there are other choices.  Take Stephanie Nolen – a book, six National Newspaper Awards, a Master’s degree from the London School of Economics. Or Doug Saunders, author of two books at least related to foreign policy. 
There are lots of writers capable of sustained, original writing on relevant issues who would know first hand what the task involves – historians, analysts and others who could provide peer review, not just book review – especially when some of those book reviews have been acknowledged to be unacceptable. 
And there are other newspapers, other postal codes.  How about Dan Gardner?  True, he may not have written glowing profiles of Peter Munk, but he’s written two great books and a pretty good article about Robert Paarlberg.
Sure, the Gelber Prize involves a private foundation, a wonderful and generous gift, and they can do what they want with their money. But it’s also associated with, and reflects, The University of Toronto and The Munk School – which, coincidentally, just announced a new journalism partnership with The Globe and Mail. What might that mean?  As Ms. Wente might say, I don’t have a clue.


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