Colby Cosh broke ranks with his brethren and sistren today, and one hopes he remains safe in his northern Alberta cave. He had the face to pick up magnificently on a story exploding in the blogosphere and on Twitter, in which a noted Globe and Mail columnist was exposed as a serial plagiarist, and the aforementioned (hah!) newspaper summoned up a “public editor” to drown the whole thing in a bucket of whitewash.
The journalistic profession—its rank and file reporters, editors (including those of the “public” variety), and its columnists, dispensing their carefully filtered wisdom for the delectation and instruction of the masses—is an exclusive club. It defensively protects its own, perhaps because the rot runs deep. When one of its practitioners commits a bad act—makes a public broadcast that flouts the hate speech provisions of the Criminal Code, say, or repeatedly copies the work of others without attribution—a cone of silence descends. Into the memory hole. It never happened.
But it’s getting harder to pull that off, because so-called “citizen journalists,” the denizens of the blogosphere and Twitter, keep an eye out, making a joyful noise about the transgressions they discover, and they can gain an instant and often sizeable Internet audience with the touch of a “publish” key.
They aren’t always right. Sometimes they are stupidly and perennially wrong, hinting incessantly of cabals and conspiracies. But they can just as often be correct: they have done the work professionally, they have assembled the evidence, and they have even used official complaint mechanisms to put things right.
The problem is, however, that those mechanisms largely consist of colleagues sitting in judgement of a club member. Just as police forces have proven notoriously inept when “investigating” complaints against individual officers, so, too, is a press council, or a “public editor,” the latter (as Cosh notes) being a creation of the New York Times.
In the case of the NYT, to enhance their credibility, “public editors” are chosen from outside the institution. But in Canada, tired old hacks from the same media outlet are the ones given the “public editor” task—one that amounts to good old smiley-face PR. They don’t “investigate”: they do what is expected of them.
Does anyone recall this disgraceful episode? In this case, it is true, a journalist was not protected, but in fact hung out to dry. My sources tell me that major office politics were involved, going right up to the editor level, and that a ritual sacrifice was thought to be necessary. The point here, however, is the shocking incompetence of the “public editor”—her first piece was grossly unfair, factually deficient and contextually incorrect, and a mea culpa—whoops, a “reconsideration”—had to be issued.
Then, of course, there is the instant case: a well-founded accusation of plagiarism airily rebuffed. The response of the complainant to this travesty is well worth a read—she had been trying to get the attention of the Globe & Mail editors for some time, as it turns out, and the then Associate Editor and now “public editor” had shown outrageous hostility towards her from the get-go, accusing her of “defamation.”
But what of the Ontario Press Council and individual journalists when serious ethical breaches are brought to light? Here’s the saga of former Ottawa Citizen columnist David Warren, another serial borrower-without-attribution who was taken to the Council in 2010 for his sins. The outcome was salutary: the Council grudgingly found some fault, and proceeded to bury its decision on its own website. And the rest of the media was utterly silent.
Sound familiar? Perhaps it should. The complainant in that case was none other than “anonymous blogger” and media watchdog, Professor Carol Wainio.
What happens when other journalists are prodded about these matters? Here’s Andrew Coyne, one of the best journalists in the business, snarking off about the blogger who prodded him. It’s a classic group-thinky response, a sort of autonomic nervous reaction. Never mind the message, look at the silly tie the messenger is wearing, har, har.
No other proof is needed, I think, that we have here a corporate group-think alibi machine, one that occasionally gets sand in the gears flung by intrepid members of the public, but which is so ethically destructive, at least in my opinion, that a well-aimed sabot should bring the damned thing to a crashing halt. “Citizen journalists” may yet collectively perform that action someday, forcing, at long last, an accountability where little or none presently exists. Let’s keep the pressure on.