That should sound like a very straightforward and pedestrian proposition, given all I’ve had to say on the subject of Globe & Mail scribbler Margaret Wente’s plagiarizing ways over the last week or so. But apparently not so much.
I know many readers are getting rather bored with my tedious banging-on about this issue, because some of them have told me as much. I hope you’ll bear with me for at least a couple more posts, because it is actually important. The reason is this: we have arrived at a point where, at least in public, professional journalists cannot even agree on whether it just might be wrong to copy someone else’s work, paste it into your own column, present it to your readers as if you wrote it yourself, and then get paid for your “efforts.” It is increasingly difficult to take the Canadian professional media seriously, and the Wente plagiarism affair is a superb example of why. Yes, there are greater crimes being committed by the government every day. But the media is democracy’s second line of defence, after Parliament. Those defences need shoring up.
Now, then. What makes me particularly cranky about the whole squalid affair, aside from the fact that right-wing dunces like Terence Corcoran have seriously argued that plagiarism rules are a left-wing assault on freedom of speech, is that some people have taken away entirely the wrong lesson: that in the Internet age, you can’t get away with plagiarism. You’ll be caught, dragged out into the light, and embarrassed through the cleansing light of social media. That’s the message that was delivered this week by former Globe columnist Jan Wong and former reporter-turned Albertan blogger David Climenhaga, who is skirting with becoming subject to the Sixth Estate plagiarism boycott by saying that Wente’s plagarism was “not… particularly egregious.”
No. The real lesson of the Wente affair is that, as a high-profile journalist, you probably can get away with plagiarism. Media Culpa worked for over a year to expose Wente’s serial misconduct. She identified numerous instances of misconduct ranging from lazy misplacing of quotation marks straight up to all but inventing interviewees out of whole cloth (or at least out of American campaign promotional materials). Media Culpa repeatedly presented this evidence in public, as well as providing it to the Globe & Mail privately. The Globe repeatedly rejected her allegations, to the point of stating at one point that they would not respond to any more material.
Finally, just one of Media Culpa’s various allegations made it to the big time via Twitter: an allegation that in a 2009 column Wente lifted quotes from various sources, including from the work of a fellow journalist, Dan Gardner. The Globe immediately issued a denial stating that such plagiarism on the part of a professional journalist was “highly unlikely.” It subsequently backtracked to the position that Wente had done something inappropriate with respect to that one article, and then allowed Wente to publish a highly inflammatory piece arguing that she was merely being singled out for attack by people who disagreed with her politics, and offering a condescending apology — to her coworkers for opening the paper for attacks from its “critics.”
And it didn’t end there. Some reporters correctly labelled this plagiarism, but others — like Terence Corcoran of the National Post and Jesse Brown of Maclean’s — immediately leaped to her defence, arguing that plagiarism was a left-wing assault on freedom of the press, or a mere “generational” thing (never mind that Wente is more than 60 years old).
Now, it’s probably true that Wente’s reputation has been permanently damaged — at least among the small proportion of her readers who read online blogs. But she has not been fired. She has not been required to express more than a modicum of contrition. Even those who have led the attack against her have rarely pointed out that Media Culpa established a pattern of frequent misconduct, as opposed to just one single sloppy column whipped off too hastily before a deadline. Now, a week has passed and people have moved on from the subject.
And that was the best case scenario. If not for one unexpected and fortuitous Twitter storm, Media Culpa could have continued railing in the dark for months or even years, before simply giving up.
So no, Wong and Climenhaga are simply and utterly wrong. What the Wente saga shows is that you probably can get away with plagiarism, even in the Internet age, at least if you work for an ethically compromised employer like the Globe & Mail.Tweet