Seriously. This is starting to get absolutely ridiculous. I’m gratified to see the National Post and the Toronto Star jumping on the Margaret Wente plagiarism bandwagon. But there are still people referring to this as though it was an isolated incident, and there are even some professional journalists who have the nerve to defend what’s happening. I’ll deal with a couple of those in a moment. In the meantime, kudos to CBC for doing the right thing.
First of all, virtually every major news organization covering this story has now stated that the kerfuffle started when blogger Media Culpa released an analysis suggesting that high-profile Globe & Mail columnist Margarent Wente plagiarized flagrantly in one 2009 column. That’s been The Globe’s defence, and people are buying it: gosh, it only happened once. Please, don’t help them. Media Culpa’s allegation is specifically that it didn’t happen just once. Further documented allegations of misconduct by Wente by that blogger can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here. I could go on, but I think you get the picture.
Now, let’s recap. After the issue finally went big-time, The Globe & Mail’s public editor issued a general denial saying plagiarism was “highly unlikely” and foisting it all off on “an anonymous blogger.” (In a fine show of attribution ethics, The Globe seems to be minimizing any possible reference, let alone linking, to Media Culpa herself.) That evidently wasn’t enough, so a vague statement that Wente had been “disciplined” was released. Then Wente wrote her own paranoid semi-apology claiming she was being targeted by political opponents. Then the editor-in-chief published an open letter to his staff (oh, barf) announcing that in the future the public editor would be reporting directly to the publisher in the future (great, I’m sure that will solve everything).
Finally the public editor — whom I will not be naming, out of respect for her own apparent dislike of naming the blogs she is referring to — produced another piece, probably the most appalling of all, consisting of a series of recommendations to Globe staff, to editors, and lastly to herself. Honestly. After more than a century of leading the Canadian media, it’s come to this at The Globe & Mail:
Don’t ever cut and paste someone else’s words and work over or around them. Only cut and paste something you intend to directly quote and attribute.
Really? Globe staff need to be told this? What do you people do in journalism school, anyways? Surely this must have come up at some point in your collective education. Interestingly, the dishonoured Ms. Wente’s alma mater, the University of Toronto, now has an entire Web page called “how not to plagiarize.” It’s geared towards young students, mostly because the pampered academics at U of T were apparently under the mistaken impression that by the time their graduates were hired on by newspapers they wouldn’t need to take a refresher course in how to use the quotation mark key.
It’s at this point, though, that I want to return to the rest of the media. I cannot believe that anyone who doesn’t have a direct stake in The Globe & Mail is still defending this cock-up, and we’re getting well past the point where coming out in Wente’s defence has to be seen as a mark of suspicion against the person making the defence. Particularly when I read something like this:
Everyone is expected to maintain the same standards while working with a fraction of the resources. That’s simply impossible, and the fact that sloppy work sees print is an inevitable result . . .
This is a silly technicality worth reconsidering in the Internet age. As an “idea synthesizer” myself, I regularly hop about from site to site, grabbing a topic here, an example there . . . Like many things these days, it comes down to a generational divide in how we feel about copying.
That’s Jesse Brown of Maclean’s, offering various reasons, none of them good ones, for why a professional reporter might find themselves accused of plagiarism. But even that piece of fluff, complete with its absurd complaints about plagiarism being an obsolete relic of a bygone age, pales next to a truly awful piece of piffle by Tim Harper of the Toronto Star:
I felt a pang in my gut and I challenge anyone who does this for a living to tell me there wasn’t a slight shiver of “there but for the grace of God . . .”
Really? Truly? Has the Canadian journalism profession sunk so low that everyone is possibly guilty of plagiarism? I find that hard to believe, and yet . . . should we be searching through the work of other columnists, too, for anything that the, um, “grace of God” hasn’t been able to conceal?
Harper then launches himself off on a patronizing and irrelevant stream of nonsense about how he might one day find himself accused of plagiarism for vaguely referring to an idea that came up in conversation once with a businessman, or if he happens to remember some words from an old book, or some such. Well, Tim, if your memory is so precise that you can remember whole sentences word for word but so poor that you can’t remember where the sentence came from, then yes, I suppose that would be an excuse for plagiarism. It doesn’t sound like an awfully convincing one, though, does it?
In any event, it’s also irrelevant, so irrelevant that I have to think that either Tim didn’t bother to read up on the Wente allegations the way he claims he did, or that he’s for some reason decided to lend a hand to The Globe editors in their attempt to whitewash the whole sorry affair. We’re not talking about a few scraps of information that floated into Wente’s head one time. We’re talking about substantive sentences, lifted from multiple sources, in multiple columns.
This country has real issues to worry about. In the last year alone, we have been presented with documented evidence of large-scale electoral fraud, our environmental protection and climate change regimes have been ripped to shreds, and the federal government has laid aside the Canada Health Act and thus ended, at least in principle, universal healthcare. More evidence continues to emerge that it plotted a systematic course of deception with regard to the cost of a multi-billion dollar military procurement project. And our media is so breathtakingly incompetent that they can’t even agree on whether someone in their ranks was copying and pasting without attribution and, if so, whether it was very wrong of them to do so.
Update: The National Post has now published a defense-of-Wente column too, an odious piece of work which suggests that this was a single inadvertent lapse of judgement on Wente’s part, a conclusion so at odds with the evidence presented at Media Culpa that I can only assume this is yet one more pundit who didn’t even bother reading the allegations before shooting his mouth off about them. Come on, people. This is what you’re paid for, isn’t it?