Wente and Dowd cell phone columns: Too close to call?

Anne McNeillyA column by The Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente so closely resembles one written by The New York Times‘s Maureen Dowd that at least one blog is suggesting she stole it. Anne McNeilly asks whether it was just a bizarre coincidence.

Was it plagiarism or poetic licence when Globe
and Mail
columnist Margaret Wente recently wrote a column about cell phones that
closely resembled one written two days earlier by New York Times columnist
Maureen Dowd?

Wente has been writing a provocative and
interesting column since its inception in the Globe 10 years ago and she’s
picked up a couple of National Newspaper Awards along the way. She is arguably
one of the country’s best known columnists and she has a legion of fans – and
critics.  Whether you agree or disagree
with her point of view, she always has one and she delivers it with style –
unlike the increasing number of often undisciplined and narcissistic bloggers
who bark incessantly and loudly on any media platform available.   

So the question is this – why would Wente write a column that so
closely resembles one written by her New York counterpart that many, including
the NYTPicker
, are suggesting she stole it? Was she reckless, careless or was she
just short of an idea at the end of July when the summer news doldrums
typically strike?  Did she believe that
she was writing an original view on a subject worth commenting on?  Or was it just a bizarre coincidence? When
asked for an interview, Wente replied via  e-mail, saying she was out of the country until after Labour
Day and apologized for being unavailable.

The NYTPicker
wasn’t the first to notice the two columns, just the first to write about them.
But so many readers are discussing the similarities, that becomes a problem in
itself. Perhaps a columnist with a lower profile could get away with writing a
column with such an alarming number of similiarities because no one would
notice. But the fact that so many Globe readers are also NYT readers made it
inevitable the two columns would be noticed and discussued – and not in a way
that’s flattering to Wente. As Ricky Ricardo used to say to Lucy, she’s got
some “’splainin” to do.   

Poet T.S. Eliot has famously said that good
artists “borrow” but great artists “steal.” 
He may have been thinking of William Shakespeare who has been cited as a
shameless stealer of plots so often that it’s tiresome.  Eliot, however, was referring to works of
art, not journalism, while Shakespeare’s genius lay in using stolen plots as
vehicles to examine the mysteries of the human condition and to create poetry
and drama in a way that made them uniquely his.

Writer Malcolm Gladwell examined the notion
of plagiarism and when it’s okay to borrow, even steal, in a New Yorker piece
titled Something Borrowed .
He decided he was flattered, not offended, when British playwright Bryony
Lavery wrote a play, Frozen, that
included almost verbatim material, including dialogue, from a Gladwell
profile.  “Instead of feeling that my
words had been taken from me, I felt that they had become part of some grander
cause, ” Gladwell wrote.  Playwright
Lavery, who was pilloried when the “theft” emerged, said she never thought to
attribute the material for the Tony-nominated Frozen. “It never occurred to me to ask you,” she told Gladwell. “I
thought it was news.” She meant that
news, which is (presumably) true, can’t be stolen.     

thing is, neither Dowd nor Wente is a poet or a dramatist. They are both high-profile, often controversial, columnists who are showcased on the op-ed pages
of their respective newspapers. Wente may not have lifted any word-for-word
sentences from Dowd’s column, but the similarities are so close that she’s
skating on perilously thin ice. For starters, both open with a first-person
anecdote of a close call with death while driving and talking on a cell phone.
Both go on to outline the risks of using one while at the wheel.  

Wente also uses, without acknowledgement, a quote that’s used in the Dowd
columnAlthough Dowd herself credits fellow Times
colleague and reporter, Matt Richtel, for what she uses from his interview with
Harvard psychiatrist John Ratey, Wente doesn’t.

Dowd: As
John Ratey, the Harvard professor of psychiatry who specializes in the science
of attention, told
The Times’s Matt Richtel for his chilling series, “Driven to
Distraction,” using digital devices gives you “a dopamine squirt.”

Wente:  Every
time we phone or thumb or text or Twitter, we get what Harvard psychiatrist
John Ratey calls a dopamine squirt.

Wente also leaves readers with the
impression that she interviewed U.S. psychologist David Strayer. If she did,
she doesn’t say so. The Strayer material also appears in a Times article earlier
in the year. 

Most journalists know that failure to
mention the time and place of an interview can be code for the fact that the
material isn’t being reported by the writer but has been taken from somewhere
else. Many readers, however, don’t.

The Globe’s own style book addresses these
points. Under the heading Plagiarism: 
“Excerpts from other people’s prose must be attributed so as to avoid
even a suspicion of copying . . . Any extensive unacknowledged use of another’s
words, structure or ideas may constitute plagiarism” (page 470 – ninth edition).

In the past, Wente herself has taken a hard
line on plagiarism, including in a column that ran Jan.15, 2008:
high expectations are deeply out of fashion in Ontario. Students are no longer
penalized for such lapses as plagiarism or skipping tests.”

Coming up with fresh and interesting
columns every week can be challenging, as anyone who has ever written one knows.
Many have failed. Columnists, like readers, face a tsunami of information every
day and must decide what’s topical and merits comment. There’s also the rush to
meet deadlines and the sheer number of pieces that must be produced in a year. 

While reporters are often assigned to
“match” a story that has already appeared somewhere else, columnists are never
assigned to “match” a column.  They are
free – in fact privileged  – to comment
on whatever they choose. And many news events are of so much interest to so
many people that many columnists can’t resist weighing in. Was there a news
columnist in North America who didn’t write about Sarah Palin?

While it would be easier, not to mention
cheaper, for less ambitious papers than the Globe to run syndicated columnists
(such as Dowd), original columnists can be a powerful draw for a newspaper and
help distinguish its “brand,” particularly in an age when information is so
readily available.

Wente’s profile and stature make it
inevitable that the bar will be set higher for her than it may be for an average
columnist. And it should be.  If the Globe
is aiming to sell its credibility, its columnists must not only be credible,
but be seen to be, if the newspaper’s “brand” is going to have value. That’s why the resemblances between the one column and the other should be addressed:  it
jeopardizes the credibility of not only the columnist, but the newspaper.  And in these difficult days for newspapers,
credibility is as important as ever, if not more so.

Wente’s decision not to comment because
she’s out of the country is a mistake. She owes readers an explanation.

Anne McNeilly is an assistant professor at
Ryerson University’s School of Journalism who has more than 25 years experience
as a journalist, including 18 years at
The Globe and Mail.