John Miller on 'Wentegate'

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By John Gordon Miller, from thejournalismdoctor.ca

Carol Wainio is an artist who has exhibited widely in Canada, including at the National Gallery. She teaches Visual Arts at the University of Ottawa. In her spare time she blogs on matters of journalistic integrity. She specializes in detecting plagiarism.

Sylvia Stead is the newly named public editor of The Globe and Mail. The paper says it created the position earlier this year in "an effort to make the organization more transparent and accountable to its readers and the general public." Sylvia is a Globe insider, having held a number of senior editing positions at the paper since she started her career there in 1975. I know her and believe she cares about journalistic integrity, too.

These people should be allies, but they're not.

Their clash over whether Globe columnist Margaret Wente is guilty of plagiarism has gone viral on the internet in the past few days. In contrast, so-called mainstream media outlets -- to their great shame -- have not yet reported a word of what's going on. 

The charges are serious. Plagiarism is journalism's capital offence and the penalty is usually dismissal. Wente is not only the Globe's three-times-a-week featured op ed columnist, she has won two National Newspaper Awards and once served as the paper's managing editor. She is on anyone's list of the country's top journalists.

Incredibly, from my own analysis of the evidence so far, it seems to be the hobbyist blogger, not the journalist of 37 years, who is taking the high and principled road. 

Wainio convincingly documents Wente's plagiaristic tendencies on her blog, Media Culpa. She cites passages from one 2009 column, and compares them to nearly identical material in seven other sources, including the New York Times, Foreign Affairs and the Ottawa Citizen. Wainio includes examples of what she calls attribution errors, migrating quotes, using someone else's quoted words as if they were her own, and lifting entire quotations and passages out of other publications as if she'd interviewed the speakers herself. You can readWainio's critique yourself and judge whether this constitutes plagiarism.

According to the Globe, several journalists and others used Twitter to bring Wainio's blog to Stead's attention. And on Friday, she quietly put the result of her findings up on the Globe's website under the headline "We investigate all complaints about our writers." I'm letting you read it here because nothing appeared in print and there happens to be no direct link to the public editor's column on the Globe's website.

Stead chooses to characterize Wainio as "an anonymous blogger," whereas she describes Wente more favourably as a "high-profile columnist." The one column in question, she notes archly, was written "three years and two months ago." Stead writes: "I investigated the matter, spoke with the columnist, Margaret Wente, and her editor, endeavoured to find all of the original documents and read all but one. (I’ve ordered the last one.) In the end, there appears to be some truth to the concerns but not on every count."

The penalty for all this? Stead treats it as a minor misdemeanor, a bit of temporary carelessness over one single attribution, worthy of only an editor's note in the paper's electronic archives. She doesn't even mention the word plagiarism.

This is a shockingly inadequate response, one that I believe has irreparably compromised the integrity of the Globe and Mail's new public editor, and also tarnished the reputation of the newspaper itself.

For one thing, Stead's "investigation" appears to have been perfunctory. She writes: "The concern was that seven different sources were reproduced. That seems highly unlikely." A proper investigation would have taken each allegation seriously, and investigated how it got into Wente's column. That did not happen.

In fact, Wainio's blog takes issue not with just one column but with several others written by Wente between 2009 and 2012. Stead alludes to that by saying: "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."

Wait a minute: This has happened before? Well, um ... yes. What Stead does not mention is that the Globe ran three previous corrections or clarifications, all involving Wente's appropriation of material written by others and not properly attributed. All were raised by the intrepid Carol Wainio on her blog.

In other words, the charge is that Margaret Wente isn't just an oopsie one-off careless plagiarist, she's a serial offender. Alarm bells should have gone off a long time ago. Judging from the public editor's column, the newspaper is going to do very little about it.

This defies belief.

Says Wainio in her blog: "It’s interesting to compare the growing list of attribution questions in Ms. Wente’s writing (three of which have resulted in corrections/Editor’s Notes in the last several months) with other journalists who have apologized or been been fired for plagiarism. Perhaps someone more knowledgeable could explain how they are they different?"

Good question. This is what the website www.plagiarism.org says: "Many people think of plagiarism as copying another's work, or borrowing someone else's original ideas. But terms like 'copying' and 'borrowing' can disguise the seriousness of the offense. According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, to 'plagiarize' means:

  • to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own
  • to use (another's production) without crediting the source
  • to commit literary theft
  • to present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source.

"In other words, plagiarism is an act of fraud. It involves both stealing someone else's work and lying about it afterward."

Okay, let's take a short step back from this. You'd think that Canada's national newspaper would have the resources to either sue Carol Wainio for libel (if it felt she was wrong) or if right (which it appears she is) at least find out who she is and credit her helpful work. Stead's description of her as just "an anonymous blogger" seems lazy, adversarial and unkind.

In actual fact, Stead knows perfectly well who Wainio is.
 
Wainio has weighed in with the facts on her blog: "Ms. Stead was aware of who I was... 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."

She says she received a response from 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."
 
I think Wainio is entitled to make part of it public now. She does so on her blog: "Ìn 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.' "

This surely belongs in a Hall of Shame of public editor/ombudsman hypocrisy.

The real problem here may be the way the Globe's public editor position was set up. It is not supposed to be a job for anyone who has drunk the KoolAid. The public editor is an independent representative for the public in the newsroom. Choosing a newsroom veteran and making her report through the editor-in-chief (who after all, is responsible for the content in the first place) is a terrible conflict of interest. 

Most news organizations in the U.S. that have public editors or ombudsmen look outside for candidates as a matter of policy, and most report directly to the publisher or president. Papers like the New York Times and Washington Post prefer outsiders because they are not bound by longtime friendships or blinded by the prevailing newsroom culture.

Not surprisingly, Stead's column triggered an outraged response on the public editor's comment forum, where public opinion is running 100 percent against The Globe. I invite you to read them and add to them here

One reader takes a cynical stab at what actually might have happened during Stead's investigation: "We investigate all allegations against our writers. What that means, in practical terms, in this instance, is this: Confronted with overwhelming, irrefutable and thoroughly documented evidence of repeated plagiarism by Margaret Wente, I asked my old pal Peggy if she'd ever plagiarized anything. "Gosh, no," said Peggy. "Good enough for me," I said. "You're free to continue doing whatever it is we pay you to do."

So why is the mainstream media saying nothing about this? Another good question. Sabrina Maddeaux, who is managing editor of the online Toronto Standard, has a short answer: "We're all scared shitless." She confesses that when she saw the outrage about Wente building on her Twitter feed last week she thought: "Holy f**ck this is going to be big tomorrow."

But it wasn't. Maddeaux speculates that "the days of copyeditors and fact checkers at every publication are long gone," and there's no one there with any time to check anything; horror stories like Margaret Wente are only a Google step away, and everyone knows it's an accident waiting to happen.

So what should the Globe and Mail do now?

The newspaper has itself a big, big problem. The Wente Affair makes the Globe -- and the rest of mainstream journalism -- seem hopelessly out of touch with the internet-savvy hordes who seem to enjoy circling around the decaying corpse of authority these days.

Wente must be carefully investigated. This cannot be done internally now. Here is the mindsetGlobe publisher Phillip Crawley needs to adopt, according to plagiarism experts. Bring in a respected outsider to subject Wente's writings to a rigorous analysis, and act on the results. There are many candidates I could suggest but the most appropriate might be Jeffrey Dvorkin, a U of T professor who is executive director of the international Organization of News Ombudsmen.

I'm afraid Sylvia Stead needs to resign. I would have to, if I found myself in her position. She has either chosen to ignore convincing evidence of plagiarism, or has been told to. Either way, she has outed herself as a vindictive partisan of her newspaper instead of an impartial reader's representative, and she will have no absolutely credibility left with readers after this.

And Publisher Crawley needs to carefully rethink the position of public editor and decide if he really wants one. If so, it needs to be completely independent of the news operation and the Globe's rather prickly newsroom culture. Under the circumstances, choosing a qualified, independent outsider to fill the vacancy would be a good start.

When Stead was appointed to the job last January, editor-in-chief John Stackhouse said: "The Globe and Mail is among the most respected names in Canadian media, because we've always been held to the highest standards. Credibility is our currency and we want to protect its value."

That currency has taken a fast plunge. One reader addresses it in a comment attached to Stead's column: "As questionable as I find Wente's lapses of journalistic integrity, the greater blame falls to The Globe for being so irresponsible as to give her this space and lending her an air of credibility by virtue of their (former) reputation. I stopped subscribing to the Globe years ago when it became apparent they were abdicating their responsibility to the public as a source of responsible journalism. This gutless editorial downplaying and excusing Wente's abuses has made me lose any remaining respect I had...No accountability = No subscription."

The only hero here is Carol Wainio, and the bloggers who are keeping this issue alive like those here and here. Keep up the pressure, I say. You are right to question The Globe's credibility, and you deserve honest answers.

 

John Miller spent 20 years as a reporter -- mostly at the Toronto Star -- before spending 23 years teaching at Ryerson, which included 10 years as serving as the Chair of its School of Journalism. 

This post was first published on John Miller's blog and has been re-printed here with permission. 

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