Everyone Hates Plagiarism, Except the Canadian Media
Margaret Wente, the popular columnist for the Globe and Mail, is a plagiarist. At least, that’s what everyone except Canada’s newspapers seems to think.
For over sixteen months, Wente’s failure to attribute quotations in columns published between 2009 and 2012 were meticulously documented by Carol Wainio, a professor in the Department of Visual Arts at the University of Ottawa, on her blog, Media Culpa. While evidence of plagiarism presented against columnists of similar stature in other national media markets has received widespread attention in daily newspapers, the Globe and its chief rivals have not reported on the Wente story.
Last Tuesday (September 18), Wainio posted a comparison of a 2009 column by Wente against seven unattributed sources.
On Friday (September 21), the Globe’s public editor, Sylvia Stead, issued an online response to Wainio’s post. In her statement, Stead concedes that “there appears to be some truth to the concerns but not on every count.” However, she addresses only one of the seven allegations that Wainio has published specifically. Sylvia Stead and Margaret Wente did not respond to several phone calls placed by VICE.
Carol Wainio posted a retort to Sylvia Stead’s response on her blog this past Friday, that challenges the claim that Wainio is an “anonymous” blogger". She writes, “Ms. Stead was aware of who I was. That is 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.”
As far as Stead’s defense of Wente, she goes on to say “it’s hard not to assume that [the Globe's] editors did not simply put their fingers in their ears.”
Stead twice implies that she has completed her investigation (investigation is referred to in scare quotes within Mainio’s response) of Wente. Paradoxically, she acknowledges that she has not read all the original documents referred to in Wainio’s post. Wait, what? That’s right, the public editor of the Globe and Mail has declared to have finished an investigation into plagiarism against one of the most prominent columnists in the country when all of the evidence has not been assessed.
Stead dismisses the charge that seven sources were plagiarized -- not from any position of reason, but because she finds it “highly unlikely.” Wainio wrote that she finds it “astonishing” Stead did not address the instance of the nearly identical paragraph in Wente’s article that appears to be lifted from an older piece by Dan Gardner.
Sylvia Stead has worked for the Globe and Mail since 1975. She knows everyone. She’s friends with everyone. She has a vested interest in the Globe brand, and is hardly a force for independent accountability like the public editors at major US newspapers.
“I never thought it was appropriate for the Globe to put a Globe lifer in the position of public editor,” said Colby Cosh, an assistant editor at Maclean’s. “What's most clearly demonstrated here, I think, is that the experiment of Sylvia Stead as public editor won't work. It was a joke from the start. They are literally better off without one than with an obviously compromised, defensive one. Wente should at the very least be called upon for a personal apology, to actual human beings, and since her workload is apparently part of the problem (if Stead is to be believed), it should be reduced explicitly to the level at which it can be handled without ugly ethical transgressions. Zero would be one such level. And the Globe's stated policy of "curing" plagiarism by annotating the material after the fact is pretty untenable.”
Jeet Heer, a cultural critic and journalist, told us that “Stead's statement was a whitewash and incoherent... What does ‘some truth’ mean? Is Wente 35% a plagiarist? 45% a plagiarist?”
“Frankly, the Stead column makes no sense at all,” said Mark Bourrie, a National Magazine Award winner who wrote features for the Globe and Mail from 1981 to 1989 and now lectures history at Carleton University in Ottawa. “Normally, a paper puts a good investigative reporter on a case like this to hunt down any evidence of plagiarism or fabrication that exists. The Ottawa Citizen did that when a medical writer was accused of fabricating sources and quotes, and that’s what’s been done at papers like the Boston Globe and major magazines in the U.S.”
When plagiarism allegations against prominent writers in other markets have been presented in recent months, things have gone very differently.
In August 2012, Time columnist and CNN host Fareed Zakaria was accused of plagiarism by a US media watchdog and the case was covered as news in New York Magazine, Newsweek, the New York Times and the Washington Post. Zakaria was suspended by both of his employers pending an investigation into the allegations.
Zakaria was cleared. He has resumed his work at Time and CNN.
In 2011, allegations of plagiarism were put to Johann Hari, a British columnist for the Independent, by a group of bloggers and the story was reported as news in the Guardian, the Telegraph and the Washington Post. Hari was suspended from the Independent pending an investigation into the allegations.
Hari was ordered to “attend a journalism training course before being allowed to rejoin the newspaper" and ultimately chose not to return to his job at the Independent in 2012.
Meanwhile, Stead and the Globe’s editors have full confidence in Wente. Her column appeared as scheduled on Saturday (September 22), even though the paper’s public editor has not fully reviewed all of the original materials pertaining to the plagiarism allegations.
“Until one of the other papers, the Walrus or the CBC take up the issue, it won't go anywhere,” said Heer. “As things now stand, the Wente fiasco is a problem not just for the Globe but also a scandal that implicates the entire Canadian media.”
“Since Stead doesn't appear to think plagiarism is actually punishable, it can hardly matter what further ‘investigation’ she does; there is already a finding of guilt but Stead refuses to give the offence its name,” said Cosh. “It is frankly not clear that Stead recognizes the concept of plagiarism at all.”
And yet, while Maclean’s, The Huffington Post Canada and The Toronto Standard have gallantly covered the story, the biggest media institutions in the country have not reported on it. Why?
“On the face of it, this looks like plagiarism and the Globe’s response has been insufficient,” said Andrew Coyne, a columnist for the National Post. “As for what is unique to Canada, I recall Bob Hepburn was caught plagiarizing at the Toronto Star [in 1989], and the incident went strangely uncommented upon. I don’t know if it is cultural, but the Canadian media has different behavioural standards than other medias. We’re laxed about politicians’ private lives, we’re laxed about a lot of things.”
There’s also the issue of size. Canada doesn’t have a lot of papers. Canada doesn’t have nearly as many newspaper jobs to offer journalists, like other bigger national markets do. Canadians are nice people, sort of, and in the country’s tiny media bubble anyone and everyone is afraid of pissing off someone they might run into at the next cocktail party.
“Canadian journalism is a very small, fluid world,” said a senior writer at one of the Globe’s chief competitors, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Many of us find ourselves not wanting to say anything about past or - here's the important bit - future employers. Someone you disparage today could be your potential boss tomorrow. Those considerations become even more acute in the shrinking media universe, where career planning now mostly revolves around hiding under the desk to avoid the next wave of cutbacks.”
“On the journalistic ethics front, the American press is practically OBSESSED with plagiarism,” said Alex Pareene, a political columnist at Slate. “It's treated as essentially the worst journalistic crime, or maybe the second-worst right after ‘making shit up completely.’ So plagiarists are dealt with harshly, and even if they end up keeping their jobs they get a lot of shit from everyone else in the press usually. And there is some glee when it's someone like Fareed Zakaria, because that dude is very famous and successful.”
“This case, if it continues to head in the direction of plagiarism, is about how the Globe handles it,” said Kenny Yum, the managing editor of The Huffington Post Canada. “I don't think it speaks to the industry at large. How the Globe listens to the feedback it is getting on social media and how it responds will go a long way toward establishing where standards lie.”
Yes. Stead and the Globe have an opportunity. Suspending Wente and conducting a full and proper investigation, as Bourrie suggests, would establish an admirable precedent for transparency in the Canadian media that would circumvent the issue of silence at rival newspapers. It might not do the Globe’s bottom line any favours, but it would affirm the paper’s credibility and be a positive step for Canadian media in general. And it would advance the cause of good ethics in journalism. That’s what public editors do.
Wainio, a working mother who made time for all the meticulous research that Stead continues to deny, leaves this situation with hope: “I'm happy this has facilitated a discussion about ethics and accountability. I'm sure at this point that there are many more people who could contribute more to that discussion than I.”
Even though Wainio’s sentiment, which reads like “My work is done here,” shies away from direct finger-pointing, her work as blogger started a viral discussion among Canadian Twitter users. Tweets brought Wainio’s blog post to the attention of online news sources. Online news sources drove Wainio’s accusations in front of commentators at Maclean’s and the Guardian. The National Post’s Chris Selley this afternoon joined the chorus of commentators willing to analyze Wainio’s accusations. The next logical step is for a newspaper to cover this for what it is: news. In America, it was news. In Britain, it was news. In France, it was news. Where it happens, it is news. This is a story, the only problem is Canada doesn’t have newspaper reporter with the balls enough to write it. Yet.
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