Since prominent Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente was accused of being more than a little sloppy in attributing sources last week, a lot has happened. Media righteously wagged their fingers. The Globe’s public editor investigated and responded (and was roundly criticized and then responded again). Editor-in-chief John Stackhouse issued a memo to Globe staff addressing the issue. Wente got defensive. Blogger and professor Carol Wainio, who made the initial accusation of plagiarism, continued to press. The obligatory “-gate” suffix was used. But is Wente’s misstep on par with the crimes of more infamous journo transgressors, like Jonah Lehrer and Jayson Blair? Below, we look at how she stacks up against other notably naughty writers.
The crime: Glass was one of The New Republic’s rising stars, until it turned out he made up people, events and quotes in many of his long-form magazine articles. He was caught when a Forbes reporter, having found himself scooped, tried to verify the facts in a 1998 piece about a teenage computer hacker. He discovered the entire article was a hoax.
The outcome: He was fired, wrote a book about his experience and then went to law school. He’s currently embroiled in a legal fight for the right to practise law in California.
Degree of journo-sin: 10. If Hollywood sees fit to make a movie about you, then what you’ve done is pretty outrageous.
The crime: The New York Times called Blair’s widespread fabrication of quotes, scenes and details and his unattributed use of material from other news sources in its own pages “a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper.” One of his most egregious deceits: he pretended to have gone to a naval medical centre in Maryland and described a moving scene between two wounded marines—even though he only interviewed once of the soldiers over the phone, after he had been discharged.
The outcome: He resigned in disgrace in May 2003 and became a life coach and consultant.
Degree of journo-sin:8. Making up anything is bad. Making up stuff about wounded soldiers is really, really bad.
The crime: An article in Tablet magazine called out the staff writer for The New Yorker (as well as a regular contributor to NPR and Wired) for fabricating quotes from Bob Dylan and taking other quotes out of context in his book Imagine. Lehrer initially lied about how he found the quotes; he later admitted some of the quotes did “not exist.” A few weeks earlier, he had apologized for recycling material from his own articles for blog posts.
The outcome: He resigned from The New Yorker and his book was recalled.
Degree of journo-sin: 7. Dylan is one of the most famous and closely scrutinized musicians alive. Lying about what he said isn’t only dishonest—it’s just plain dumb.
The crime: Miller earned a place in history as the New York Times reporter who erroneously reported that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction in the lead-up to the U.S.’s declaration of war on Iraq in 2003. She was also criticized for her conduct in the Valerie Plame affair, particularly for agreeing to identify vice-presidential aide Scooter Libby as “a former Hill staffer” rather than as “a senior administration official.”
The outcome: She retired from the New York Times in 2005 and now works for Fox News.
Degree of journo-sin: 5. Her sources were real, but what they were telling her wasn’t, and she chose to accept what they said.
The crime: The bulk of the outrage stems from a July 2009 column on genetically modified foods. When put side-by-side with several previously published sources—including a column by the Ottawa Citizen’s Dan Gardner—it became apparent that Wente didn’t properly source her piece, leaving her open to charges of plagiarism.
The outcome: The Globe and Mail disciplined her, but the the details of what that entailed were not disclosed. CBC Radio has suspended her from her regular gig as a media panelist on Q.
Degree of journo-sin: 3. We would have liked to see more contrition and fewer excuses from Wente, but it doesn’t seem that she deliberately set out to steal material.
The crime: In August, Zakaria was lambasted for a column about gun control he wrote for Time, which appeared to contain material recycled from a New Yorker piece on the same topic. In the apology now appended to the article, the television host and columnist wrote: “Media reporters have pointed out that paragraphs in my Time column this week bear close similarities to paragraphs in Jill Lepore’s essay in the April 22nd issue of The New Yorker. They are right. I made a terrible mistake.” The consensus: he was lazy and inattentive but not willfully deceitful.
The outcome: He was suspended while Time and CNN investigated, but was soon reinstated.
Degree of journo-sin: 2. Zakaria may have been careless, but it’s difficult to argue that he did something morally unbecoming. He promptly and thoroughly apologized. Mistakes do happen, after all. We hope he learned his lesson.