What we learned
One of The Globe and Mail's recently disaffected readers writes in his blog about getting a rather snarky email back from editor-in-chief John Stackhouse when he cancelled his subscription. Stackhouse told him: "You seem to prefer the smaller world of the blogosphere. Sad."
Well, it ain't that sad, folks. And it sure ain't so small.
Less than a week after the paper got embroiled in a scandal I playfully dubbed Wentegate, I get an impressive 69,900 hits (and still counting) when I Google "Margaret Wente plagiarism."
Suddenly, more than half of her Wiki page bio, outlining her career highlights, is an account of how blogger Carol Wainio found evidence that she might be a plagiarist.
The uprising of the blogosphere against one of Canadian journalism's most prominent authority figures has been a learning experience for me, and I suspect it has been one for the country's legacy media. (I hope so. If The Globe and Mail hasn't learned from this something beyond public editor Sylvia Stead's lame online mea culpa, I would say it deserves to be doomed to oblivion.)
To paraphrase Stead, what have we really learned from this?
The internet is more powerful than you, Big Media.
This astute column by Christopher Bird at Torontoist sums up why:
"The internet—as the Globe has discovered—really, really hates plagiarism, and really, really hates entitlement. And this response by Wente and The Globe seems as if it will inevitably provoke a response from the internet that is more substantial than silly pictures and catcalls in comments. Wente has a long record as a columnist, and by her and her editors’ responses, the internet has essentially just been invited to start checking all of her work to see if she’s lifted more than just those incidents Wainio already noticed. If politicians don’t want to get in a war of words with someone who buys ink by the barrel, then journalists don’t want to get into a war of fact-checking against an infinite army of fact-checkers with a reason to be sceptical."
Lose the arrogance, have a conversation.
My old colleague at the Toronto Star, Tim Harper, has written the best thing about the relationship between old and new media here. Yes, scrutiny from bloggers threatens the authority of legacy media, but it is also good for journalism. The Globe doesn't seem to get that. It still treats its online readers as those pimply-faced nerdy kids it imagines wasting their lives gaming and spreading havoc on computers in their parents' basements. Just look at the febrile reaction to Stead's What We Need to do Better blog, in which she said "Our readers are very smart and hold us to account." A reader replied: "If you had any respect for your readers, you would not be writing this self-justifying drivel now."
"Legs" are much longer on the internet.
Journalists say some stories have "legs," meaning the ramifications and reactions of the event demand several more days of follow-up reporting. We've all seen stories like that. These days they include Canada's decision to twin some of its foreign embassies with those of Great Britain, and the reaction to Harper naming anti-choice advocate Rona Ambrose to be federal minister in charge of the status of women.
In the mainstream media, the Margaret Wente story does not have "legs." In fact, it took several days after it broke on social media for it to have any life at all. The Toronto Star made it a one-day wonder, and since then Wentegate has disappeared or been reduced to mere fluff in the printed world of commercial media. A good example is this feature in Toronto Life. Wente is rated only a 3 on the magazine's 10-point scale of misbehaving journalists, and the article inaccurately shrugs off what she was accused of: "We would have liked to see more contrition and fewer excuses from Wente, but it doesn’t seem that she deliberately set out to steal material."
In the online world, this story is really still beginning. Let's just say Sylvia Stead is going to be kept very busy in the coming days.
Civility is possible online, and enormously powerful.
We've all experienced (me more than many) the toxic language of discourse on the internet. Writers are emboldened by the anonymity and speed of communication, and often lapse into ad hominum invective. American writer Nicholas Carr says in his popular blog Rough Type: "For the news junkie, the net is a crack house that dispenses its wares for free. But if you look beyond the elite, you see a citizenry starved of hard, objective reporting. For the typical person, the net’s disruptions have meant not a widening of options but a narrowing of them.”
A week ago I would have agreed. Now I'm not so sure. Wentegate has shown us is that you can disagree with someone politically or ideologically, but still find common cause around moral issues of right and wrong. Suddenly, I find myself linking to writers like Chris Selley of National Post and Colby Cosh of Maclean's. Though I would never agree with them politically or ideologically, I found their take on Margaret Wente's misdeeds instructive, courageous and astute.
Instead of narrowing discourse, the Wentegate affair has largely been driven by an online dialogue that has been uncharacteristically factual, restrained and multi-dimensional. Debate has delved into wider areas like the meaning of plagiarism, the role of public editors, the accountability of legacy media, and the responsibilities of authority.
That dialogue began, let's remember, with Carol Wainio. Reading her blog, you are impressed by the depth of her research and the side-by-side evidence she has compiled, and the way she presents it for people "more knowledgeable than me" to interpret.
I got a message the other day that I like a lot. It came from someone writing under the nom de blog of Bebe Rebozo (like me, with an encyclopedic knowledge of Tricky Dick Nixon's pals). The email praised Wainio's "tireless archival spelunking."
That's it. Don't you love that phrase?
If we're going to get wiser as a society, we need to realize it's a partnership. We need lots of climbers scrambling down caves on their own, and we need someone we trust to aggregate what they find and explain why it's significant.
We just don't know who that someone is yet.