Carol Wainio is an artist who has exhibited widely in Canada, including at the National Gallery. She teaches Visual Arts at the University of Ottawa. In her spare time she blogs on matters of journalistic integrity. She specializes in detecting plagiarism.
Sylvia Stead is the newly named public editor of The Globe and Mail. The paper says it created the position earlier this year in "an effort to make the organization more transparent and accountable to its readers and the general public." Sylvia is a Globe insider, having held a number of senior editing positions at the paper since she started her career there in 1975. I know her and believe she cares about journalistic integrity, too.
These people should be allies, but they're not.
Their clash over whether Globe columnist Margaret Wente is guilty of plagiarism has gone viral on the internet in the past few days. In contrast, so-called mainstream media outlets -- to their great shame -- have not yet reported a word of what's going on.
The charges are serious. Plagiarism is journalism's capital offence and the penalty is usually dismissal. Wente is not only the Globe's three-times-a-week featured op ed columnist, she has won two National Newspaper Awards and once served as the paper's managing editor. She is on anyone's list of the country's top journalists.
Incredibly, from my own analysis of the evidence so far, it seems to be the hobbyist blogger, not the journalist of 37 years, who is taking the high and principled road.
Wainio convincingly documents Wente's plagiaristic tendencies on her blog, Media Culpa. She cites passages from one 2009 column, and compares them to nearly identical material in seven other sources, including the New York Times, Foreign Affairs and the Ottawa Citizen. Wainio includes examples of what she calls attribution errors, migrating quotes, using someone else's quoted words as if they were her own, and lifting entire quotations and passages out of other publications as if she'd interviewed the speakers herself. You can read Wainio's critique yourself and judge whether this constitutes plagiarism.
According to the Globe, several journalists and others used Twitter to bring Wainio's blog to Stead's attention. And on Friday, she quietly put the result of her findings up on the Globe's website under the headline "We investigate all complaints about our writers." I'm letting you read it here because nothing appeared in print and there happens to be no direct link to the public editor's column on the Globe's website.
Stead chooses to characterize Wainio as "an anonymous blogger," whereas she describes Wente more favourably as a "high-profile columnist." The one column in question, she notes archly, was written "three years and two months ago." Stead writes: "I investigated the matter, spoke with the columnist, Margaret Wente, and her editor, endeavoured to find all of the original documents and read all but one. (I’ve ordered the last one.) In the end, there appears to be some truth to the concerns but not on every count."
The penalty for all this? Stead treats it as a minor misdemeanor, a bit of temporary carelessness over one single attribution, worthy of only an editor's note in the paper's electronic archives. She doesn't even mention the word plagiarism.
This is a shockingly inadequate response, one that I believe has irreparably compromised the integrity of the Globe and Mail's new public editor, and also tarnished the reputation of the newspaper itself.
For one thing, Stead's "investigation" appears to have been perfunctory. She writes: "The concern was that seven different sources were reproduced. That seems highly unlikely." A proper investigation would have taken each allegation seriously, and investigated how it got into Wente's column. That did not happen.
In fact, Wainio's blog takes issue not with just one column but with several others written by Wente between 2009 and 2012. Stead alludes to that by saying: "We have looked into all of the complaints raised by the anonymous blogger regarding Ms. Wente and other writers at The Globe and Mail and made corrections or clarifications where information was incorrect or unclear."
Wait a minute: This has happened before? Well, um ... yes. What Stead does not mention is that the Globe ran three previous corrections or clarifications, all involving Wente's appropriation of material written by others and not properly attributed. All were raised by the intrepid Carol Wainio on her blog.
In other words, the charge is that Margaret Wente isn't just an oopsie one-off careless plagiarist, she's a serial offender. Alarm bells should have gone off a long time ago. Judging from the public editor's column, the newspaper is going to do very little about it.
This defies belief.
Says Wainio in her blog: "It’s interesting to compare the growing list of attribution questions in Ms. Wente’s writing (three of which have resulted in corrections/Editor’s Notes in the last several months) with other journalists who have apologized or been been fired for plagiarism. Perhaps someone more knowledgeable could explain how they are they different?"
Good question. This is what the website www.plagiarism.org says: "Many people think of plagiarism as copying another's work, or borrowing someone else's original ideas. But terms like 'copying' and 'borrowing' can disguise the seriousness of the offense. According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, to 'plagiarize' means:
- to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own
- to use (another's production) without crediting the source
- to commit literary theft
- to present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source.
"In other words, plagiarism is an act of fraud. It involves both stealing someone else's work and lying about it afterward."
Okay, let's take a short step back from this. You'd think that Canada's national newspaper would have the resources to either sue Carol Wainio for libel (if it felt she was wrong) or if right (which it appears she is) at least find out who she is and credit her helpful work. Stead's description of her as just "an anonymous blogger" seems lazy, adversarial and unkind.
In actual fact, Stead knows perfectly well who Wainio is.
Wainio has weighed in with the facts on her blog: "Ms. Stead was aware of who I was... because all, or almost all, of the issues identified here over the past year and more were sent to The Globe under my name, almost always before they were posted."
She says she received a response from Stead (at the time associate editor) on May 26, 2011, addressed, "Dear Ms. Wainio and Media Culpa." It began: "This is a private letter, not for publication."
I think Wainio is entitled to make part of it public now. She does so on her blog: "Ìn brief, it chided me because I 'hide behind a faceless blog site to very publicly defame Canada's best known columnist Margaret Wente' with 'single-minded zealotry.' It said the attribution problems I'd identified (straightforward side-by-side comparisons) were 'defamatory of Ms. Wente, misguided and wrong.' "
This surely belongs in a Hall of Shame of public editor/ombudsman hypocrisy.
The real problem here may be the way the Globe's public editor position was set up. It is not supposed to be a job for anyone who has drunk the KoolAid. The public editor is an independent representative for the public in the newsroom. Choosing a newsroom veteran and making her report through the editor-in-chief (who after all, is responsible for the content in the first place) is a terrible conflict of interest.
Most news organizations in the U.S. that have public editors or ombudsmen look outside for candidates as a matter of policy, and most report directly to the publisher or president. Papers like the New York Times and Washington Post prefer outsiders because they are not bound by longtime friendships or blinded by the prevailing newsroom culture.
Not surprisingly, Stead's column triggered an outraged response on the public editor's comment forum, where public opinion is running 100 percent against The Globe. I invite you to read them and add to them here.
One reader takes a cynical stab at what actually might have happened during Stead's investigation: "We investigate all allegations against our writers. What that means, in practical terms, in this instance, is this: Confronted with overwhelming, irrefutable and thoroughly documented evidence of repeated plagiarism by Margaret Wente, I asked my old pal Peggy if she'd ever plagiarized anything. "Gosh, no," said Peggy. "Good enough for me," I said. "You're free to continue doing whatever it is we pay you to do."
So why is the mainstream media saying nothing about this? Another good question. Sabrina Maddeaux, who is managing editor of the online Toronto Standard, has a short answer: "We're all scared shitless." She confesses that when she saw the outrage about Wente building on her Twitter feed last week she thought: "Holy f**ck this is going to be big tomorrow."
But it wasn't. Maddeaux speculates that "the days of copyeditors and fact checkers at every publication are long gone," and there's no one there with any time to check anything; horror stories like Margaret Wente are only a Google step away, and everyone knows it's an accident waiting to happen.
So what should the Globe and Mail do now?
The newspaper has itself a big, big problem. The Wente Affair makes the Globe -- and the rest of mainstream journalism -- seem hopelessly out of touch with the internet-savvy hordes who seem to enjoy circling around the decaying corpse of authority these days.
Wente must be carefully investigated. This cannot be done internally now. Here is the mindset Globe publisher Phillip Crawley needs to adopt, according to plagiarism experts. Bring in a respected outsider to subject Wente's writings to a rigorous analysis, and act on the results. There are many candidates I could suggest but the most appropriate might be Jeffrey Dvorkin, a U of T professor who is executive director of the international Organization of News Ombudsmen.
I'm afraid Sylvia Stead needs to resign. I would have to, if I found myself in her position. She has either chosen to ignore convincing evidence of plagiarism, or has been told to. Either way, she has outed herself as a vindictive partisan of her newspaper instead of an impartial reader's representative, and she will have no absolutely credibility left with readers after this.
And Publisher Crawley needs to carefully rethink the position of public editor and decide if he really wants one. If so, it needs to be completely independent of the news operation and the Globe's rather prickly newsroom culture. Under the circumstances, choosing a qualified, independent outsider to fill the vacancy would be a good start.
When Stead was appointed to the job last January, editor-in-chief John Stackhouse said: "The Globe and Mail is among the most respected names in Canadian media, because we've always been held to the highest standards. Credibility is our currency and we want to protect its value."
That currency has taken a fast plunge. One reader addresses it in a comment attached to Stead's column: "As questionable as I find Wente's lapses of journalistic integrity, the greater blame falls to The Globe for being so irresponsible as to give her this space and lending her an air of credibility by virtue of their (former) reputation. I stopped subscribing to the Globe years ago when it became apparent they were abdicating their responsibility to the public as a source of responsible journalism. This gutless editorial downplaying and excusing Wente's abuses has made me lose any remaining respect I had...No accountability = No subscription."
The only hero here is Carol Wainio, and the bloggers who are keeping this issue alive like those here and here. Keep up the pressure, I say. You are right to question The Globe's credibility, and you deserve honest answers.
NOTE: I have sent several follow-up questions to both Carol Wainio and Sylvia Stead. If and when they answer, I will post them here. While my website unfortunately is not set up to allow comments, email me if you like and I will add your thoughts to this conversation. And, of course, you're welcome to add to the outrage building at firstname.lastname@example.org
Both Stead and Wente have been at the Globe for decades and have friends in the highest places there. So where is Stackhouse in all this, I wonder.
Journalistically, the Globe is a shadow of what it used to be. I think Leah McLaren's extremely self-serving column on Saturday, basically marketing her house to the readership, speaks volumes. The comments on-line were fascinating. Freelance or otherwise, had something similar found its way into the Star, Kathy English would have been all over that, too!
I replied: I agree with you. The Star would have handled this much better. They have a much longer tradition with ombudsmen/public editors than anyone else in Canada (Borden Spears was the first). In the meantime, this is shaping up as a David and Goliath clash between old and new media, UFC-style. And so far, it looks like David is all over Goliath.
Professor Amir Attaran is Canada Research Chair in Law, Population Health and Global Development Policy at the University of Ottawa. He sent me a copy of a letter he sent to Globe editor-in-chief Stackhouse:
Which makes it all the more shocking to me that the Globe has entrusted the matter to Sylvia Stead, and appears satisfied that she has done a judicious, thorough, equitable job in hearing from one of the parties (Ms. Wente) while disparaging the other party (an "anonymous blogger"). Ms. Stead personally knows the blogger is named Professor Carol Wainio—there is correspondence between them—so her pretence of anonymity is dishonest and itself not up to journalistic standards.
Further, Ms. Stead appears to overlook the long tradition of trenchant, anonymous authorship. I do not speak of satirical or samizdat journalism only. There are no bylines in The Economist, in print or on their blogs. I guess those scoundrels of St. James, anonymous bloggers all, had best mend their ways according to Ms. Stead.
Appearances are not helped by the fact that the Globe decided to sneak Ms. Stead's correction onto its website on a Friday afternoon. That's the cowardly wheeze of publicists with bad news everywhere.
I believe the credibility of both the Globe and your editorship is now at issue, John. It would be presumptuous and wrong of me to say how this debacle should be solved, but certainly you must exercise leadership, and be seen by the Globe's readers to do so.
Sylvia Stead emailed me in answer to several questions I asked: Dear John. I was off Saturday. Thanks for giving me time to respond before you wrote.
I replied: Hi Sylvia. To be fair, I waited a day before posting (which I'm learning is an eternity on social media), hoping you'd respond. In the meantime I found answers to all my questions to you except one: It's not clear whether you regard this as a case of plagiarism. If not, why not? If you'd like to respond, I will post it.
Stead just replied: Here’s a surprise. I’m off Sunday too. I don’t read my email. So much for responsible journalism.
I replied: Hi Sylvia. To be fair, the timing was not mine. It was yours. You chose to post your findings on a Friday. Given what I know about you, and admire, you cannot have been oblivious to the reaction. Given the seriousness of the issues at stake, I don't think it was in the cards for me to hold off posting until 4.26 p.m. on Monday, when you finally responded but didn't choose to answer any of my questions. I do not think this merits your charge of irresponsible journalism on my part.
Carol Wainio told me this: Except for a few lines I gave HuffPo today, I'm turning down everything - including As it Happens and TVO - I've suggested they talk to experts and forwarded names like yours. I have no qualifications to discuss these things, and never wanted the attention. It's not a 'human interest' story, it's an ethics story, and best to talk to people who know that field.
Loreena McKennitt writes: This is much greater than a mere matter of plagiarism. It touches on the broader subject of media ethics, accountability, competency, fairness, and straight dealing with the public. At its core is the question of whose interests are being served: the public's, or the publisher’s commercial interests? Those who study the media (connection technology) landscape are not unmindful that one cannot separate market conditions or business models from the good or bad behaviour of the foot soldiers who undertake their superior’s bidding or who personally set out on their freedom of speech/democracy crusades with polarising flair.
As the demands and expectations grow of those asked to deliver an ever increasing amount of content, yet with fewer resources, one can be somewhat sympathetic to the plight of the contemporary journalist/reporter trying to stay employed. And yet, when it comes to factual accuracy, balanced reporting or in this case, plagiarism, the double standard which seems to prevail across a great deal of the media landscape, is perhaps one of the most unsettling and difficult for the public to accept... nor should they.
Due to a regrettable resistance from many in the media to admit or address certain wrongs or criticisms, and a propensity to look after their own, one must be incredibly tenacious as Ms Wainio has been ... Regrettably, Mr Stackhouse and Ms Stead exhibit the all too familiar and contemptible response by framing the complainer in a derogatory way , in this case "an anonymous blogger" or as someone who was "obsessive" rather than dealing with the issue squarely.
I have read most of Ms Wainio’s blog on this subject, and I personally find her restrained, measured and thorough. I am ever so grateful for this, for even though she may not be an accredited journalist, her case is well laid out and allows the public to decide for themselves without being told what to think...an approach many working in the media may want to revisit....
As a member of PEN and as a creative artist, I am a strong proponent for free speech. However, those holding the "pen" need to appreciate that they have a duty of care to the public when it comes to are fair, balanced and accurate reporting and commentary. When caught out they need to undertake the same courtesy as any responsible business does, which is, at least to respond to the offended subject or the concerned customer rather than treating them with contempt, and to exhibit the same transparency of consequences as they demand of the rest of society. Otherwise, freedom of speech becomes freedom to bully where nobody wins.
Dan David writes:
I've been reading about Margaret Wente, the complaints of plagiarism against her, and the way the Globe and Mail has been (mis)handling it all. I knew sooner or later I'd wind up at your blog. This email goes to ethics, responsibility to uphold journalistic standards, and the cost to the reader when news organizations like the Globe fail to do so.
As you know, I'm Mohawk, a writer, a journalist, a consultant. As such, the Globe and Mail was a "must-read" if only so I might follow its reporter in Ottawa. He frequently wrote stories on Aboriginal affairs. One day, Bill Curry had a story about some policy development. I clipped it. The very next day, I picked up a copy of a native community newspaper on the Six Nations of the Grand River territory near Brantford. There, I read the same story, with the same dateline, but with the local editor's name instead of Curry's. This wasn't a case of lifting a few words or a quote - it was word-for-word the very same story.
I made photocopies of both stories, wrote a letter notifying the Globe and Mail that one of its journalists had been plagiarized. I also asked what action the Globe intended to take? I mailed separate packages to the journalist in Ottawa (Curry), the Globe's editor-in-chief (Stackhouse), and Publisher (Crawley) both in Toronto. I also sent a copy to the editor of that native newspaper at Ohsweken. I waited for a reply from the Globe. After a week, I phoned the editor-in-chief's office. I was told to leave a message. I did, reminding Stackhouse about my package, my letter and asking what action I might expect his newspaper to take?
I never received a reply in any form from anyone at the Globe and Mail. A friend in Ottawa, a journalist for a native broadcaster, said he'd spoken to Curry shortly after this. He said Curry found the incident amusing. I never heard anything more about it.
As a journalist but more importantly as a consumer of news, I'd believed the Globe and Mail, then known as "Canada's national newspaper," shared a similar role as CBC News in broadcasting - setting the bar for ethics and excellence in Canadian journalism. That incident a few years back shattered my faith in the Globe and made me rethink my trust in Canadian journalism.