Willfully blind: A closer look at the Margaret Wente plagiarism scandal and what it says about The Globe and Mail’s institutional arrogance

By Brittany Devenyi, Gianluca Inglesi, and Rhiannon Russell

By Brittany Devenyi, Gianluca Inglesi, and Rhiannon Russell

The morning of Monday, September 17, 2012, reader Carol Wainio sent a 2,135-word email toGlobe and Mail editor-in-chief John Stackhouse. It detailed multiple instances in a 2009 column by Margaret Wente, “Enviro-romanticism Is Hurting Africa,” of what Wainio called “very significant overlap” with stories from sources as disparate asFood Chemical News and The New York Times. The greatest number of similarities—including virtually a whole paragraph—were with a 2008 article by theOttawa Citizen’s Dan Gardner. Wainio’s introductory note concluded, “[A]ny comment from you as to whether the examples are consistent with Globe policy would be welcome.”

Stackhouse responded early that afternoon, indicating that he had passed the matter to the paper’s public editor, Sylvia Stead. Wainio wasn’t surprised when she heard nothing more; after all, in May of the previous year Stead had told her, via email, she would no longer reply to her missives.

The next day, Wainio posted her findings on her blog, Media Culpa. In it, she gave side-by-side comparisons of Wente’s prose and that of the other sources. The title read “Margaret Wente: A ‘Zero for Plagiarism’?”

In about 30 previous posts, Wainio had called out Wente for everything from identifying a scientist as a fisherman to relying heavily on a NYT's book review without attribution. The biggest result, up to this point, had been corrections or discreet editor’s notes appended to some columns. This time was different. The day Wainio’s blog post went up—Tuesday—National Post columnist Chris Selley took to Twitter: “Sorry, Globe and Mail. But you’re going to have to do something about this.” Maclean’s columnist Colby Cosh retweeted Selley, adding, “Only if they’re capable of shame.” (Wente declined to be interviewed.) 

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The debacle that rapidly unfolded said a lot about the newspaper that styles itself as the country’s paper of record. It was revealed as arrogant and hubristic, defensive rather than transparent, given to a double standard when confronted with journalistic lapses. As oneGlobe reporter, who, like others at the paper, chose to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, says, “The great fear in the newsroom is that the message that has got out there is we just think we’re entitled."

Over the past four decades, the Globe has had a conflicted and arguably opportunistic relationship with the concept of fostering readers’ trust.

Take the example of the Ontario Press Council, created in 1972 in the wake of the Report of the Special Senate Committee on the Mass Media, or Davey report. As journalist Richard Lunn noted at the time, the document “had some extremely unkind things to say about the ways in which Canadian newspaper publishers discharged their responsibilities to their readers in particular and the public in general.” Yet even the report’s recommendation that the government form a Press Ownership Review Board wasn’t enough to convince the Globe to sign on with the council.

A decade later, the Royal Commission on Newspapers also had stern words about the responsiveness of papers to the public: “It is notorious that the press, which assumes a licence to criticize every other institution, is the least open of any to criticism of its own performance.” The commission proposed an anti-concentration measure that would force theGlobe to either sell its other newspapers or fold itself. That got the paper’s attention, as the concerns over opaqueness had not. By the time the Globe joined the OPC, its membership included almost 75 percent of the province’s dailies, with the Globe by far the biggest-circulation outlier. 

Given its status as what a former reporter calls “a key part of Canadian society,” the Globewas equally tardy in appointing a public editor. While the Star has had an ombudsman since 1972 and the NYT appointed its first in 2003, the Globe resisted. Paul Knox, a former long-timeGlobe editorial staffer who’s now an associate professor at Ryerson’s School of Journalism, believes it was a “pretty deliberate decision not to have one. It wasn’t just by default.”

It’s true—it wasn’t. In 2005, with the support of publisher Phillip Crawley, editor Edward Greenspon formed an Integrity Committee, whose primary brief was to “[p]resent the pros and cons and conduct a survey of other media organizations in North America and Britain that have an ombudsman/public editor.” Today, Greenspon explains in an email, “Given that integrity is a foundational issue, I wanted us to think about how an institution like The Globe and Mail should assure the highest standards in a rapidly evolving environment.” The eight members, who lightheartedly called themselves the Aces, included Stead, then deputy editor; copy editor Kathy English, now the Star’s public editor; and six others. 

The Aces presented many recommendations to the senior executives—including Crawley, Greenspon, and executive editor Neil Campbell—from counseling when to run corrections and where to place them in the paper to advising a revamp of the code of conduct. Many were accepted. But in 2006, they advised against the appointment of a public editor, apparently concerned about being a bit too transparent: 

“Many media organizations have attempted to deal with these issues [of accuracy and transparency] by appointing an ombudsman or public editor who is independent of the normal editorial hierarchy. As a consequence of these appointments, some media organizations (The New York Times and Washington Post for example) have suffered from public airings of internal editorial disputes.” 

Instead, they proposed hiring “a reader/editor who reports to the deputy editor.”

This article was published here with the permission of the Ryerson Review of Journalism. To continue reading, please click here.