Photo: flickr/Michael

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At the bottom right-hand corner of the page her column usually occupies every Saturday, a note in The Globe and Mail yesterday said “Margaret Wente will return.”

Just that. There may be no column by her today, or perhaps next week, but she will definitely return.

That should tell us several things about how Canada’s most respected newspaper is handling Wente’s current bout with allegations of plagiarism.

First, the Globe is standing by its columnist. It’s choosing to hunker down until this fuss about her borrowing words and phrases from someone else and passing them off as her own blows over.

Second, the paper appears to be treating the latest controversy (two instances of “light attribution” for which it has apologized) as isolated minor mistakes. It does not mention that it was forced to apologize for Wente for the same thing four years ago. Most of us would see this as enough reason to investigate further, but that does not appear to be happening.

Even if it does, the note in yesterday’s paper tells us that regardless of the findings, she’s already been cleared. Her column will return.

Finally, the Globe has said not a word to its readers about why she’s taking a rare day off or what the paper is going to do about behaviour that it admits falls short of its standards. Perhaps she’s just getting a day off to clear her head of all those unwarranted attacks by us left-wing cretins who don’t agree with what she writes.

Last time, if you recall, Wente was allowed to write a column in her own defence, attacking her critic by name, denying she was a “serial plagiarist” and saying she’s often a target for abuse because of the kind of conservative world-view she articulates. In other words, she missed the whole point.

I hope no one at the Globe will allow her to do that again. She embarrassed herself, and embarrassed her paper.

Instead, it’s time for David Walmsley to do something else. Like act as her editor.

It’s inconceivable to me, as a former newsroom manager, that Wente seems to have received no warning when she got her slap on the wrist four years ago. You know, something like “Peggy, if this happens again, you’re gone.”

If she were anyone else, she wouldn’t have even been given a second chance. Plagiarism —  an act of fraud, stealing someone else’s work and claiming it’s your own — is considered a capital offence in both academia and journalism.

BuzzFeed, an online news and entertainment site, recently fired a writer after two unnamed people (who tweet and blog under the handles @blippoblappo and @crushingbort) investigated his work and turned up many instances of lifted copy. After initially defending him, BuzzFeed did its own investigation, dismissed him and apologized to readers in a note from editor-in-chief Ben Smith.

In that note, Smith referred to things said and done that The Globe and Mail has so far neglected to say or do. “After carefully reviewing more than 500 of Benny’s posts, we have found 41 instances of sentences or phrases copied word for word from other sites. Benny is a friend, colleague, and, at his best, a creative force, but we had no choice other than letting him go.”

It’s fair to argue that Wente’s transgressions, taken by themselves, are more minor and should not cause her dismissal. The two cases that the Globe apologized for last week are not firing offences, in my opinion. My problem is that it’s not the first time and the paper has not indicated any desire to investigate Wente’s work any further.

They’re leaving their fact-checking to a part-time online blogger named Carol Waino.

Buzzfeed, which does not have the same pretentions as a serious news outlet as the Globe appears to have, was not content to leave its integrity in the hands of @blippoblappo and @crushingbort.

The Globe has not even admitted that what Wente did — and what the paper apologized for — was plagiarism. It has never used the word.

Buzzfeed was more honest: “This plagiarism is a breach of our fundamental responsibility to be honest with you — in this case, about who wrote the words on our site. Plagiarism, much less copying unchecked facts from Wikipedia or other sources, is an act of disrespect to the reader. We are deeply embarrassed and sorry to have misled you,” editor Smith’s note said.

Why, we might ask, is the Globe not taking this as seriously as other news organizations?
Part of the answer may lie in the paper’s policies. Its policy on plagiarism does not clearly define what it is or what constitutes a serious case. Nor does it mention any penalty. The New York Times, on the other hand, states clearly that “staff members who plagiarize or who knowingly or recklessly provide false information for publication betray our fundamental pact with our readers. We do not tolerate such behavior.”

The Times, of course, fired reporter Jayson Blair for repeated instances of plagiarism and fabrication. We should not forget that scandal started with a single allegation of similarities between something he wrote and a story published by another paper. The Times chose to put his entire body of work under a microscope, and responded with an unprecedented 7,239-word front-page story on May 11, 2003, headlined “Times Reporter Who Resigned Leaves Long Trail of Deception.” The story called the affair “a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper.”

On the other hand, The Globe and Mail, faced with repeated instances of Wente’s plagiarism over the past four years, seems to be treating each one as a separate oopsie.

This is turning into a management fiasco that has the potential to damage the paper’s brand. How much trust can we put in the Globe to cover the news when its top editors have failed to put two and two together enough to thoroughly investigate evidence that its most prominent columnist may be a habitual thief?

I happen to believe Wente’s voice needs to be heard in Canadian journalism.

But it needs to be her voice.


Photo: flickr/Michael

John Miller

From media executive to media critic, John Miller has seen journalism from all sides (and he often doesn’t like what he sees). He draws on his 40 years in news, including five years as deputy...