Was it plagiarism or poetic licence when Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente recently wrote a column about cell phones that closely resembled one written two days earlier by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd?
Wente has been writing a provocative and interesting column since its inception in the Globe 10 years ago and she’s picked up a couple of National Newspaper Awards along the way. She is arguably one of the country’s best known columnists and she has a legion of fans - and critics. Whether you agree or disagree with her point of view, she always has one and she delivers it with style – unlike the increasing number of often undisciplined and narcissistic bloggers who bark incessantly and loudly on any media platform available.
So the question is this – why would Wente write a column that so closely resembles one written by her New York counterpart that many, including the NYTPicker, are suggesting she stole it? Was she reckless, careless or was she just short of an idea at the end of July when the summer news doldrums typically strike? Did she believe that she was writing an original view on a subject worth commenting on? Or was it just a bizarre coincidence? When asked for an interview, Wente replied via e-mail, saying she was out of the country until after Labour Day and apologized for being unavailable.
The NYTPicker wasn’t the first to notice the two columns, just the first to write about them. But so many readers are discussing the similarities, that becomes a problem in itself. Perhaps a columnist with a lower profile could get away with writing a column with such an alarming number of similiarities because no one would notice. But the fact that so many Globe readers are also NYT readers made it inevitable the two columns would be noticed and discussued – and not in a way that’s flattering to Wente. As Ricky Ricardo used to say to Lucy, she’s got some “'splainin” to do.
Poet T.S. Eliot has famously said that good artists “borrow” but great artists “steal.” He may have been thinking of William Shakespeare who has been cited as a shameless stealer of plots so often that it’s tiresome. Eliot, however, was referring to works of art, not journalism, while Shakespeare’s genius lay in using stolen plots as vehicles to examine the mysteries of the human condition and to create poetry and drama in a way that made them uniquely his.
Writer Malcolm Gladwell examined the notion of plagiarism and when it’s okay to borrow, even steal, in a New Yorker piece titled Something Borrowed . He decided he was flattered, not offended, when British playwright Bryony Lavery wrote a play, Frozen, that included almost verbatim material, including dialogue, from a Gladwell profile. “Instead of feeling that my words had been taken from me, I felt that they had become part of some grander cause, ” Gladwell wrote. Playwright Lavery, who was pilloried when the “theft” emerged, said she never thought to attribute the material for the Tony-nominated Frozen. “It never occurred to me to ask you,” she told Gladwell. “I thought it was news.” She meant that news, which is (presumably) true, can’t be stolen.
The thing is, neither Dowd nor Wente is a poet or a dramatist. They are both high-profile, often controversial, columnists who are showcased on the op-ed pages of their respective newspapers. Wente may not have lifted any word-for-word sentences from Dowd’s column, but the similarities are so close that she’s skating on perilously thin ice. For starters, both open with a first-person anecdote of a close call with death while driving and talking on a cell phone. Both go on to outline the risks of using one while at the wheel.
Wente also uses, without acknowledgement, a quote that's used in the Dowd column. Although Dowd herself credits fellow Times colleague and reporter, Matt Richtel, for what she uses from his interview with Harvard psychiatrist John Ratey, Wente doesn’t.
Dowd: As John Ratey, the Harvard professor of psychiatry who specializes in the science of attention, told The Times’s Matt Richtel for his chilling series, “Driven to Distraction,” using digital devices gives you “a dopamine squirt.”
Wente: Every time we phone or thumb or text or Twitter, we get what Harvard psychiatrist John Ratey calls a dopamine squirt.
Wente also leaves readers with the impression that she interviewed U.S. psychologist David Strayer. If she did, she doesn’t say so. The Strayer material also appears in a Times article earlier in the year.
Most journalists know that failure to mention the time and place of an interview can be code for the fact that the material isn’t being reported by the writer but has been taken from somewhere else. Many readers, however, don’t.
The Globe’s own style book addresses these points. Under the heading Plagiarism: “Excerpts from other people’s prose must be attributed so as to avoid even a suspicion of copying . . . Any extensive unacknowledged use of another’s words, structure or ideas may constitute plagiarism" (page 470 – ninth edition).
In the past, Wente herself has taken a hard line on plagiarism, including in a column that ran Jan.15, 2008: “Sadly, high expectations are deeply out of fashion in Ontario. Students are no longer penalized for such lapses as plagiarism or skipping tests.”
Coming up with fresh and interesting columns every week can be challenging, as anyone who has ever written one knows. Many have failed. Columnists, like readers, face a tsunami of information every day and must decide what’s topical and merits comment. There’s also the rush to meet deadlines and the sheer number of pieces that must be produced in a year.
While reporters are often assigned to “match” a story that has already appeared somewhere else, columnists are never assigned to “match” a column. They are free – in fact privileged - to comment on whatever they choose. And many news events are of so much interest to so many people that many columnists can’t resist weighing in. Was there a news columnist in North America who didn’t write about Sarah Palin?
While it would be easier, not to mention cheaper, for less ambitious papers than the Globe to run syndicated columnists (such as Dowd), original columnists can be a powerful draw for a newspaper and help distinguish its “brand,” particularly in an age when information is so readily available.
Wente’s profile and stature make it inevitable that the bar will be set higher for her than it may be for an average columnist. And it should be. If the Globe is aiming to sell its credibility, its columnists must not only be credible, but be seen to be, if the newspaper’s “brand” is going to have value. That's why the resemblances between the one column and the other should be addressed: it jeopardizes the credibility of not only the columnist, but the newspaper. And in these difficult days for newspapers, credibility is as important as ever, if not more so.
Wente’s decision not to comment because she’s out of the country is a mistake. She owes readers an explanation.
Anne McNeilly is an assistant professor at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism who has more than 25 years experience as a journalist, including 18 years at The Globe and Mail.