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Big Loser in Wente Plagiarism? Globe's Reputation

Columnist's cut-and-paste journalism draws lame response from management.

By Paul Willcocks 26 Apr 2016 |

Paul Willcocks is a journalist and former publishers of newspapers.

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Newspapers are big on demanding accountability from other institutions, but apparently not when they're under the microscope.

What's with the Globe and Mail and Margaret Wente?

The columnist has been busted, again, for plagiarism. The paper's response, again, has been wholly inadequate.

The first scandal, in 2012, damaged the Globe's credibility, largely because of the way it mishandled the affair.

Wente's journalism malpractice wasn't discovered by the newspaper's editors. Carol Wainio, a university professor, had written repeatedly about problems with Wente's work on her blog. She ultimately sent the information to the newspaper.

And the initial response from Sylvia Stead, the Globe's public editor and supposed readers' advocate, was dismissive and arrogant. Wainio was "an anonymous blogger," Stead wrote in the newspaper. Stead said she talked to Wente, and while there were some problems, it was no big deal. Case closed.

Only when outside pressure mounted -- mainly from other journalists -- did Stead acknowledge she failed to do a proper investigation or review of the allegations and that Wente would be disciplined (though the paper never said how).

Even then, Wente was allowed to write a self-serving column that attacked Wainio and minimized her own ethical lapses, including a denial that she was "a serial plagiarist." (There's a good review of the affair here.)

Wainio took a break from reading Wente's columns after the affair. Until she happened to read one published Saturday.

And once again, she discovered Wente was lifting other writers' ideas and words without attribution -- plagiarizing.

The column argued that factory farming, chemicals and GMO crops are bringing a new "global greening," and those who question these developments are self-centered "green elites." (Wente's basic schtick is mildly contrarian right-wing complaining about how wrong/lazy/misguided other people are.)

Wente opened her column with an anecdote about the return of black bears to her country retreat north of Toronto, citing it as a sign of environmental diversity brought about by new farming methods.

She opens her fourth paragraph with a catchy sentence: "Agriculture has always been the greatest destroyer of nature."

And in the eighth paragraph, she mentions American academic Jesse Ausebel's article on the topic on a U.S. website.

His article starts with an anecdote about the return of bears, though to a New Jersey rural community. His fourth paragraph begins "Agriculture has always been the greatest destroyer of nature."

It was certainly lazy work to copy Ausebel's structure, and plagiarism to steal his line. Wente also copied other paragraphs -- and introduced inaccuracies -- without attribution.

That wasn't the only shoddy work. Wainio noted that in her penultimate paragraph, Wente wrote about CRISPR. "And now we have a new game-changer, in the form of a revolutionary gene-editing tool called CRISPR. This tool (whose name is short for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) offers a new level of speed, precision and versatility, and opens the door to vast new food production improvements."

And, as Wainio observed, that was remarkably similar to a paragraph in an article by Maywa Montenegro, a University of California researcher.

"Very few technologies truly merit the epithet 'game changer' -- but a new genetic engineering tool known as CRISPR-Cas9 is one of them," she wrote. "With CRISPR (the technology's shorthand name), precision and speed have soared... CRISPR opens the door to all kinds of potential food production improvements."

There are two journalistic problems here. Wente used Montenegro's words and ideas without any attribution. And she added nothing to show she actually understood them. It was cut-and-paste journalism, and plagiarism.

I think it would have got you fired -- especially as a repeat offender -- at any of the four newspapers I led.

But the Globe didn't think it was that serious.

Stead wrote a column with the headline "Prose must be attributed," as if this was about literary style, rather than ripping off the work of others. It acknowledged the failures (including a similar case in another column last month).

And Stead quoted editor in chief David Walmsley, who said, "This work fell short of our standards, something that we apologize for.... The Opinion team will be working with Peggy to ensure this cannot happen again." (Part of the problem is revealed by the palsy "Peggy." If I'm the boss making a public statement about an employee who has damaged the newspaper, I'd be talking about Ms. Wente.)

Four notable points

Four things are notable. The column never used the word plagiarism. It didn't include the information that Wente had done this before. Walmsley offered no specifics about how the "Opinion team" would be working with Wente to prevent more plagiarism.

And the Globe -- once again -- made no commitment to review Wente's work to look for other examples of plagiarism. That's become a standard response in these kinds of cases.

Instead, others are examining her past columns and apparently finding more problems. The Globe's failure to act decisively opens the door to a string of revelations.

It's a baffling failure by the newspaper, so vigilant in holding others to account and so lame in addressing its own serious problem.

Maybe Wente is too popular with readers to fire or discipline. Maybe "Peggy" is part of the club.

Or perhaps Margaret Sullivan, the New York Times public editor, offered a clue in a farewell column this month.

Sullivan listed five things she won't miss about the job. They included New York Times exceptionalism, "The idea that whatever The Times does is, by definition, the right thing," and a defensiveness that makes it near impossible for editors to admit they have done something wrong.

Wente hasn't offered an explanation for her plagiarism. She "deeply regrets these mistakes," Stead's column concluded.

But a mistake is when you spell someone's name wrong, not when you copy other people's work and pretend it's your own.

I did a stint covering the legislature for the Globe (and it was, I admit, kind of a kick to see my byline in the paper).

I'm confident I'd have been fired if I got caught doing shoddy and unethical work like Wente. I hope I'd have been fired if I did it twice.

Newspapers are big on demanding accountability and transparency from other institutions. The Globe and Mail is doing a dismal job of meeting that test when it comes to its own performance.  [Tyee]

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