Surprise! Plagiarism is Bad for You

Graphic by Graeme Adams

Let’s talk about Margaret Wente.

Wente, The Globe and Mail’s star columnist and enfant terrible, is a constant source of news. Though she works for a newspaper, she’s not reporting on things.

Rather, she’s being reported on. Her opinionated columns tend to stir up a frenzy online in the Globe’s comment sections, and they prove great fodder for secondary content distributors like the Huffington Post and media blogs to comment on in order to drive ad revenue.

Lately, though, she seems to be guilty of more than just sloppy, unkind generalizations. Carol Wainio, who writes the blog Media Culpa, has been calling Wente out on her slapdash journalism for years now, but the criticisms have only recently made their way into the illuminating light of the mainstream Canadian media.

On Sept. 21, the Globe’s Public Editor Sylvia Stead admitted that a Wente piece included text copied from another source without attribution. In a 2008 piece on farming in Africa, Wente passed off a number of sentences by Dan Paarlberg, one of the subjects of the article, as her own writing. Four days after Stead’s post, Wente wrote an apology column.

Both Stead’s admission and Wente’s apology reeked of disdain for anyone who might dare criticize the hallowed Globe. Business went on as usual.

Terrence Corcoran of the National Post weighed in with an absurd apologetic claiming that journalistic ethics is a made-up thing and that all the mean no-goodniks should lay off her and the “perhaps sloppiness” of her writing.

The writing isn’t the only thing that’s perhaps sloppy, however. Reading Corcoran’s piece is like playing logical fallacy bingo. Judgmental language, ad hominem attacks and straw men arguments abound.

“Are newspapers (and other media), once free to run their own operations in the context of freedom of the press, now running scared of these outside watchdogs?” he asked.

Well, if the outside watchdogs are the only ones who care about things like not plagiarizing, then we should hope so. The point is, plagiarism is serious.

Wente knows this—in a column in 2008 on the decline of our schools, she mentions what the policy used to be—plagiarists got a zero—and an Ottawa public school board policy that allowed plagiarists to re-do the assignment.

In fact, if she wasn’t getting caught up in a plagiarism scandal all her own, she might be writing another such column right about now. New York magazine recently ran a cover story about a high-profile cheating scandal at a prestigious New York private school. In passing, it seemed to suggest that today’s youth—the digital natives—don’t see plagiarism as wrong.

The overtures weren’t terribly specific, but the assumption was clear: The old moral standards are gone. The Internet has irreversibly changed things. Who knows what the future will look like?

But of course, as Wainio pointed out in a Sept. 28 special to the National Post, plagiarism isn’t just for kids.

Wente’s been working at the Globe for longer than those cheating high school students have been alive, and we just came out of the “Summer of Sin” that saw grown-up journalists Jonah Lehrer, Fareed
Zakaria and Maureen Dowd sully the names of New Yorker, Time and the New York Times, respectively.

To boot, there was Niall Ferguson’s un-fact-checked cover story for Newsweek about the upcoming American presidential election that created a firestorm of controversy about fact-checking and which publications have the time, money and interns to make sure they’re not publishing outright lies.

In fact, contrary to Corcoran’s rant, we do need watchdogs, public editors and journalistic ethics more than ever.

Not because there’s more cheating than in years past, necessarily—a comparison that would be quasi impossible to make on any grand scale—but simply because cheating, while easier to commit these days, is also easier to catch.

The more people you lie to, the more likely you are to get caught. That’s just basic math. The thing is, publishing plagiarized or invented journalism these days is like lying to everyone in the world, forever. If it can be Googled, it can be caught.

Thankfully, the story’s not all doom and gloom. On Sept. 30, Wainio posted another instance of Wente copying. Dating to March 2009, it’s an instance of irony in its purest, most beautiful form.

After an article about celebrities with Twitter accounts appeared in the New York Times, Wente copied a few lines from a blog post by Nicholas Carr that went online the next day.

The lines in question mock celebrities who get other people to Tweet for them. As if the act of passing off someone’s writing as someone else’s was, somehow, morally wrong. If only there was a word for that.

If Wente ends up getting fired over plagiarism—and it’s hard to see that happening, at this point, given the Globe’s reaction, or lack thereof—we can only hope that she’ll write some sort of sorrowful I-brought-shame-on-my-newspaper mea culpa that it itself contains unattributed lines. These days, she’ll have plenty of examples to choose from.