Margaret Wente: No better than an undergrad caught plagiarizing
I was completely uninterested in the entire Margaret Wente plagiarism debacle mostly because I’ve since learned to stop giving a shit about Margaret Wente. Every time I go to the G&M website, I skip over her columns because her reactionary, trite, and, quite frankly, unoriginal and uninspired writing is a waste of my time. Thus, when my Facebook and Twitter feeds were exploding over the charges that Margaret committed plagiarism in an article written in 2009, I was apathetic. I remember thinking that having to resort to plagiarism is pathetic when the ideas that she broadcasts are clearly designed to get people angry rather than to elevate public discourse. Isn’t the formula to gather the most redundant arguments against Arts grads/Quebec student protesters/Aboriginal groups/feminists/insert-group-of-your-choice, arrange these arguments in cute, quirky paragraphs with sentences written like soundbites, rinse and repeat? In other words, is being the G&M’s resident troll-baiter so hard that she needed to steal ideas from other people? So I just shrugged my shoulders and didn’t think anything more of it.
My disinterest turned into curiosity when I read what John Stackhouse, the G&M’s editor-in-chief and Sylvia Stead, the G&M’s public editor, had to say. It was curious to see that Stead’s first reaction was to be defensive and to claim that of course the G&M takes these charges seriously. Her follow-up article yesterday was decidedly more contrite, where she admitted that she “erred in not being more forthright in saying that the work in this complaint was unacceptable and failed to meet Globe and Mail standards.” She also then wrote a list of what the G&M needs to “do better,” which I suppose shows that she is now trying to be accountable for what happened. This gesture, though, comes a little too late. As well, I can’t help but think of how far the G&M’s journalistic standards have fallen when a list consisting of obvious codes of conduct had to be devised in the first place. When you say, for example, that “excerpts from other people’s prose must be attributed so as to avoid even a suspicion of copying,” isn’t this obvious? Even as an editor for my high school newspaper, these codes of conduct were so deeply ingrained in me that I think I sometimes overuse quotation marks in my own writing because I am so afraid of being seen as a cheater. What happened to the G&M that these codes of conduct aren’t part of workplace culture?
Speaking of insincerity, Wente’s “apology,” issued on Tuesday, was a non-apology. In fact, the abiding impression I got when reading the entire piece was that Wente was not genuinely sorry for what happened, but was only sorry that she got caught. Starting her column by saying that she is “not perfect and that [she] makes mistakes” is fine, if a tad defensive. Following this statement up with the claim that she is the “target for people who don’t like what [she] writes” – which may very well be true – makes Wente’s victim-complex all too clear. This shows that Wente feels that the only reason why the charges being brought up against her are even newsworthy is because she is Margaret Wente, provocateur extraordinaire. The way she dismisses Professor* Carol Waino, an important media watch dog, by calling her “obsessive” adds further to the impression that Wente really seems to think that the media outcry surrounding this issue is evidence of the way she – and not her readers or Professor Paarlberg, who she plagiarized from – is the victim here.
Also, can I just say that I just don’t buy her excuse that she got “mixed up” when taking notes and forgot to indicate that certain passages are direct quotations whereas other passages are paraphrased? As someone who deals with, on average, a dozen plagiarism cases every year, Wente’s excuse is exactly what undergraduates who were caught plagiarizing say to me when I ask them about passages in their written work that look suspicious. I am certainly more apt to give undergraduates who are still getting used to university writing the benefit of the doubt than a columnist who has been doing this for decades.
“But Wente is prolific; she writes three columns a week; how can you expect her to be so vigilant?,” say her defenders. To that, I say that I absolutely expect Wente, a professional, to be especially attuned to journalistic ethics. If I won’t ever let an undergraduate student caught copying and pasting passages from a source without using quotation marks and/or without putting a footnote go unpunished, why should we let Wente off the hook? Just because her columns are meant to be “conversational” and “readable” doesn’t mean that our standards of integrity should be lessened.
And not to pull the whole ‘what about the children?’ argument, but if professional writers like Wente glibly gloss over the theft of ideas by issuing non-apologies, then how can I expect my undergraduate students to see that plagiarism really is a big deal and shouldn’t be taken lightly?
So Margaret, (wo)man up: without being defensive and without equivocating, say you screwed up and that it won’t happen again. And make sure that it doesn’t.
*Note that in her column, she doesn’t refer to Professor Waino as “professor.” In contrast, she calls Professor Paarlberg, the man whose book she plagiarized from, by his proper designation. I wonder why that is?