The Wente plagiarism question grows
This story has been updated below
The furor over what appears to be plagiarism in Margaret Wente’s columns for The Globe and Mail continues to grow, helped along by The Globe itself.
On Wednesday I reported that the blog Media Culpa had identified numerous instances where Wente appeared to have lifted prose from seven different sources without attribution. On Friday, The Globe‘s public editor, Sylvia Stead, published a badly judged response to the resulting online uproar. In it, she begins by referring to Wente’s critic as “an anonymous blogger” and to Wente as “a high-profile columnist” (pecking order established), then notes that the column in question was written “three years and two months ago.” (Yes? And?) She quotes Wente as saying she “doesn’t believe” she ever read any of the source material she’s accused of swiping, and that her column was based on Robert Paarlberg’s book Starved for Science: How Biotechnology is Being Kept Out of Africa. “In hindsight,” Wente tells Stead, “I’m sorry I wasn’t clearer that some paraphrasing came from his work.”
The problem here is that in at least one instance the material wasn’t paraphrased; it had appeared nearly word-for-word in an Ottawa Citizen piece by Dan Gardner the previous year. And Gardner wasn’t quoting in that instance from Paarlberg’s book; he was quoting from a phone interview he’d done with him. Thus, as one tweeter put it, unless Wente had his phone tapped, it’s hard to see how she hadn’t read Gardner’s article before writing her column.
On Thursday, j-source.ca revealed that the “anonymous blogger” is Carol Waino, a visual arts professor at the University of Ottawa. As it turns out, Sylvia Stead knows who she is too, because Waino has been reporting suspicious material in Wente’s columns to The Globe for some time. For her efforts, she received a reply berating her for “[hiding] behind a faceless blog site to very publicly defame Canada’s best known columnist Margaret Wente” with “single-minded zealotry.” The name of her correspondent? Sylvia Stead, while she was still The Globe‘s Associate Editor.
Plainly Stead is the wrong person to be handling this file. As John Miller, former Chair of the School of Journalism at Ryerson, puts it, “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.” He’s calling for Stead to resign, and for Globe publisher Phillip Crawley to “bring in a respected outsider to subject Wente’s writings to a rigorous analysis, and act on the results.” Meantime, Maclean’s Colby Cosh is the first of the big guns to fire. “If neither Wente nor Stead believes that Wente had Gardner’s piece immediately to hand while composing her own column,” he writes today, “then the rest of us are, on statistical grounds, left with no alternative but to declare them the biggest pair of Siamese-twin imbeciles of all time.”
Like Miller, he saves most of his scorn for Stead, as if Wente has become merely a bystander in the matter. But whether she just hasn’t examined the evidence against her carefully enough to come up with a more plausible defence, or is being disingenuous with her colleague, it’s Wente who’s created this mess. She needs to suspend writing her column, before she has to be told to, and then ask her boss for that investigation. If somehow it clears her, fine. If not, well, at least she’ll have a head start on redemption.