Margaret Wente, remix artist?

How the Internet first killed, then crowdsourced fact-checking

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The New Yorker‘s Jonah Lehrer, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, and now the Globe and Mail‘s Margaret Wente: three high profile journalists exposed as plagiarists in the past three months. Why now?

Because of the Internet. As Sabrina Maddeaux points out in the Toronto Standard, quality safeguards in newsrooms have disappeared. Fact checkers and copyeditors are scarce or non-existent, while any editors who haven’t been laid off must sign off on more copy more quickly than ever before. Legacy media institutions have been gutted by the disruptive effects of the Internet. Everyone is expected to maintain the same standards while working with a fraction of the resources. That’s simply impossible, and the fact that sloppy work sees print is an inevitable result.

But that’s just one part of it.

The Internet explains why plagiarism gets through more often than it used to, but it’s also the reason why plagiarism is so easily exposed. Tracking down a swipe used to be pretty tough. Fifteen years ago, if something you read in a column twigged as something you’d read before, how would you prove it? Unless you felt like spending a day (or a week) at the library, knee-deep in microfiche, you’d probably just let it go. Even if you were able to trace it back, the task of publicizing plagiarism would be daunting.

Today, readers needn’t wait for a sense of déjà vu. It’s trivial to paste a writer’s copy into Google with quotation marks around it and see if the same words appeared previously in the same order someplace else. Beyond Google, a number of free plagiarism detection apps are available online. Any writer’s oeuvre can be dumped in to see if anything at any point was borrowed. If a piece pops, plagiarism police are instantly armed with comparison links for proof, and have Twitter to spread the word. A journalist’s credibility, built over the course of a career, can be ruined in an afternoon.

Many following the Wente case have decried the lack of mainstream media coverage on it (Macleans.ca being the sole Canadian exception thus far). It’s widely felt that Wente is being protected by the same establishment that her column so often advocates for. I’m sure there’s truth to this, but it’s not the whole truth. As Maddeux wrote in the Standard, Canada’s journalists are all “scared shitless” that we could be next. It’s not that we’re all hiding plagiarism skeletons in the closet. It’s that most of us aren’t really sure.

As Colby Cosh writes on this site, “columnists are synthesizers of ideas, almost by definition.” An opinionator like Wente files three times a week. Three times a week, she must explain a hot topic and then weigh in on it. Must these opinions be original? Not at all. It’s perfectly acceptable for a columnist to put forth a well-established position on a well-known topic using other people’s arguments. Doing so too often doesn’t make you a plagiarist, it just makes you a lousy columnist. Wente is a plagiarist because she did things like copying Ottawa Citizen columnist Dan Gardner’s words verbatim without crediting him. Did she want the credit for herself? It’s not plausible. Gardner’s piece was hardly obscure. The risk of exposure outweighed any possible benefit. This wasn’t theft for personal gain, it was theft born of sloth. As Cosh writes, “it would be trivially easy to have avoided the problem.” Had Wente simply swapped out a few of Gardner’s words for her own and moved them around a bit, she’d  have been in the clear.

This is a silly technicality worth reconsidering in the Internet age. As an “idea synthesizer” myself, I regularly hop about from site to site, grabbing a topic here, an example there. Citations, quotations and most importantly, links, are how I tell you where I get my raw materials. To my mind, these are all more ethical practices than simply re-arranging a few words or hitting Thesaurus.com to massage a sentence into something I can pass off as my own, no credit required. Links are particularly gentlemanly, as they have the potential to reward my sources with traffic, the lifeblood of the Internet.

Columnists at dozens, even hundreds of different newspapers still seem to magically stumble on to the same topic at the same time. By going through the plagiarism-avoiding motions of a technical re-write, they effectively deny credit to whomever they are drawing from. This isn’t merely accepted by editors, it is encouraged. No paper wants to acknowledge the existence of a competitor, much less credit a rival with coming to a story first.

Online, we copy and paste each other’s words and add our own. If the link is intact, it’s a sample and not a swipe. Ideas and arguments evolve organically and rapidly. Adding something meaningful to a conversation is more important than rephrasing it in our own words.

Like many things these days, it comes down to a generational divide in how we feel about copying.

 Follow Jesse on Twitter @JesseBrown




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Margaret Wente, remix artist?

  1. It actually says a lot about our witless msm that no journos, other than Cosh, are willing to take on plagiarism charges other than a few passive aggressive tweets. Astonishing how quick lib journos are to make snarky remarks about Sun org and their staff but they go surprisingly quiet when a leading journalist at Canada’s paper of record has a long history of plagiarism and nothing is done about it.

    Maybe fewer Canadians consume news because of how dire our msm culture is.

    • Wente is rightwing…and she’s been complained about for years.

      In fact there are a litany of complaints about her in the comments section after every column she writes.

      • There’s nothing particularly wrong with being RW. But in her case it’s the essential dishonesty of her positions[ and the cynicism of the GM for backing them] that many find so nauseating.

        • I believe Emily was (as I just did) debunking Tony’s assertion that Wente is somehow protected cuz she’s a librul.

          • Exactly. To Tony everybody is a librul….even when they aren’t.

    • In this context I just don’t get the “lib journos” remark. If there were a liberal ideological bent to the response to Wente’s columns, wouldn’t there be a tsunami of calls for her resignation?

      Most “liberals” I know would LOVE to see Margaret Wente canned. I don’t like being quite this caustic myself for someone like Wente, but I’m POSITIVE I’ve seen her referred to as a “right-wing nutjob”.

      • He did the same thing over on Cosh’s page too. And again here, even after it was pointed out to him that neither Wente (esp) or the Globe are liberal. Blinders are blinders I guess.

    • You said it. They’re the most disgraceful bunch of cowards.

    • What your post actually says a lot about is you and your undying need to tar, on a regular basis, entire swaths of people with the same brush, for reasons that remain unclear. And what it says is nothing you should be proud of.


      • undying need to tar, on a regular basis, entire swaths of people with the same brush, for reasons that remain unclear.

        Sounds like Margaret Wente, lol.

        • Sadly yes, ha ha.

      • After a few years of reading the same drivel from Tony [ i really should get another hobby] it’s not so unclear – to me anyway. JB gave the reason – people like him are scared it may be them next – but TA doesn’t listen. Mostly he’s here to preach his brand of common sense pseudo -libertarian gospel. The fact that no one is buying it sorta makes my point. You’s think he might have caught on by now though.

        • Careful, he’ll get back at you with a marginally-relevant quote from Bartlett’s. He’s probably looking one up right now.

    • Again with the “lib journos” thing Tony, just like after Cosh’s article. You aren’t at all familiar with Wente’s work are you.

  2. Dan Gardner- close to 10,000 Twitter followers
    Margaret Wente- 250 followers
    Forget the fact checkers, copy editors. Someone in his following wasn’t going to notice? I’m going add “just plain stupid” to the list of words to describe Ms. Wente.

  3. “This wasn’t theft for personal gain, it was theft born of sloth.”

    What’s the distinction? She’s over the hill. She’s said everything she has to say. So she rips off other people’s stuff. For continued employment. For gain.

  4. “This is a silly technicality…” It isn’t. It’s the heart of the argument. A journalist massaging a thought so it doesn’t sound like its original source is also plagiarism even if the exact words aren’t stolen themselves. It’s less easily caught, true. You have to attribute, link to, source, every place the thoughts in an article come from, or it’s called “stealing.” Period.

    Any tradition of not attributing ideas (or even, properly, quotes) in opinion pieces is an interesting historical exception, but it’s always nevertheless always been ethically wrong. We now have even more places to steal from, but it’s also easier to get caught. It’s probably a wash in that respect. But we now also have the technology to create in-text attribution much more easily as well, so there’s even less of an excuse.

  5. Fact checkers and copyeditors are scarce or non-existent, while any
    editors who haven’t been laid off must sign off on more copy more
    quickly than ever before. Legacy media institutions have been gutted by
    the disruptive effects of the Internet. Everyone is expected to maintain
    the same standards while working with a fraction of the resources.
    That’s simply impossible, and the fact that sloppy work sees print is an
    inevitable result.

    Your’e making excuses for the profession again. Fact checking and attribution is easier than ever. The point is the G&M doesn’t even want to own up to its own failures, and should be condemned for that by anyone who calls themselves a professional. Is this happening? NO.

    What is worse is not a lack of editors, but an abundance of edit whores – artists who cut and paste ridiculous nonsense from a PMO press release and present it as reporting. I’m talking about PostMedia here, but only because I flat out refuse to read anything created by Sun Media.

    http://sontag.ca/blogs/one-day-life-sarah-schmidt

  6. One day I read a short snippet on the G&M editorial page that sent a shiver of horror down my spine. It said, “Margaret Wente will return.”

  7. Maybe Wente needs to do like Armstrong and go into rehab for booze

  8. Hey Margaret, is that your column or is it just wented?

  9. In my work, rearranging/substituting a few words so that the ideas/work of others appear to be your own original ideas/work IS STILL PLAGIARISM. It was plagiarism even before the days of Google. Properly attributing other people’s ideas and work is the standard. It’s a scandal when a scientist’s published work is uncovered as either non-original or fake.

    Why should it be different for journalists? I get that the nature of reporting requires the use of quotes and attribution, and that mistakes can be made. But technical re-writes seem pretty unethical to me. Are you saying that technical re-writes are acceptable in journalistic circles?

  10. I’m not a MW fan, but this post raises the bar for the discussion so far. Great points about the technicality of this issue, in terms of the distinction between plagiarism and rephrasing – er, I mean ownership.

  11. Our newspapers print pap and then they wonder why no one will pay for it. Good luck to them.

    But for those interested in allegations of partisan allegiances, I suggest you take a look at ownership and control. For example, the Glop and Slop (Globe and Mail), was for many years a Conservative stalwart while it was owned by the Thompson family. It the became flaimingly red in the large L Liberal sense when Torstar and Teachers took over (approx 2007-2010). Repurchased back into the Thompson (Reuters) group it has reverted back and dumbed way down to Big Blue CPC glory …

    As for Macleans … well I understand that former Liberal Premier David Peterson has joined the Board of Rogers …. But maybe Macleans is independent as they claim and maybe that a long standing PC-loving, economy-loving Macleans columnist (now departed) suddenly endorsed the Liberals in the last Federal election (because the ecomny could take care of itself) was just a coincidence.

  12. The assertion that Ms Wente is a ‘plagiarist’ is a cheap shot, and part of a crude, long-term attempt to attack the writer because she’s an American and a non-conformist. Ms Wente repeated a single phrase without realizing she was duplicating something she needed to credit to another source. A mistake any journalist could make. Only in the most technical sense is it ‘plagiarism’ and only on a university campus. Apologise for the smear, Macleans.

    • You are right.

      The deliberate taking of an interview response by a real person to a question from one article and applying that to another article and another question and to a fictional character isn’t plagiarism.

      Its deception, identity theft, straw man making and laziness.

      • congrats, og, you don’t know what ‘straw man’ is and yet are able to type it into a post under a fake name.

  13. I’m disappointed but not surprised that so many people making comments here and at other online news sites have no idea how serious an issue plagiarism is. After-all, many of them grew up plagiarizing much of what they wrote to get through school, regurgitating what someone else wrote and getting excellent marks for not doing any of their own thinking. Make no mistake all you laymen and know-nothings, it is indeed a serious problem for a professional writer to plagiarize another person’s work – just ask someone who is actually in the profession, or has a proper understanding of the ethics of the industry.

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