Recently a famous ethicist named Margaret Somerville, whom I will not link to because of the ongoing plagiarism link boycott, said that criticizing Wente’s plagiarism because we don’t like her politics is inappropriate. That, said the ethicist, would be “using ethics unethically.” We certainly wouldn’t want to do that, would we?
Instead, in the best spirit of Media Culpa, who really got the ball rolling on this, I’ve decided to up the ante by showing, in stark terms, why this was not just a single isolated error from a few years ago. And why, at least in my case, Somerville is right: I don’t like Wente’s work very much. But it’s still plagiarism. I would say the same thing about a columnist I did like. If there was one.
My text for this little case study is one of Wente’s last columns before the plagiarism scandal broke, called “Plastic Women, Cardboard Men” (September 15, 2012). Wente’s thesis is that because women are both continuing to do housework and doing much more paid work these days, whereas men are still lazy at home but are also having trouble finding good jobs, “the patriarchy is dead” and we are witnessing the birth of matriarchy. Because plastic women are flexible, and cardboard men just fold up. Get it?
Now, there are any number of reasons to think that this argument is pure and utter hogwash. One colleague recently told me that reading Wente makes his blood boil, so he usually doesn’t. My approach is somewhat different: reading Wente makes my blood boil, so I usually do. (Like how I inserted a personal touch there? It’s a big-time professional journalist gimmick that I’ve learned from Wente, who is its great all-time master.) But today we’re not going to focus on Wente’s apparent inability to think logically (after all, she herself has stated that “logic humilitated me”). We’re going to search for errors arising from sloppy attribution.
I should say, I’m not the first person to till this particular field. No less than Media Culpa herself did a quick once-over a couple weeks ago, and found — no surprise — that Wente appears to have lifted an American disability statistic from Fox News without attribution, and, for good measure, bobbled it a little bit to support her argument. Whether that’s true or not I don’t know, but I think some other things are worth paying attention to.
As usual, Wente opens with a couple of cutesy personal anecdotes about her and her rich friends — in this case, the husband is unemployed and the son just dropped out of school, whereas the wife is going like gangbusters in the new matriarchy as a — wait for it — “personal care assistant.” Yes, women, you’ve hit the big time now. Back in the old days of the patriarchy, we men hogged all the pink-collar jobs for ourselves. Now, you own them. You go, girl.
The next part of her schtick is to introduce the Controversial But Correct Expert — in this case Hanna Rosin, author of a thought-provoking book called The End of Men. Usually Wente gets in trouble with Media Culpa because it becomes hard to tell where Wente’s words leave off and the Controversial Expert’s begin. That happens here too, including in the following passage, where Wente actually lifts words from two writers, one of them quoting the other:
Wente: Of the 30 professions projected to add the most jobs over the next decade, women dominate 20. Many of these jobs (home care, child care, food preparation) replace things women used to do at home for free.
Rosin, The End of Men: Of the thirty professions projected to add the most jobs over the next decade, women dominate twenty, including nursing, accounting, home health assistance, child care, and food preparation… Many of the new jobs in the working class, says Heather Boushey of the Center for American Progress, “replace the things that women used to do in the home for free.”
A couple more paragraphs follow in which Wente doesn’t plagiarize, by any means, but also provides no original content of her own beyond paraphrases and quotations of Rosin. That must be why so many people say Wente is so original and influential: her ability to summarize is second to none.
In addition to the stat problem noted by Media Culpa, Wente appears to have lifted another one completely without attribution, this one nearly verbatim, from a news report in the New York Times:
Wente: The ratio of men who work has plummeted to a record low. Today, just 69.8 per cent of all U.S. men are working or looking for work, compared with a long-term average of 78.3 per cent since 1948. The aging population is only a minor factor. Work is in decline even among men of prime working age, 25 to 54.
New York Times (September 7): The share of men participating in the labour force — that is, working or looking for work — was at an all time low. Just 69.8 percent of all men over age 16 were in the labor force in August, compared to a long-term average of 78.3 percent since the Labor Department began tracking these data in 1948… Some of this could be attributed to the fact that the country has been aging, so more people are of retirement age. But the participation rate has also fallen dramatically for men of prime working age, 25-54.
A further statistic cited shortly thereafter appears to be Wente simply reading off the data from the chart given in the Times report, again without attribution.
The next paragraph leads Wente into her quotation from Fox News, already caught by Media Culpa. Then she closes with the following definition of matriarchy, which isn’t plagiarized in any way I’m aware of, but which is, I’m sure you’ll agree, a “death of patriarchy” that most men would probably be prepared to live with:
A village in the hills of Thailand… The women did all the work — the child rearing, the farming, the cooking, the wood and water gathering, the long trek to town to sell their vegetables. The men sat around discussing politics and smoking opium. They didn’t seem terribly miserable; I guess they’d gotten used to it.
Sweet Jesus: it’s the famous feminists of rural Thailand! Yes, women, your day has come. You’re the bosses now! Have a good day at work, make sure to cook our favourite meals when you get home, and don’t forget to pick up the kids from daycare. We’ll be in the backyard with our friends, getting high and shooting the breeze.
Interestingly, it seems as though matriarchy is pretty much the same as patriarchy in Wente’s world, except that men have even less to do now than we did before.Tweet