After brazening her way through a plagiarism scandal, Globe & Mail columnist Margaret Wente appears to be back on her exceptionally busy three-times-a-week pace, even though this hectic workstyle was what some fellow journalists blamed for her ethical lapses. I’m sure she wants to put it all behind her. But she will have to earn that right. A first step in that direction would be to avoid having any more of what one overly charitable commentator euphemized as “originality breakdowns.” Another would be to drop the unique, time-limited and pre-moderated comments section the Globe has set up specifically for Wente columns.
Sadly, this weekend’s column, which is a typically Wente-ian attack on government social programs, still raises questions. Wente has done an impressive job of cherry-picking various statistics produced by right-wing think tanks, mishmashing them together and presenting them as highly original thought. That’s what makes her one of the nation’s highest-profile columnists.
Nothing in this article is as egregious as what she’s done on occasion in the past, but still, vigilance is essential. We don’t want to let Wente make any more “careless mistakes,” do we? And unfortunately, this article illustrates what Wente’s defenders assert is a growing trend in the media: besieged by growing labour demands (three columns a week! says Wente, as though the average unpaid blogger didn’t have a simlar workload), columnists are increasingly forced to recycle material, to the point where “plagiarism” becomes a real if unintended possibility.
Like this statistic, for instance, which is not sourced, attributed, or quoted in any way:
Over the past seven years, the city has poured an extra $210-million into programs designed to help Toronto’s “priority” neighbourhoods.
Well, at least there are quotation marks somewhere in there. Here’s one possible source for that figure, from the Toronto Star, and do note that there is a significant difference between “extra” and “estimated”:
In the seven years since Toronto’s deadly summer of the gun, an estimated $210 million has been poured into 13 priority neighbourhoods across the city.
Next up, Wente summarizes a report from the Cato Institute which apparently shows that an immense amount of money goes to social programs in the U.S. (Why is Wente so obsessed with American figures in her articles? Has she forgotten that she’s writing in a Canadian newspaper?) It’s not plagiarized, just paraphrased very closely, and it contains an inexplicable but minor rounding error. Wente says that “the U.S. spends… $20,610 per poor person, or around $61,000 for a family of three”; the Cato Institute says that “government spends $20,610 for every poor person in America — or $61,830 per poor family of three.” Close enough for government work, I suppose.
But those are just figures, Wente points out. To understand the problems and solve them, she says we need “rigorous evidence about what works.” That’s an interesting phrase (again, unquoted and unattributed), because it just so happens to be the mission statement of the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, which Wente does cite in an unrelated context later on in the article.
This leads her into a summary of a Brookings Institution report, which consists of some very close paraphrases, one sentence which apparently has no need of quotation marks because all of two letters have been removed, and a standard Wente-ism: after what is very nearly a copy-and-paste job, Wente introduces an actual quotation with the implication that what has been presented so far are her own clever words. Except that apparently some of them aren’t. Here’s the two passages, and note also that in her haste to borrow words Wente bobbles the definition of one of the programs she is discussing, and also bobbles her closing quote by putting in square-brackets something that was already in the original text:
Wente: These include a $1.2-billion after school program for disadvantaged youth, a $1.5-billion Job Corps program for at-risk high school students, and the legendary Head Start program, which spends $7-billion a year to help disadvantaged younger children. Ten of these programs, including Head Start, have been evaluated using the gold standard benchmark of random control groups. Nine of the evaluations found weak or no positive effects. A Brookings report says, ‘Only one program [Early Head Start, aimed at even younger children] was found to produce meaningful, though modest, positive effects.”
Brookings Institution: Since 1990, there have been 10 instances in which an entire federal social program has been evaluated using the scientific gold standard method of randomly assigning individuals to a program or control group. Nine of these evaluations found weak or no positive effects, for programs such as the $1.5 billion Job Corps program (job training for disadvantaged youth); the $300 million Upward Bound program (academic preparation for at-risk high school students); the $1.2 billion 21st Century Community Learning Centers (after-school programs for disadvantaged youth); and, most recently, the $7 billion Head Start preschool program. Only one program — Early Head Start (a sister program to Head Start, for younger children) — was found to produce meaningful, though modest positive effects.”
Oh, well. At least it’s attributed now, which definitely counts for something.
Wente’s still not done taunting us, though. Later in the article, she refers to “the Montreal Prevention Experiment, which was designed to reduce antisocial behaviour among disruptive boys between the ages of 7 and 9.” Fascinatingly, ChildTrends.org also says “the Montreal Prevention Experiment was designed to reduce antisocial behavior among elementary school boys exhibiting disruptive behaviors.”
The quotation mark is on your keyboard for a reason. It should be used.Tweet