Among the crimes of plagiarists, Globe columnist Margaret Wente considers hers minor infractions worthy of a traffic ticket, while others are akin to deadly offences. That's the gist of what she told a University of Saskatchewan education professor who wrote to her on behalf of his students.
Wente's numerous unattributed borrowings had been outed by blogger Carol Wainio 11 days earlier and was an international news story when Paul Orlowski sent Wente this cheeky email on Sept. 29:
Subject: a quick question
We are all aware that you have very little respect for tenured or tenure-track professors, but that said, it would be fantastic for you to comment on an issue that recently arose in a class discussion.
We are currently exploring "corporate media as a hegemonic device" in our course, but the recent brouhaha led the students to veer off from this very important topic onto a related one. This is where the students asked for your input.
One of the students asked:
"Given the plagiarism issue that you are currently dealing with, do you regret writing your recent column that stated something to the effect that any student caught plagiarizing should be given a zero?"
By then Globe editor in chief John Stackhouse had given Wente a secret punishment for methods he said failed the newspaper's code of conduct, explaining the column central to the brouhaha was "unacceptable" and "did not meet the standards of The Globe and Mail in terms of sourcing, use of quotation marks and reasonable credit for the work of others." Wente had been dumped from the media panel of CBC radio program Q. And she had issued a mild, defensive apology.
But Wente's Sept. 30 response to Orlowski's email downplayed the seriousness of her transgressions and seemed to scold the professor and his students:
Plagiarism is a toxic word that is loosely thrown around to describe a wide range of lapses. However, running a red light is not the same offence as speeding down the highway in the wrong direction and wiping out a car full of children. Time to give your students a lesson in critical thinking.
Margaret Wente Columnist The Globe and Mail
Orlowski emailed back the same day:
Dear Ms. Wente,
Thank you for your response. I completely agree with your point. I will pass it along to the students.
As an aside, we go much further than mere "critical thinking." The course includes critical media literacy, which attempts to locate power in representation -- the ideology of the journalist, who benefits from the perspective, which groups are put at a disadvantage, those sorts of things.
It is a much easier task to do this with some journalists than with others, of course.
Take care, Paul Orlowski (Saskatoon, SK)
After a two week hiatus, Wente resumed publishing in the Globe on Oct. 11, saying: "I've been writing this column for nearly 13 years. From time to time I've made careless mistakes, including some that have come under harsh criticism recently. These lapses are no one's fault but my own, and I apologize for them. I've let down my editors, the Globe and Mail and, especially, my readers."
After critical comments from readers quickly piled up under that column, the Globe turned off the comment thread function.
In the midst of the controversy, a Toronto Life online column asked "Where does Margaret Wente fall on the continuum of misbehaving journalists?" and created a one-to-10 scale. A 10 went to the worst, fired New Republic plagiarist Stephen Glass. Wente merited a three on the scale.
But Maclean's columnist Colby Cosh blasted Wente for first convincing the Globe's public editor of a "cock and bull story" minimizing the actual extent of her plagiarism.
David Beers is editor in chief of The Tyee.