Dr. Dawg

The self-immolation of the Grey Lady

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The stately Globe & Mail, caught in a serious plagiarism scandal, seems bound and determined to prolong its public agony, for reasons that are simply impossible to fathom.

Here’s an internal memo from Editor-in-Chief John Stackhouse. Here—at long last—is a Globe & Mail news story, which reads more like a tearful and unbelievable alibi.

And here’s Wente herself.

If you came from another planet, you might surmise:

  • That a single peccadillo was committed by columnist Margaret Wente three years ago;

  • That it has been blown out of all proportion by bloggers and Tweeters who dislike her and one “obsessive” individual who was out to get her;

  • That the columnist’s right to “freedom of expression” has been under attack;

  • That Wente has been suitably disciplined for this minor infraction, and will continue writing for the paper as before;

  • That a problem with a particularly feckless and incompetent “Public Editor” has been fixed by having her report to someone else in the same organization.

There. Nothing to see here. Please move along.

But don’t believe everything you read in the papers.

This is not the first time, let alone the only time, that Wente has jumped the rails. It’s happened again and again and again and again and again and again and again.

(At one point even the Globe & Mail’s editorial board got into the act. Is this what they mean by “corporate culture?”)

Were the Globe & Mail powers-that-be made aware of those previous occurrences? Mercy, yes. The associate editor at the time got right on it—with veiled threats of a defamation action. Who was that editor? Why, Sylvia Stead, the self-same “Public Editor” who published a horrendously unprofessional column last Friday, sneering at Wainio as a mere “anonymous blogger” and absolving Wente. But a line was added below Wente’s column, thus:

Editor’s Note: This column contains thoughts and statements by Professor Robert Paarlberg which are paraphrased and not always clearly identified.

There! All fixed.

But not so fast. There was also the pesky matter of text lifted from a column by the Ottawa Citizen’s Dan Gardner, in that same piece by Wente. No mention of that at all.

So the Tweets and blogposts continued, the corporate media maintained a stubborn and unforgivable silence, and finally a member of the “MSM,” Colby Cosh of Maclean’s, broke ranks with his colleagues and wrote an angry piece. Then the National Post’s Chris Selley wrote another one this morning.

And that seems to have loosened tongues over at the Globe & Mail.

“Globe takes action,” says the G & M news story that followed. An extract:

[Editor John Stackhouse] said he spoke with Ms. Wente several times over the past few days about the lightly attributed column, but would not discuss any disciplinary measures taken.

She’ll continue to write for the paper, he said, adding The Globe would continue to take any complaints against any of its writers seriously.

“Lightly attributed” is adorable. So is the notion of a “discipline” that involves Wente continuing to write for the Globe & Mail as though nothing had happened. And—as though to rub salt in the wounds—Stackhouse has the gall to assure us that his paper will “continue,” forsooth, to take complaints against its writers seriously.

In his internal memorandum to staff, Stackhouse states:

I spoke with the writer Sunday evening, and again Monday, about these matters and others that were brought into question, and have taken appropriate action. [emphasis added]

As aready noted, there has been quite a collection of “other matters” brought into question since 2011. No action of any kind was taken, and the complainant was driven off, figuratively speaking, with blows and curses. What suddenly caught and held his attention this time, I wonder?

Then this, out of the blue:

I will continue to defend her right to free expression.

Say what?

I know of no critic who has spoken out against her right of free expression. That has never been an issue, until Stackhouse raised it in this insufferable passive-aggressive manner.

Let’s compromise here, John: We shall defend her right to self-expression. In fact, we insist that she exercise it.

Finally, Wente’s non-apology apology, sort of. In fact, it barely even rises to that level. She’s like a kid caught up to the elbow in a cookie jar: “I only did it once! Why is everybody picking on me? I was going to put it back! Everybody does it! I didn’t mean to! The person who told on me is a creep!”

Good God, what an utter lack of dignity and genuine remorse. Just listen to her:

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.

Globe editors have spent countless hours reviewing every complaint from her, and have been quick to correct the record when warranted. The Globe has also published a letter from her that was critical of my work. Her latest allegations, over a column that is three years old, were retweeted by a number of people who didn’t bother to think twice - or ask for a response - before helping her to smear my reputation. [emphases added]

“Self-styled?” Wrong again, Peggy—the word “watchdog” appears nowhere on her blog. Wainio is, however, interested in plagiarism, and when she finds it her impulse is to look for more. She has dutifully gone through channels with her discoveries, and has been treated like a libellous crank for her pains.

“Obsessive,” says Wente in one breath, and “Globe editors…have been quick to correct the record when warranted” in the next. Sounds like Wainio’s “obsession” has mildly paid off on at least a few occasions before the current imbroglio, even though she was treated with scorn and derision throughout.

Things have changed, however. Plagiarism became headline news in the US this year, during the so-called “Summer of Sin.” The issue is very much in the air: hence Wainio’s latest complaint and the Globe’s initial response to it went viral, to the point that even professional journalists—eventually—felt called upon to weigh in alongside the bloggers.

But the Globe & Mail folks just couldn’t stop digging. The Public Editor, prodded for comment on the issue by “journalism doctor” John Miller, said that she didn’t work weekends. Then came tonight’s triple-barrelled clusterf*ck. Good God, do they take us all for morons?

Here’s Wente again, concluding her column in full-blown passive aggressive mode:

I haven’t always lived up to my own standards. I’m sorry for my journalistic lapses, and I think that, when I deserve the heat, I should take it and accept the consequences. But I’m also sorry we live in an age where attacks on people’s character and reputation seem to have become the norm. Most of all, I regret the trouble I’ve created for my Globe colleagues by giving any opening at all to my many critics. In an ideal world, there wouldn’t be any openings. In the real world, there are.

I leave the interpretation of that rich chunk of text to my readers. I have gone on long enough.

But one final point: journalism in Canada will never be the same after this. The current saga, I suspect, is far from over, but already a new evidence-based scepticism of media practice has taken root, in spite of snotty professional chauvinists, institutional inertia, and increasingly risible defensive moves. For that we can thank the Tweeters, the “citizen journalists” of the blogosphere, and one blogger in particular. Kudos, Carol, and good to see your labours rewarded at last.

UPDATE: Colby Cosh is not amused. (H/t Colin Horgan] In other news, the Public Editor issues a mea culpa and says she’s learned some lessons. [H/t Colby Cosh]

UPPERDATE: Craig Silverman weighs in with some poynted questions.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on September 25, 2012 2:03 AM.

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