Sep 302012

Thank goodness for the bloggers who hammered the Globe & Mail’s handling of the Margaret Wente plagiarism.  I’ve pasted that story together, below.  The last article, 9.  Watching the Watchdog, by Tim Knight, is very good.

This is related to the G&M’s reporting of Julian Assange’s presentation to the United Nations, further condemnation of the G&M’s journalistic integrity.

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Margaret Wente’s plagiarism is now on the international stage.  See below – The Guardian (UK) picked up the story.  Canadians are becoming famous for lousy journalism!!

Kudos to “anonymous blogger” (as the G&M describes her), Carol Wainio.  The quality of journalism shapes the health of democracy, as does citizen defence of democracy!  Carol has powerfully called the G&M to account.

Canadian democracy (what is left of it) is worth saving – – it is average Canadians who will do it.  They fill the void and are our “leaders”, of necessity.  Make Carol’s name known, she is a hero,  don’t let the media get away with making her “anonymous”.

The official defence of Wente by the Globe&Mail, written by Sylvia Stead, is remarkable in its lack of intellectual rigor.


THE SEQUENCE of articles:

1.    (NOTE:  it appears that this article by Carol Wainio started the  furor.  It didn’t.  Wainio has been documenting plagiarism by  Wente for a year-and-a-half.  See the archives  at the side of her blog.)

Tuesday, September 18, 2012,   Margaret Wente: ‘a zero for plagiarism’?

Here’s Margaret Wente on slipping standards, lazy  students and overpaid teachers: “When I was a kid…if you were caught plagiarizing, you got a zero”.

So after what’s been dubbed American journalism’s “summer of sin”, maybe it’s time to ask: Should Ms. Wente herself – one of Canada’s best known columnists – ‘get a zero for plagiarism’? . . . (see the full article)

2.     Sept 21, Why So  Silent? What the Margaret Wente Accusations Say About Canadian Media

I think it is this posting that gave legs to Wainio’s documentation of plagiarism by Wente.

It was written before the G&M made any reply to well-documented and lengthy record of the charges of plagiarism against Wente.   IF the G&M thought the issue would just go away, they were wrong this time.  The story went viral.

Carol Wainio did the documentation.  But it took the involvement of others to give it legs.  (Go to the above URL).


3.     Friday, Sep. 21,  The G&M’s Public editor, Sylvia Stead, replies to the charges of plagiarism against columnist Margaret Wente:  We investigate all complaints against our writers

The comments on Stead’s article are worth a read:

Stead’s arguments get ripped apart, legitimately I’d say.


4.    Monday Sept 24,  The story of Wente’s plagiarism is picked up internationally by The Guardian (UK).  Canadian columnist accused of plagiarism


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At this point, I phoned the G&M switchboard (416 585  5000) and asked for the office of the CEO (I should have asked for the Publisher).  Was put straight through.  The woman who answered the phone was ruffled (not by me, but I would say by the onslaught of criticism).  I said that the CEO should know what’s going on.   “Yes, he knows” and “it is under investigation”.   I said that the arguments in Sylvia Stead’s (the G&M’s) defence of Wente do not stand up to any kind of scrutiny.

I hope we maintain the pressure on Canadian media to shape up.  If they don’t, we simply stop buying their products and move in waves to our own on-line and independent sources.  (More on that in the next posting.)


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5.   Columnist Margaret Wente defends herself

By Margaret Wente, Sept 25

Three years ago, I wrote a column about the controversy surrounding the introduction of genetically modified foods into Africa. It focused on the work of Robert Paarlberg, a U.S. academic who had written a book called Starved for Science. GM foods are a hot topic, and the column drew a lot of heat.

But now it – and I – are the subject of a bigger controversy. A blogger has accused me of substantively plagiarizing the column, and much else. The allegations have exploded in the Twitterverse and prompted harsh commentary from other writers, some of whom are characterizing me as a serial plagiarist. The Globe and Mail’s Public Editor responded to these allegations last week, but now it’s time for me to respond directly.

I’m far from perfect. I make mistakes. But I’m not a serial plagiarist. What I often am is a target for people who don’t like what I write.

There are three allegations against me. One is that I stole the idea and the substance of the column from Dan Gardner, who writes for the Ottawa Citizen and other papers. The second is that the piece was a cut-and-paste job that lacked proper attribution and passed off others’ ideas as my own. The third is that I am a serial offender whose work is riddled with errors, and worse.

Let me take these in order.

It’s true that Mr. Gardner wrote a column in 2008 about Prof. Paarlberg and his book. I now realize I read that column before I wrote my own on the subject more than a year later. Did I get the idea from Mr. Gardner? I don’t think so. And Prof. Paarlberg isn’t terribly obscure; his name tends to crop up along with those of other experts who are critical of Western aid efforts. He’s also a well-known critic of those trying to block the development of GM foods. I have a strong interest in both subjects, so his name and work were bound to catch my eye.

I read Prof. Paarlberg’s book, as well as other material by and about him. I concluded, as did Mr. Gardner, that his arguments are important. Columnists often write about the same subjects and often reach similar conclusions. That isn’t plagiarism. But there is a sentence from Mr. Gardner’s column that also appears in my column. The only explanation is that I put it in my notes, then put it in my column. That was extremely careless and, for that, I apologize.

My column summarized Prof. Paarlberg’s main arguments and gave readers enough general background to understand the issue. This material was drawn from his book, as well as from his other writings and some of his public remarks. Some of the other allegations turn on the fact that I didn’t name the exact source of every quote I used, that I used some of Prof. Paarlberg’s explanatory material without attributing enough of it to him, and that I moved in and out of quoted material too freely.

There was no intent to deceive. My column was rooted in his work research and observations, and I never pretended otherwise. My aim was to be conversational and readable, and to present the gist of his work – not to pass off other people’s words or ideas as my own. Journalistic practice around quotations and attribution has become far more cautious in the past few years, and mine has, too. If I were writing that column again today, I would quote and attribute more carefully.

Journalists know they’re under the microscope. If you appropriate other people’s work, you’re going to get nailed. Even so, sometimes we slip up. That isn’t an excuse. It’s just the way it is.

As for errors in my other work, I’ve made my share and then some. I hope that most of them haven’t been too serious.

And now, some necessary background. The current firestorm started with a blogger named Carol Wainio, a professor at the University of Ottawa and a self-styled media watchdog. She has been publicly complaining about my work for years. Her website, Media Culpa, is an obsessive list of accusations involving alleged plagiarism, factual errors, attribution lapses and much else. She has more than once accused me of stealing the work of other writers with whom I happen to share an opinion.

Globe editors have spent countless hours reviewing every complaint from her, and have been quick to correct the record when warranted. The Globe has also published a letter from her that was critical of my work. Her latest allegations, over a column that is three years old, were retweeted by a number of people who didn’t bother to think twice – or ask for a response – before helping her to smear my reputation.

I haven’t always lived up to my own standards. I’m sorry for my journalistic lapses, and I think that, when I deserve the heat, I should take it and accept the consequences. But I’m also sorry we live in an age where attacks on people’s character and reputation seem to have become the norm. Most of all, I regret the trouble I’ve created for my Globe colleagues by giving any opening at all to my many critics. In an ideal world, there wouldn’t be any openings. In the real world, there are.

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6.  Readers of Wente’s defence responded:

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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

At bloggerheads: Margaret Wente

Last week,  I asked a little question: looking at a particular column, I asked whether Margaret Wente should be subject to the same penalties she recommends for students who commit plagiarism.  It generated a lot of  interest.

Readers might have expected a full explanation from Ms. Wente for a column Editor John Stackhouse has said “did not meet the standards of The Globe and Mail”. But I was saddened to read this:

The current firestorm started with a blogger named Carol Wainio, a professor at the University of Ottawa and a self-styled media watchdog. She has been publicly complaining about my work for years. Her website, Media Culpa, is an obsessive list of accusations involving alleged plagiarism, factual errors, attribution lapses and much else. She has more than once accused me of stealing the work of other writers with whom I happen to share an opinion.

Globe editors have spent countless hours reviewing every complaint from her, and have been quick to correct the record when warranted. The Globe has also published a letter from her that was critical of my work. Her latest allegations, over a column that is three years old, were retweeted by a number of people who didn’t bother to think twice – or ask for a response – before helping her to smear my reputation.

Did I “accuse” Wente of “stealing”?  No.  I laid texts side by side, provided links, attached dates, and noted many instances where words were identical, near identical, lacked quotation marks, and asked: would this be plagiarism if a student handed it in?  Wente doesn’t fully acknowledge the fact that this will be the 6th or 7th ‘correction’ I’ve identified (depending how you count) in just over a year. Contrary to what she says suggests, I never used the term “serial plagiarist”.  But if it were hockey, 3, 5 or 7 would count as a “series” and win you the title.

Nor are they trivial.

In the past I showed that material used without attribution by Wente to create a character she presented as “the face of the Occupy movement” originated on an unrelated website and that “John” the Occupier actually had nothing to do with the protests. In my bloggingly humble opinion, the only difference between this and the fabulism of Jonah Lehrer is that Lehrer took the trouble to write the material himself, while Ms. Wente’s profile and some quotes (like another recent example) had already appeared on someone’s blog.  Yes, a blog. Given that, Ms. Wente might be inclined to give bloggers a little credit, literally and figuratively.

What is most saddening about Ms. Wente’s response though, is that rather than acknowledge the articles in major outlets like MacLean’s, The National Post , and J Source – all of which take her to task for plagiarism in much harsher terms than I – Ms. Wente uses the large readership offered her to direct the attack not at colleagues of her own size and weight, but at the smaller people – the readers. Because that’s all I am.  A reader – who reluctantly set up a blog to record issues newspapers had neglected to set right.

I believe that record speaks for itself.

For me, regular column space on the Opinion Pages of a publication like The Globe and Mail is a privilege – a blank space given to someone to inquire about, and think through, big issues.  It should set standards we expect students and kids to follow.  And it carries responsibilities.

I’m glad that the Globe and Mail has acknowledged its mistakes in this instance and that its Public Editor will now report to the Publisher.

Addendum – List of previous Margaret Wente corrections

May 13, 2011, print edition:

A quotation about the abundance of red snapper in the gulf of Mexico, in a column of April 26, should have been attributed to Michael Carron, chief scientist of the Northern Gulf Institute.

June 3, 2011, print edition:

The words “Americans…are fighting and dying, while the Afghans by and large stand by and do nothing to help them” in the Focus section of March 12 should have been attributed to Dexter Filkins in the New York Times.

2 separate items in one column November 5, 2011:

Editor’s note: Clarifications: John, who’s pursuing a degree in environmental law, is not part of the Occupy movement.

The following sentence is a paraphrase, not a direct quote: They are what the social critic Christopher Lasch called the “new class” of “therapeutic cops in the new bureaucracy.”

December 29, 2011:

An Editor’s Note was added to the online column to address an attribution error in relation to this claim: “Today, Christianity claims 2.18 billion believers – a third of the world’s population. By 2050, Christians will outnumber Muslims 3 to 1.  These and other fascinating facts come from a comprehensive new report on global Christianity from the Pew Research Center.”

The article has been pulled, so I’d have to consult the archives to find the correction.

“Untitled” note appended to column, July 28, 2012:

The Episcopalian Church in the United States is equivalent to the Anglican Church of Canada and not the United Church. Mormons are strongly encouraged, but not required to do mission work. An earlier online version of this story, and Saturday’s original newspaper version, were not clear.

Letter to the Editor, September 1, 2011:

Political Leaders Are So Often Fooled By The Mirage Of Green Jobs (Aug. 25): Using one California example, Costco, Margaret Wente claims Dalton McGuinty’s proposed electric car chargers will be a waste of money. Costco’s “legacy”chargers can’t be used for new electric cars. Costco outlets would need major upgrades to power the Leaf, Vol or Prius. Costco couldn’t even use a government upgrade grant, because, as reports, only “half of the company’ ‘legacy chargers’ are inductive and eligible for the state replacement program.”

Similar to Mr. McGuinty’s proposal, though, are the thousands of new chargers being installed at McDonald’s, IKEA, Best Buy, Google, General Electric, Holiday Inn, St-Hubert, Metro, and Rona, to name just a few, all the kind of chargers that drivers could actually use with new cars.

But compared with other instances documented on this blog (browse the archive), the ‘selective’ nature of these corrections raises the question of why others – which seem more serious – were not similarly addressed.  With all due respect, I think that question stands.

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8. Terence Corcoran: A punch line without a joke :

Saturday, September 29, 2012

In a “letter” in The National Post, Mr. Corcoran providedsome selected excerpts he believes prove  I have “accused” Margaret Wente of “sexism”.  This is silly.  In fact I sometimes agree with her on gender issues, were it not for the arrogance with which the views are delivered.

Of course things taken out of context can be made to do almost anything.   Corcoran’s examples omit essential context, such as hyperlinks and the errors the comments were intended to address.   I’ll take them here (in reverse order):

3) In example 3, Corcoran highlights what he feels is the smoking feminist gun, quoting this:

“In the meantime, perhaps the Globe could do their part to address the situation by hiring a young male editor for Margaret.

In the columnin question, Ms. Wente had written, “More U.S. men have gone on disability than found work” (adding little to a previous Hanna Rosin feature on ‘The Death of Men’ and the disappearance of traditional male jobs). The point of my post was to show that her figures appeared to be wrong, and should read, as they do in this Fox report:

Fox News:  More Americans went on disability than found jobs over the last three months, according to fresh figures crunched by the Senate Budget Committee.

There is a difference between the ‘number of Americans’ quoted in an official statistic and the ‘number of men’.  Wente’s sentence appears to be a mis-quote or statistical error, as deserving of a correction from the Globe as any mis-spelling.

Mr. Corcoran, in his zeal to find a  feminist under every bed (post), omits  the post’s point – the altered statistic.  He focuses instead on a passing line  in relation to the error, which suggests that if Wente needs an intern to verify a quote, she might hire a male, since her version of the stat may have had the effect of increasing the number of unemployed males.  I also make an observation about whether the ‘Republican war on women’ (widely quoted term – didn’t invent it) has any relation to resentment about disappearing male manufacturing jobs.  This is hardly “accusing” Wente of “sexism”.

2) National Post readers would be unaware of the hyperlink in relation to the word “female” in the sentence “This blogger’s female” that Corcoran highlights (perhaps that was the intent).  Links provide context.  Omitting them changes the meaning by removing its reference.  In this case  “female”  links to a widely discussed Margaret Wente column in which she claims blogging is a uniquely guy thing – that bloggers are male – not an article I found objectionable, but sort of funny in that it was a female “anonymous blogger” involved in the controversy under discussion. Corcoran removes the irony by removing the link to Wente’s previous column.

1) Oh, come on. Does this amount to an “accusation” of “sexism”?  Using Ms. Wente’s description of Stephen Pinker, I asked about a serious omission on her part:

Why are statistics from the same organization (the U.S. Bureau of Justice) “the best there are” when Steven Pinker uses them, but “ridiculous” when used by the American Association of University Women?

That post refers to a problem given more scope here; Ms.Wente’s failure to cite the source of statistics used to disparage a women’s organization.  Here are the relevant ethical guidelines:

“It is dishonest to base an editorial on half –truth”, says the code of conduct of the Ontario Press Council. “The Press Council supports free expression of opinion that purports to be based on statistics but believes that readers have the right to know where the statistics come from.”

Half-truths are indeed dishonest, as are quotes taken out of context.

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9.  Watching the Watchdog: The Globe Put Itself Before  Readers

Sept 28

Tim Knight writes the regular media column Watching the Watchdog for HuffPost Canada.

Here’s what this Wentegate fuss is all about.

Margaret Wente, award-winning three-times-a-week columnist at the Globe and Mail is accused in the blog Media Culpa of serial plagiarism. Seems she’s been exceeding sloppy in attributing sources which is a journalistic sin.

It takes three days for the Globe’s newish public editor, Sylvia Stead (a version of ombudsman), to respond. When she does, her response is far less than clarion:

“… there appears to be some truth to the concerns but not on every count.”

Bloggers, columnists and journalists start picking up the story.

After another three days, the Globe‘s editor-in-chief John Stackhouse intervenes:

“… this work was not in accordance with our code of conduct and is unacceptable.”

His mild solution to the problem is to transfer Stead’s public editorship from the newsroom to the publisher’s office (where it should have been from the beginning) and announce unspecified “disciplinary action” against her.

The next day, Stead admits after what must have been considerable pressure:

“I erred in not being more forthright in saying that the work in this complaint was unacceptable and failed to meet Globe and Mail standards.”

Criticism of Wente, Stead and Stackhouse, most of it in social media, goes international. Nobody thinks the three are handling the crisis professionally, openly or honestly.

CBC Radio’s Q with Jian Ghomeshi announces it’s suspending Wente as one of its media critics.

Jeffrey Dvorkin is Director of the Journalism Program at the University of Toronto. He’s also Executive Director of the Organization of News Ombudsmen, made up of news ombudsmen and readers’ representatives around the world. The organization’s job is to “help the journalism profession achieve and maintain high ethical standards in news reporting.”

Who better to comment on Wentegate?

Dvorkin criticizes “the initial reticence of most media to report this story” and explains his concern to me:

“There is a culture of conformism and tribalism that instinctually wanted to either look away or defend Wente because of her high profile and influence. Many journalists were dismissive of the blogger as a nuisance. This doesn’t auger well for the health of Canadian journalism.”

I think he’s dead right.

My own reaction to all this is to quote myself in my book Storytelling and the Anima Factor:

“It is demanded of (journalists) that we put the people’s interests before either our own or those of the powerful. Our first loyalty is not to any employer. Nor to any union. Or nation. Or cause. Our first and only loyalty is to the people — and the people’s right to know.”

It’s clear to me that all three Globe journalists put their own interests and the interests of their employer before the interests of the people, their readers.

It’s now ten days since the Media Culpablog started its viral spiral.

Like a lot of other journalists who care greatly about free, honest journalism as a vital cornerstone of democracy, I’ve waited patiently for the Globe to take some reasonably adequate action.

Nothing’s happened. At least not in public, where it matters most.

So allow me to seize the public editor’s office for this brief time and make my own ruling:



Wente sinned, of course. She got sloppy.

Cutting and pasting over all those years can do that to a columnist. And she gave a damned silly response to the blogger’s charges of plagiarism. But my reading is that her sin is venial rather than mortal.

I hold no such generous brief for editor-in-chief John Stackhouse or public editor Sylvia Stead.

They committed more serious sins. For the first few days I’m told, they shrugged it all off as if nothing much had happened. Wentegate was no more than an unseemly squabble between a famous columnist and an anonymous blogger over a few lousy quotes.

Not good enough.

With all that evidence of plagiarism detailed in the blog, they should have immediately suspended Wente until such time as her alleged offences could be investigated properly.

Then they committed their mortal sin. They tried to excuse and coverup. Like the Roman Catholic Church with pedophile priests. And Richard Nixon with the Watergate scandal.

In effect, the two joined Dvorkin’s “culture of conformism and tribalism.” They protected their own. And by so doing, they seriously and publicly harmed our free marketplace of ideas — which already has quite enough problems.

The editor-in-chief and public editor of the Globe have the high honour of being the two people most responsible for guarding the newspaper’s journalistic integrity.

It’s soul.

Their job is to ensure that the newspaper’s journalism serves the people. That it’s honest, fair, balanced and unbiased. That the people can trust it. For without the people’s trust, a newspaper is no more than a bunch of advertisements interrupted too often by some stranger’s opinion on the doings of the day.

Stackhouse and Stead haven’t done their job.

By not doing their job — and not doing it publicly, in front of the people they’re supposed to serve — they’ve betrayed a trust.

To preserve their own honour and the honour of the national newspaper they serve, Stackhouse and Stead should offer their resignations.

It’s entirely up to you, of course, whether those resignations are accepted.


(Full disclosure: Wente was on a course I led on TV journalism back when I headed CBC TV journalism training. We’ve since had drinks on one occasion. I’ve met Sylvia Stead a couple of times at journalistic  conferences. No drinks.)

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