Blog by John Miller

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Still standing?

The Globe and Mail is arguably Canada's most respected newspaper. But judging by how it is continuing to twist itself into knots over allegations of plagiarism levelled against its most prominent columnist, it may blunder itself into history as an object lesson in how not to polish the proverbial turd.

Moving to try and stanch a tsunami of derision toward his paper on social media sites, editor-in-chief John Stackhouse has admitted the performance of columnist Margaret Wente is "unacceptable," and she will be subject to disciplinary action, which he refused to spell out (Read: A small slap on the wrist).

Unfortunately, international media sources like the Poynter Institute and The Guardian's Roy Greenslade aren't buying it, and neither am I. Greenslade says that Stackhouse's statement to staff "certainly takes the biscuit" when it comes to incredibly bad judgment.

Wente herself issued a mea culpa of sorts in her regular column today, admitting that "I'm far from perfect ...but I'm not a serial plagiarist."

Right, and why wouldn't we just believe every word she writes right now?

It all seems to be good enough for The Globe. That ugly P-word still won't pass anyone's lips there, the paper is undertaking no further investigation of its own, and it's still allowing Wente to write three times a week. No doubt her readers will be left to decide for themselves (a) if she's just an incredibly sloppy klutz, or (b) hey, haven't I read that exact same argument somewhere before?

Typical of The Globe's prickly reaction to criticism of any sort, Stackhouse says he stands solidly behind Wente's right to free expression -- as if that has anything to do with it -- and Wente of course immediately felt she had the freedom to pick up a bat and go after her accuser again:

And now, some necessary background. 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."

Yes, Margaret, and why don't you tell us she's nailed you for it -- to your paper's satisfaction -- four times in the last few months?

Wente's apology reads: "I'm sorry for my journalistic lapses ... But I'm also sorry we live in an age where attacks on people's character and reputation seem to have become the norm."

Oh, right.

Isn't this the same Margaret Wente who has made a career of intellectual cheap shots, pleading for a return to civility?

At least The Globe has taken my advice and resolved the reporting lines of its beleaguered public editor, Sylvia Stead, who I rather unkindly suggested in my last blog should resign. Having her report to the editor-in-chief, as she has for eight months, was a dreadful sign the paper didn't get, you know, this whole Accountability Thing. Now she will report to the publisher. It may allow Stead to feel she can still be effective, but the damage to her credibility caused by trying to sweep plagiarism charges under the rug will surely linger.

Under the circumstances, this doesn't help: A mea culpa from Stead. "
I erred in not being more forthright in saying that the work in this complaint was unacceptable and failed to meet Globe and Mail standards. It was not acceptable. In my haste to respond, my earlier blog post was not well considered. I didn’t have all the information I required to make a proper assessment last week and should have taken more time and probed more. For one thing, Ms. Wente said she did not recall reading a piece by the Ottawa Citizen's Dan Gardner or the other sources before writing the column. She now says she did read Mr. Gardner's article. Had I known that information at the time, I would have been much stronger in pointing out serious problems."

Really, they're not making this stuff up.

It's instructive to compare how The Globe handled Wente to how the Montreal Gazette handled a very similar case last spring. Oh, there was one wee difference: The transgressor there was a lowly freelance soccer columnist, not her royal highness.

Paul Carbray was fired after three columns were found to contain "extended passages (that) were taken from articles and blogs that had been published online by other media outlets."

(ED: Hey, isn't that exactly ...? Never mind.)

According to Craig Silverman of the Poynter, the Gazette published an apology to readers "for this lapse in our professional standards and our integrity." Plagiarism -- or what Stackhouse called problems
"in terms of sourcing, use of quotation marks and reasonable credit for the work of others" -- is an offence against the reader, but The Globe has not moved to issue any apology to its readers.

It may well be that its inept handling of this will only serve to paint a larger target on the back of its franchise columnist. Carol Wainio won't be intimidated. If I were her, I'd intensify my efforts. But now there will be scores of Wainios scrutinizing everything Wente writes. Just stay tuned. The day isn't even over yet and National Post's Chris Selley has already offered two more.

The Globe is also sending a peachy message to anyone who still craves a career in mainstream journalism. Listen up, class: There are these different standards if you're a marquee name, see. The Wentes get a free pass and their paper goes after their accusers. The Carbrays get a pink slip and a hot poker up their ass.

Welcome to Journalism Ethics 101 with the big boys.

The right thing for The Globe to do -- now, before it has to apologize for a fifth time -- is to call in an independent journalist to investigate Wente. That person would have a free hand to examine everything she has written for the paper, sleuth out where she found her facts and phrases, see how far back this goes, and recommend what to do.

If not, something tells me there's a time bomb waiting to go off out there somewhere.