Jackson Doughart
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The Wente witch hunt

The Charlottetown Guardian, 16 October 2012

The recent row concerning accusations of plagiarism against Margaret Wente, a columnist for the Globe and Mail, has been entirely overblown by Canada's media outlets. The issue surrounds Wente's articles over the last three years, a handful of which have been tainted by the author's recycling of material from fellow commentators in her introductory paragraphs. This indictment was brought to light by University of Ottawa Professor Carol Wainio, who has published a detailed account of Wente's transgressions on her blog Media Culpa, which aims to hold journalists to account via citizen oversight. The ensuing scandal - dubbed Wentegate by some pundits - has subjected Ms. Wente to opprobrium from colleagues and readers alike, and will likely stain her reputation for some time.

I've never met Ms. Wente, nor am I enamored of her work, so my apology in this case should not be misconstrued as a personal bias. And it is clear that if she is not guilty of outright plagiarism, the errors attributed to her are indeed the result of journalistic sloppiness, which she has herself acknowledged. For this reason, she should indeed be disciplined, as has been promised by the Globe. But it is crucial to be clear about the actual offence in question. Wente did not steal someone else's idea and claim it as her own; nor did she lift entire passages from the arguments of others; nor did she reuse her own material from another publication or from a previous column. What she did do was paraphrase poorly when introducing the topic of several columns, often when summarizing a book she was reviewing. But these passages were not the substance of her commentary or ideas, making the entire ordeal a squabble over small potatoes.

Wente's own explanation for her mistakes is entirely reasonable. She claims to have poorly transcribed her handwritten notes, which had been taken from other summaries of her topics. Anyone with experience in column writing will know that the introductions to pieces on the same popular subject will be similar to one another, and are not the important avenue for originality. This part is usually given to benefit readers who haven't been adequately exposed to the topic, not to advance the author's point of view. What matters is the body of the essay, which can be independently judged as original or not. And if Ms. Wente employs a research assistant, which is probable considering her output at three columns per week, the blame may lie in this relationship, not her ill will.

Critically, she is not guilty of the spirit of plagiarism, which is the real offence deserving of vigilance and repudiation. As I understand it, a true plagiarist steals the ideas and material of others and passes it off as his own, usually as a substitute for doing his own work. He approaches writing in the way a thief approaches commerce. History's infamous cases of this do not involve people who paraphrase poorly in their introductions, but rather those who take the real fruit of their colleagues' labour and dishonestly repackage it.

The contrast is easily demonstrated by the recent cases of Fareed Zakaria, a CNN commentator and Time magazine essayist, and Jonah Lehrer, a former staff writer at the New Yorker. Zakaria and another journalist, Jill Lepore, both reviewed the same book, and though Zakaria did not mention Lepore in his own essay, he didn't actually steal material. That's not plagiarism, and one wonders why Zakaria succumbed to the mob so easily in apologizing when he was effectively innocent. Lehrer, meanwhile, fabricated quotations from Bob Dylan in order to legitimate the thesis of his book about creativity, and had previously been caught self-plagiarizing when he recycled entire paragraphs of his own work for different publications. But the categorical condemnation of all sloppiness as equal, where the morality of plagiarism is confused with the protocols of academic honesty, makes no distinction between any of these cases.

The cheerful side of this ordeal is its self-satirizing element. Journalists who have been sharpening their knives and pitchforks to take out Wente must know that their own work is destined to be meticulously scrutinized, and since the transgressions are largely unintentional, the possibility strongly exists that any one of the witch hunters is about to be caught in flagrante delicto. The mob will doubtless turn on itself in due time. On another note, perhaps this heightened sensitivity toward the theft of phrases will prevent journalists from writing in clich, since stock expression like "stifling heat," "silver lining," "the fact of the matter," "no mean achievement," "riding coattails," "at the end of the day," "loved ones," "turning her life around," "unsung heroes," "last-ditch effort," "in harm's way," "scientific breakthrough," "promising developments," "moving forward," and "outpouring of support" will now be considered off limits, unless rendered in quotation marks and attributed to the original author! More likely, though, Wentegate will end as a pointless character assassination, motivated by jealousy and spite, not a concern for integrity.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com