In January, the Globe and Mail appointed longtime editor and correspondent Sylvia Stead its first “public editor”. What say we pause right there, before we go any further? The job of “public editor” is one most closely associated with the New York Times, which has had five different people doing the job since it created a post with that title in 2003—soon after the Jayson Blair fabrication scandal. The function of the public editor at the Times, as the title suggests, is to advocate for journalism ethics, fairness, and proper practice on behalf of the paper’s readership, dealing with concerns and challenges as they arise.
To that end, the Times—quite naturally, one would think—has always recruited people for the job who haven’t been associated with the Times for their entire adult lives, but who do have some knowledge of journalism and non-fiction practice. The first Times public editor was Daniel Okrent, a legendary book and magazine editor. The new one, Margaret Sullivan, has been associated with the Warren Buffett-owned Buffalo News since 1980.
The Times is probably careful about this because it created the “public editor” job in the wake of a serious credibility crisis. It could ill afford to choose somebody who had grown up in the Times cocoon and was an irrecoverable permanent hostage to old friendships, work relationships, and office politics. In fact, it would be fair for you, dear reader, to ask the question “Why would you?” Why wouldn’t you hire someone with some independent standing to represent the public, if you were serious about it?
Well: those last six words bring us to Ms. Stead’s remarkable papal bull, published Friday, concerning Globe columnist Margaret Wente. A painter and University of Ottawa visual arts professor named Carol Wainio has been writing a media-criticism blog for a few years now, and has made a particular avocation of checking Wente’s work, often finding procedural and factual problems of varying importance in it. (Full disclosure: Wainio took a few swipes at Maclean’s in the early days of her site, before it turned out that keeping up with Wente was damn near a full-time job.) These problems, laboriously documented by Wainio, range from straightforward plagiarism of short passages to lifting quotes from interviews performed by other writers without proper attribution. At times they have bordered on the exotic: in 2011 Wainio caught Wente having a bizarre sort of multiple ethical seizure, snaffling a self-pitying quote from an aspiring lawyer and crowbarring it into a piece about the Occupy protests—with which the sad lad was not involved.
On Tuesday, Wainio posted a new entry about a 2009 Wente column on African agriculture, breaking down its apparent sources and finding several problems with attribution. The rank and file in the industry, including those at the Globe itself, have long been sort of half-aware of Wainio’s vendetta. But in 2012 Twitter exists, and the new entry gained some viral impetus, perhaps because another fairly prominent writer was involved this time. In an earlier (2008) column on the same subject, the Ottawa Citizen‘s Dan Gardner had published material from an interview with Wellesley agriculture specialist Robert Paarlberg:
“There were Malthusians in the 1960s, and into the 1970s, who argued we should stop giving food aid to India because it would only keep people alive to have more children who would starve in greater numbers in the future,” Mr. Paarlberg says from his office in Massachusetts…
“Many NGOs working in Africa in the area of development and the environment have been advocating against the modernization of traditional farming practices,” Paarlberg says. “They believe that traditional farming in Africa incorporates indigenous knowledge that shouldn’t be replaced by science-based knowledge introduced from the outside. They encourage Africa to stay away from fertilizers, and be certified as organic instead. And in the case of genetic engineering, they warn African governments against making these technologies available to farmers.” [emphasis mine]
Paarlberg’s words found their way into Wente’s column almost verbatim, with the beginning of the quotation mark mysteriously moved.
Yet, many NGOs working in Africa have tenaciously fought the modernization of traditional farming practices. They believe traditional farming in Africa incorporates indigenous knowledge that shouldn’t be replaced by science-based knowledge introduced from the outside. As Prof. Paarlberg writes, “They encourage African farmers to stay away from fertilizers and be certified organic instead. And they warn African governments to stay away from genetic engineering.
The quote then continues, with material taken from another unattributed source; and then, further along, Wente presents some more of Paarlberg’s words with quotation marks missing, as if they were her own thought. As with Wente’s earlier Occupy foulup, the shell game of verbiage becomes so complicated that it almost defies summary. What’s clear is that the material in bold, above, provides evidence of a weird double offence possible only through mind-boggling sloppiness. Wente lifted the Gardner interview, apparently failing to understand that the text came from a conversation rather than a book, and then plagiarized Paarlberg’s words by moving some of the text outside quotation marks.
How upset you want to be about this as a reader is up to you. Every country and every nonfiction subculture has its own standards when it comes to plagiarism and related offences; in the U.S., a screwup like this at one of the papers of record would be front-page and primetime news in itself. My experience is that the first things a layman will point out, when confronted with a shambles like Wente’s, are that columnists are synthesizers of ideas, almost by definition, and that it would be trivially easy to have avoided the problem.
Some people will immediately leap to the conclusion that it is therefore not much of a problem at all. And some people will reach the conclusion that the error is all the more inexplicable and culpable precisely because it would be easy to avoid, with a little attention and self-respect.
For a public editor, there can really be only one plausible position to take: the position of delineating and upholding standards. In theory, that’s the only function a public editor has, give or take some cutesy chit-chat about How The Sausage Is Made.
In practice… well, let’s observe that Sylvia Stead’s response to Carol Wainio’s blog post is careful not to use the word “plagiarism”; does not contemplate the possibility that plagiarism might require any actual action against the perpetrator, much less recommend it; contains no mention of the name “Dan Gardner”; uses the word “sorry” just once, quoting an apology by Wente that does not appear to be directed at any particular individual, except possibly Stead herself; and offers no hint of regret or remorse on the part of the paper. It is a frantically defensive performance which appears to establish that the Globe‘s official philosophy on plagiarism is that it requires no more than the equivalent of a Post-It slapped onto the offending material after the fact.
…The Globe and Mail is adding a line to the original column in its electronic archives that says: “Editor’s Note: This column contains thoughts and statements by Professor Robert Paarlberg which are paraphrased and not always clearly identified.”
The apparent nature of Stead’s “investigation” into the column is interesting: Stead apparently approached Wente and was told “[she] doesn’t believe she ever read” Dan Gardner’s interview with Paarlberg. I’ll remind the reader that an entire sentence from that interview made it into Wente’s column intact, with only the omission of a “that”, and that the sentences immediately preceding and following are very similar in both texts. If neither Wente nor Stead believes that Wente had Gardner’s piece immediately to hand while composing her own column, then the rest of us are, on statistical grounds, left with no alternative but to declare them the biggest pair of Siamese-twin imbeciles of all time.
Stead compounds this charming willingness to swallow whales by refusing to name Wainio, calling her an “anonymous blogger” even though the pair have corresponded about Wainio’s blog in the past; declaring that the evidence held up to her nose by Wainio “seems highly unlikely”, whatever that might mean; and making an exasperated reference to Wente’s workload of three columns a week. (Note: I am available to swear on the holy book of any man’s choice that it may not be possible to write three newspaper columns a week brilliantly, but it is definitely possible to do it without committing plagiarism, accidental or otherwise.)
Journalistic plagiarism is ordinarily regarded as what a lawyer would call a strict-liability offence. It may not be deserving of a career death penalty in any particular case, but the evidence of plagiarism usually suffices to establish the crime. Stead’s procedure as a public editor appears to involve looking into the soul of the accused and searching therein for gremlins. Does she, one wonders, believe in the objective existence of plagiarism at all? Again, she does not use the term, and she will not believe that Wente had heard even a rumour, even a whisper, of Gardner’s prior work for the Citizen.
Well, it is not likely there will ever be a case in which Stead is presented with close-up video footage of Wente using her mouse to highlight someone else’s words and pressing Control-C and Control-V. That is why the strict-liability standard is usual. If Stead will not apply it—if she is willing to accept any denial from a fellow Globe lifer, however preposterous—then how can she ever, as an impartial judge of journalism ethics, deliver a conviction? Can it be that the whole point is to have the appearance of accountability without the actual possibility of it?
[Related, and relevant: Wainio's own response to Stead's investigation.]
[UPDATE, Sept. 25: My review of Act II of the drama.]