The Wente scandal: a satisfactory resolution?

The Globe is giving us no practical indication whatsoever of how seriously it takes plagiarism

The Globe and Mail has offered a threefold response today to the critics who have been raising a stir about Carol Wainio’s prosecution brief against Margaret Wente for the crime of plagiarism. Wente has written her own apologia; the Globe has made public an internal memo on the issue, written by editor-in-chief John Stackhouse; and Stackhouse has also used the paper’s media reporter, Steve Ladurantaye, as a ventriloquist’s doll for a short news item on the scandal.

Wente’s column does go through the motions of contrition, while leaving the distinct impression that she regards herself more as victim than perpetrator.

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. …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.

Imagine that: a columnist who is a target for people who don’t like what she writes! This may come as a shock to Margaret Wente, but the difference between her and other columnists is not that other columnists don’t have haters. The difference is that other columnists don’t keep handing their haters ethical ammunition by the crateload.

She may find, unhappily, that “I’m not a serial plagiarist” goes down in history as an example of this. Carol Wainio is slightly more free with the word “plagiarism” than most reporters and columnists would be, but Wainio caught Wente in what look like pretty clear, if minor, examples here, here, here (at the end, where Michael Barone’s words appear as her own), here (Joel Kotkin), and here (Steven Pinker). That’s just since late 2011. Having made the fast shuffle from “I’m not a plagiarist” to “I’m not a serial plagiarist,” where might Wente go next? “OK, I am a serial plagiarist, but I’ve never borrowed an entire column?” “I am a serial plagiarist but I bake a damn fine tollhouse cookie?”

Our collective instinct as a trade may have been to give Wente the benefit of the doubt up until now—her occasional difficulties with quotation marks being no secret—but when she says “There was no intent to deceive”, we must recall that last week she told Globe Public Editor Sylvia Stead that she didn’t remember reading the Dan Gardner column she stood accused of borrowing from. Hadn’t seen it, couldn’t pick Gardner out of a lineup, couldn’t see what the fuss was, etc., etc. Stead, as part of a supposed “investigation”, chose to accept this. Today, the party line has undergone a sudden change:

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.

One would think it was awkward for Stead that the cock-and-bull story she believed, and gave the stamp of moral authority to, held up for about 48 hours before collapsing in a wave of well-deserved internet ridicule which required the intervention of Stackhouse. Or the appearance of intervention, anyway. The obvious problems still left are twofold.

1) Stackhouse won’t tell us how he is sanctioning Wente, though he will say what he is not doing, i.e., letting her go. I don’t know that I would fire Wente for plagiarism in his place, though I am near-certain I would fire her for being pathologically unable to tell her own prose apart from quotations scribbled into her notes. (What say we give the real estate to someone who doesn’t have a tin ear and a crappy attitude?) The real point is that the Globe is giving us no practical indication whatsoever of how seriously it takes plagiarism, or of how Stackhouse proposes to prevent this sort of thing from happening again. It is literally all talk.

2) Stackhouse has dealt not at all with Sylvia Stead’s failure to detect obvious plagiarism when someone came up with overwhelming evidence against an old crony. His response, incredibly, was to make Stead fully independent of the person who had to bail out her behind and uphold some standards—namely himself. How is this supposed to solve the problem the Globe created by making a lifer the public editor? Have we got this straight…after that absurd display, he has decided to give her even more power?

Perhaps Stackhouse, by taking Stead out from under him in the chain of command, is offering some kind of tacit admission that he influenced her investigation. I cannot see any other reason to do it, but he is very welcome to give us a fuller explanation.

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