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Where does Margaret Wente fall on the continuum of misbehaving journalists?

Where does Margaret Wente fall on the continuum of misbehaving journalists?

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.

Where does Margaret Wente fall on the continuum of misbehaving journalists?Stephen Glass

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.

Where does Margaret Wente fall on the continuum of misbehaving journalists?Jayson Blair

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.

Where does Margaret Wente fall on the continuum of misbehaving journalists?Jonah Lehrer

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.

Where does Margaret Wente fall on the continuum of misbehaving journalists?Judith Miller

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.

Where does Margaret Wente fall on the continuum of misbehaving journalists?Margaret Wente

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.

Where does Margaret Wente fall on the continuum of misbehaving journalists?Fareed Zakaria

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.

(Images: Stephen Glass, Michael Schwartz/WireImage/Getty Images; Jayson Blair, Getty Images; Jonah Lehrer, PopTech; Judith Miller, Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images Entertainment; Margaret Wente, Globe and Mail; Fareed Zakaria, World Economic Forum)

  • Nadine Lumley

    re this line:

    but it doesn’t seem that she deliberately stole material.

    LOLOLOLOLOL Really? Really? REALLY?


    While Stead’s column focuses on the specifics of the column that Media Culpa’s Sept. 18 post breaks down, Wainio has been writing about Wente’s work since May 2011 and has pointed out other instances where she feels Wente made mistakes or failed to attribute properly. When asked by J-Source if The Globe had looked into the other incidences that Media Culpa has pointed out over the last 18 months as well, Stead said there had been Editor’s Notes issued in the past and directed us to the second last paragraph of her column:


  • urbane

    I was let go from a publication for using a well-worn cliche that had also been used in a press release. five words. from neurotic holier-than-thou editors to public zealots with classic cases of OCD, in the www age, plagiarism casts a wide and imprecise net set to snag anyone and everyone.

  • MB

    I really don’t see too much difference between Wente and Lehrer. Wente has also made up quotes such as “John” the occupier. Really, I’m shocked at the attempt to give her a pass on this. It would appear to anyone who is truly unbiased that she did in fact steal someone else’s material. What makes it even more despicable is that Wente should know better. She is a veteran, who previously worked as an editor. Seriously, if anyone knew exactly what they were doing, it was her.

  • David Hyder

    I don’t see how there is any possible conclusion except that she did steal deliberately.

    My students who plagiarise do *as a rule* cite the source they plagiarise. Then they make the arguments made by Ms Wente (wounded student) and the Globe (outraged parent), explaining that they got confused between their notes and notes taken from the source. Then they say that since plagiarising is such a foolish and dishonest thing to do, it is impossible that they could have done it.

    At my university (Ottawa) first time offenders are often 18 years old. They deserve a second chance, but if they blow that, it can be a suspension of several years.

    Ms Wente by contrast has had a long and supposedly distinguished career at a paper of record. There can be no question of immaturity or ignorance of standards. Her actions should be judged as a university would an advanced student, and one who, furthermore, had already been publicly warned several times of lax standards.

    In short: Are we really to believe that Margaret Wente is so inexperienced and thick that she can’t tell the difference between typing letters and hitting command-V?

    No one believes that.

  • M. Parker

    She DID deliberately set out to steal material, which was indeed the point Wainio took pains to illustrate. The word- for-word phrases, the spliced sources (to throw off the scent), and finally the deliberately omitted quotation marks!

    I’m amazed how Wainio is portrayed as some kind of obsessive nitpick…yet she studies journalism for a living, and is thus interested in how low the bar is plummeting…

  • redgerrymander

    I’m starting to think much of the Canadian media is in deep denial about just how serious this is. But, it’s not going to go away, no matter how much they wish it would. The constant drone of ‘it’s not so bad’ ‘she didn’t mean it’ from fellow journalists, for something that should have Wente drummed out of the profession, are only going to further enrage readers.

    That either the stolen sentence (a quote from an interview from an author from a piece in the Ottawa Citizen that ‘mistakenly’ loses both its quotation marks and attribution) or the curious case of ‘John’ the Occupier – whom anonymous blogger Carol Wainio tracked down to an Obama/Biden website, can be considered anything other than plagiarism is astonishing – and revealing.

    I’m suprised they didn’t use the ‘she’s so busy excuse’ as well. Toronto Life’s credibility has just dropped to 0% with this reader.

  • TheDude

    What a poorly researched article. Wente deliberately stole on numerous occasions and has been doing it for years. Why is journalism so PISS POOR THESE DAYS?!?

    Just do the bloody research and stop expecting every reader to do it for you!
    Wente is finished!

  • EcologyProf

    “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.”

    “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me” Randall Terry

    Dear me – what this whole debacle has really demonstrated is that a proportion of the canadian population and possibly an even larger proportion of journalists DO NOT UNDERSTAND the basic rules of plagiarism. Refresher courses are CLEARLY in order. Plus, since I now feel that it’s quite likely a whole lot of writing is not to be trusted, a back-checking of a broader tranche of published writings, other than just Wente’s, for plagiarism is in order.

    It’s easy to get clarity around what constitutes plagiarism from any university academic integrity webpage.
    You can get most of the pages in the York University Academic Integrity Tutorial right here:

    The rules of academic integrity and plagiarism are even more cut and dried these days than in the past because it’s much easier to track phrases and sentences to their original sources – my 1988 doctorate from Oxford University is soon to be digitized – and will become available for comparisons against other writing.

    Of course, there are common word combinations that will be repeated, but the comparisons of Wente’s text by Wainio show that the likelihood of these word combos being random and their being limited ways of putting these thoughts into words, is very low.

  • Pinocchio

    You’re wrong on this. Wainio shows conclusively that Wente has a history of plagiarism. Establishing plagiarism is often onerous, but Wainio establishes in detail not only the habit but also the method of plagiarism. It’s reasonable to infer that Wente has been doing it for a long time and more frequently than she’s been called for and so she should be given a much higher ranking than you do.
    What is more scary than your light(?weight) treatment of Wente is the idea that you can rank plagiarisers, and that you occlude the distinction between what people did and how they dealt with their outing in your rankings. I think Wente is dealing with this like a weasel, but that has nothing to do with what she did, it’s just a display of her moral backbone. She’s done great harm to all of us and she won’t admit it. That’s the person she is.
    We are all harmed if plagiarism becomes acceptable because it means that those who we rightfully expect to tell us the truth are not doing so. We become a society in which lies, evasions and misrepresentations are acceptable and our moral authority is lessened. Suggesting, as you do, that some plagiarism is OK acts towards accepting it. Lies are almost always wrong, and you should say so.

  • Meow Mix

    This article is pure apologist BS. Why is the Canadian media continuing to gloss over details of this case? Either by undermining the source who pointed out the instances of plagiarism, writing off Wente’s plagiarism as sheer carelessness, criticising the reaction as “righteous finger wagging”, and conveniently failing to see that Macleans, the Guardian, and the Huffington post have made this high profile news. In America and Britain, what Wente did is considered the worst journalistic sin possible and grounds for termination.

  • Eye Roll

    The rating is ridiculous. Stephen Glass gets 10 because Hollywood made a film, so that means he was really bad. And Wente gets 3 because she didn’t seem to mean to plagiarize. Really? As others have pointed out, it wasn’t five or six words. And it wasn’t an isolated incident.

    A major problem I have with Wente and this sorry episode is she’s given forums even outside the Globe and Mail, and pronounces frequently on politics, political figures, and issues of the day. She influences opinions. She also has a different set of standards for herself vs. everyone else — e.g. a recent self-righteous comment Wente made about students plagiarizing.

    Simply because she has been given credibility as a political commentator, she deserves a rating of 10. I just don’t get why everyone is protecting her.

    I suggest there’s another reason Wente is let off easily here — she’s writing in Canada. Sometimes we just can’t handle the truth.

  • Christopher

    Y’know, the shift has already begun. Many can see through the crap that is being shoveled out by many news organisations. People are understanding that it is a club that defends itself. This self serving article and the angry response by those posting is evidence that the power is shifting. Good!
    My daughter (16 years old)and her friends, see far more clearly and tolerate less B.S. from ‘established’ news organisations’ than the previous generations. Thinking critically, not using one monolith organisation for their views, and seeing through obvious self serving lies are one reason I have hope for the wold. Keep fiddling, the rest of the us have set up camp somewhere else.

  • David

    Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair fabricated facts and events. Margaret Wente outright stole other people’s work, word for word. That is plagiarism. I won’t say which is the greater crime, but they’re not the same. And, if the writers at Toronto Life wanted to be real journalists, they wouldn’t have bought the Globe’s line that this was a one-time incident on the part of Wente. Her history of repeated theft is well-documented. Either this is laziness on the part of Toronto Life or, as some believe, the Canadian press is out to cover up for one of its own.

  • Meow Mix

    Where does Toronto Life fall on the continuum of Canadian media whitewashing the Margaret Wente plagiarism scandal? 1 being reporting the facts as is and making an objective assessment, 5 being ingratiating suckuppery trying to protect one of their own, and 10 being outright denial and failure to report all the facts? I’d say between an 7 and 8.

  • Fair
  • Daniel

    The problem here goes beyond Wente’s clear-cut case of plagiarism, by whatever criteria(Oxford Dictionary; Press Councils; University Codes of Conduct, etc). The bigger issue is the denialist, accusatory, circle-the-wagons response of the Globe (Sylvia Stead) and Wente. The Globe’s institutional credibility has been seriously damaged; far more at stake here than the lack of mea culpa from a particular columnist.

  • sillysillyme

    Her columns are rife with uninformed, unsubstantiated opinion, so I doubt there was any intention to plagiarize. Basing her thoughts on any kind of research, her own or anyone else’s, would be out of character.