No Good News – Wentegate

I‘m madder than Stephen Harper at a National Gallery screening of an Abbas Kiarostami film that I haven’t been approached for comment yet about “Wentegate”.

So much hard work! Years of hard work! I read all of Margaret Wente, and nothing. Let me tell you, when millions of readers can’t get you on the press junket, you may as well have a “Mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” moment. And this is mine.

On September 18th, Carol Wainio’s Media Culpa blog called Wente out for plagiarism. Seems Wente more or less copied Dan Gardner and Steve Clapp and Newsweek word for word in her thoughtfully titled column,  Enviro-romanticism is hurting Africa. Here’s an example from Media Culpa of Wente’s stream-of-tracing-paper writing method:

Clapp:  “These criticisms are fair in Europe and North America,” but devastating to Africa and other impoverished regions, he added.

Wente:  “These criticisms are fair in Europe and North America, but they are devastating to Africa and other impoverished nations,” he writes.

The Globe, of course, acted immediately:

The journalism in this instance 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. Even in the spirit of column writing, which allows for some latitude in attribution and expression, this work was not in accordance with our code of conduct and is unacceptable.

Unacceptable, indeed. So what has the Globe and Mail done about it?

I spoke with the writer Sunday evening, and again Monday, about these matters and others that were brought into question, and have taken appropriate action. As in all disciplinary cases at The Globe, the details remain a private matter between employer and employee. I will continue to defend her right to free expression.

The appropriate action is to do nothing? Defend her right to free expression? Plagiarism is free expression? What, did she remix the previous articles? She’s the Globe’s own Prince Paul? Makes sense. Sure. Or, we can consider the disappointing, lazy truth about Globe editor-in-chief John Stackhouse. He plans to do nothing. And he’s going to call that defending her right to free expression. He weighed the facts and allegations, and he took appropriate action. He gave her the Michael Bryant treatment. She OJ’d the allegations of plagiarism.

Not only that, but Wente then writes her very own If I Did It:

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.

Don’t like what you write? Oh, I’m sorry, obviously the opinion pages of the Globe and Mail are a fucking creative writing workshop. And because Wente knew the Dan Gardner column, she went ahead and followed the maxim “write what you know”, which was Gardner’s column in its entirety.

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.

Is she kidding or is she mental? She doesn’t think she got the idea from Gardner? Well, case closed! We have all this evidence, but you don’t know.

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.

Yeah, and the Committee for the Re-Election of the President were careless to leave those Sony TC-800B open-reel tape recorders lying around the Watergate complex.

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.

Sorry, Margaret, but when you say “That isn’t an excuse, that’s just the way it is”, then it means that it is an excuse. The kind of excuse an alcoholic dad makes when he missed the birthday party because he was at the saloon. It’s just the way it is! Didn’t make it to your birthday! Drove here full of hooch! That’s just the way it is.

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.

Does Wente know that “share an opinion” isn’t a synonym for “use the exact same words”? I doubt it, because – let me assure you- Wente knows little. I can think of few instances where someone who has so little to add to a conversation is given a forum in which to add, ad nauseum.

The truly intolerable part: she’s paid to say things like “in my days we didn’t need Slut Walk because we weren’t sluts” or “Universities don’t need humanities departments, because I have already learned all of that” or “what’s good for the environment is bad for Africa in a thousand words that are not my own.” PAID! SHE IS PAID MONEY! To literally spew garbage like a deranged robot made of her victims and detritus left behind by people who have made an honest effort to contribute something or make a difference. She is literally an opinion vampire, feeding only on rancid negation.

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.

Well, that’s that, right? She did it, and she doesn’t care because people disagree with her opinion, it doesn’t matter, and it’s time for comment. Jian Ghomeshi broke his “legendary silence” on the topic right away, kicking Wente off of Q’s media panel. That must have stung: his whip-smart tongue and quickness to respond has taken many a pundit down a peg.

One would only imagine that pants at the Post started to tent immediately. I, for one, was disappointed by Chris Selley’s “remarkably inadequate response”. I had hoped the Globe’s rival paper, as it were, the other “paper for smart people that gets skipped for whatever’s on the HuffPo blog”, would have more bile. More venom. A finger wag. Instead, teen editorializer Dan Delmar asks: aren’t we all plagiarists?

Instead of using Wente as a sacrificial lamb to the journalism gods in hopes of ridding media of plagiarism, perhaps a more constructive approach to the problem is needed. The reality is, this unintentional form of plagiarism is exceedingly common, particularly in broadcast media.

Is Delmar pointing the finger elsewhere on someone else’s behalf? All I can think is that columnists across Canada are sweating like Meatloaf sitting across the table from Gary Busey during a conflict resolution workshop at an anger management retreat, sure that they’re going to be the next to get caught using each other’s words like so many vultures pick apart carrion.

This scenario is more common that you would think. For every Wente, there are countless others who have not been outed as unintentional plagiarists. This is because few closely evaluate the work of writers. The blogger who blew the whistle on Wente had repeatedly, and perhaps obsessively, critiqued her work. Most journalists don’t have such devoted detractors.

Don’t they? Or is it that no-one has heard of you, Delmar? One of my favourite arguments in this whole thing has been that Wainio is somehow obsessed with Wente. Because trust me, I understand obsession with Wente. I have that market cornered. That’s my schtick. And let me assure you, junior, Wainio isn’t obsessed with Margaret Wente. Maybe you should take a couple of weeks off and learn what words mean. After all, that’s your job.

The obsession with denouncing Wente stems from just that. There seems to be a desire by journalists on Twitter to reiterate that they are above her sins and would never make the same mistakes. What many are too insecure to admit is that we’re all a bad night’s sleep, a momentary bout of laziness and an impending deadline away from being Margaret Wente.

I should point out right now that Delmar’s twitter handle is @delmarhasissues. Apparently one of them is assuming that there’s journalism on Twitter. This happened to me recently: someone assumed that I was a journalist, and that therefore, the content of my Twitter was journalism. What a stupid idiot. Even if I was a journalist, my Twitter would only have tweets. People are morons!

The more diligent among us will take the time to reread and re-edit our own work. But there are days when that is not possible, and if that was the cause of Wente’s mistake, then I can almost sympathize with her. Newspapers are struggling to survive, competition is fierce and writers are being forced to produce more in order to remain gainfully employed and relevant in a social media landscape packed with instapundits. Journalists have become “content providers,” and finding the time to express truly original thought is increasingly challenging.

I’m sorry: “instapundits”? You proved the challenge of expressing truly original thought there, kiddo: you utterly failed at “truly”, “original” and “thought”. Missing thought is tough. You pulled it off. You didn’t think once in that entire paragraph. You pulled a margaret Wente.

But, by far, the most useless opinion on Wentegate has to be Terence Corcoran’s. Check out this opening note:

What has Canadian journalism come to? Judging by Margaret Wente’s experience at The Globe and Mail over the last few days, the business will soon be — if it is not already — held hostage by dreary dictatorial avatars of pretentious rules and political correctness.

Booo! The rules! I hate that stupid rule that you shouldn’t steal another person’s thoughts and words verbatim, too. Slows us down! It’s no fun! How are you supposed to get anything done around here if these fascists won’t let us ctrl-c, ctrl-v your articles together like William S. Burroughs cutups pretending to be professionally-written newspaper columns? After all, readers trust you. Corcoran’s unmanageable cretinisms continue:

Newspapers and journalism in general, once bastions of press freedom, are now under the thumb of throngs of second-rate moralizing “experts” and outsiders who like their press freedom tightly controlled and monitored. There’s nothing wrong with criticizing writers, but there is a problem when outsiders can use artificial structures to suppress and control those writers.

In the interest of analogies, Corcoran basically just said that the government is under the thumb of throngs of second-rate moralizing “experts” and outsiders who like their elected officials tightly controlled and monitored. There’s nothing wrong with criticizing the government, but there is a problem when outsiders can use the constitution to suppress and control the reach of the government.

I will add a fact right now. Nothing happened to Wente. She still has her job. She is free to plagiarize again. By the way: this may be the strangest source of anti-copyright rhetoric I have ever come upon. Corcoran, still disturbed from his Canadian Club-induced slumber, starts “there’s this guy and there’s that guy” conspiracy theorizing like the barstool Che that he is:

What we have in the Wente case is journalism ethics imposed by university academics in a field — journalism — that is a trade rather than an academic discipline, and through public editors that respond to ideological attacks. Ms. Wente, I suspect, now knows something of what it felt like during the Cultural Revolution in China, when ideological enforcers roamed the country to impose their views and expose running-dogs, remove people from their jobs and purge them from the system.

Is that how the Cultural Revolution played out? I feel like we’re missing violent class struggle. Perhaps if Corcoran’s Alberta Premium goggles came off and he remembered which paper he was writing for. He wouldn’t bluster about in a cloud of disintegrating tweed searching for inappropriate historical precedents and call Wente out for writing an article with a Xerox machine and a glue-stick. Meanwhile, every day that I am not approached for comment is another nail in the coffin of Canadian journalistic integrity. I’m waiting for a call, you assholes. I’m the motherfucking expert here.

About Matt Collins

Matt Collins is a musician (Ninja High School), cartoonist (Sexy), jock (Manhunt), and comedian (Matt Collins) in Toronto, Ontario. Please buy more Matt Collins. [Other Posts By Matt]