In recent days I’ve done what I can to show readers how horrendously the national media is coping with the news that one of its own, accomplished Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente, plagiarizes in her columns. It hasn’t been pretty. First, The Globe unsuccessfully tried to dismiss the accusations as the rantings of an anonymous blogger. Later, reporters from other media offered a wide range of excuses for Wente, ranging from the intriguing thesis that plagiarism is obsolete in the Internet age to the rather ridiculous claim that accusing a reporter of plagiarism is akin to the Maoist purges of the Cultural Revolution. It’s bad enough that I’ve started a link boycott of pro-plagiarism columnists, and I encourage other bloggers to join me in this protest.
However, I also want to highlight the ways in which it’s not all bad news. Some reporters — some rare few — have actually done their jobs over the last few days and, more importantly, have decided to put the reputation of their profession ahead of their desire to protect their own from public criticism. For instance, the CBC has taken the important step of publicly booting Wente from her position on a media panel while the allegations are investigated. The Globe and Mail, notably, did not announce anything of the kind, although the fact that Wente hasn’t published another column since a paranoid semi-apology several days ago may be an indication that she’s on some sort of leave.
Another thing The Globe didn’t do was to give a platform to the blogger at Media Culpa, an Ottawa art professor named Carol Wainio, to explain her views. (Instead, it apparently preferred to engage in cheap shots at her reputation, at least until this was no longer a tenable position.) In contrast, the National Post has done so. It’s highly recommended reading, because she explains her motives for going after Wente, and simply because the Post was willing to give her the space. A Toronto Star interview is also worth reading, for the same reason.
Finally, the Star is also to be commended for having its public editor publish a piece on plagiarism which at least appears to take the problem seriously. This of course stands in marked contrast to The Globe public editor’s attempt to downplay the allegations, and the National Post’s blatant lack of a public editor in the first place (because, according to one of its leading columnists, media accountability is an assault on freedom of the press). Kathy English lays out what she thinks are some of the key differences between how her office works at the Star, and how the public editor office works at The Globe and Mail.
Of course we shouldn’t kid ourselves about what’s going on here. The Globe’s decision to defend one of its high-profile columnists was sadly predictable. So is the willingness of The Globe’s competitors to slam it at any opportunity — and this is certainly the opportunity. The delayed response occurred because their instinct to rush in with swords drawn has been warring with a fear that there might be plagiarists in their own organizations who could be exposed. In contrast, the seemingly pro-plagiarism positions taken by people like Terence Corcoran at the Post and Jesse Brown at Maclean’s are at least principled, even if the principles they hold to are sometimes asinine and contemptible.
In the meantime, I await a full and sincere expression of contrition from Ms. Wente, one that doesn’t wander off into gratuitous attacks on her critics.