Media criticism

Why hasn’t Margaret Wente been fired yet?

How a repeat plagiarist still has a job at the Globe
Photo: Canadian Pacific

Crime and no punishment.

That — with sincere apologies to Fyodor Dostoevsky — will be, as matters presently stand, Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente’s sorry but apt epitaph.

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By now, it should be evident to anyone even remotely familiar with the definition of plagiarism that Wente has repeatedly copied other people’s words, ideas and story structure while trying to pass it all off as her own.

The Globe’s tired, predictable and increasingly irrelevant polemicist has reportedly done this for years and in the presence of a succession of complacent editors and one publisher who have permitted Wente to churn out her tired, predictable and increasingly irrelevant stuff despite the fact that she has been revealed to be a largely unrepentant plagiarist.

Wente is the walking, talking, writing embodiment of that signature and corrosive vanity and hubris.

Oh sure, a few years ago the pooh-bahs at Canada’s national newspaper reluctantly and belatedly scolded Wente after an inconsequential, little “blogger” exposed the Globe’s marquee columnist as a word thief. At the time, Wente issued an Alfred E. Newman-like mea culpa: Gee, I’m sorry. Sure, I’ve made some mistakes, but a plagiarist? What, me?

After serving a short stint in the sin bin, Wente kept her gig with, arguably, an implicit warning… that she if ever did it again, then, by golly, the hammer would really come down and hard.

Well, like a delinquent who promises — cross her heart and hope to die — to change her wayward ways, the allure of lifting yet another piece of someone else’s work apparently proved irresistible. Wente isn’t simply a repeat, but habitual, offender.

Earlier this week, the latest evidence of Wente’s ethical offences were once again exposed by writer, professor and artist Carol Wainio, who, by her own admission, had happily forgotten about Wente after revealing back in 2012 that the columnist had a disagreeable habit of pilfering other writers’ ideas and words. (You can read Wainio’s most recent, expert and exhaustive forensic analysis of Wente’s plagiarism here.)

Wainio has proven herself to be a much more adept editor than anyone at the Globe handling Wente’s suspect copy these days. As such, Wainio could no longer be dismissed as an “anonymous,” politically motivated crank who was pursuing a near vendetta against Canada’s contrarian-in-chief — as the Globe’s public editor, Sylvia Stead, attempted to do with such embarrassing servitude in 2012. (By the way, can the Globe finally dispense with the comical charade that Stead, a Globe lifer, is little more than a loyal, obedient extension of the newspaper’s PR department?)

This time, Stead — who had to be alerted to Wainio’s latest expose of Wente’s handiwork by, ironically, another “anonymous” reader — cited the Globe’s malleable Code of Conduct to chide her long-time colleague in a long, meandering column, for failing to, get this, properly “attribute” her “prose.” Like her boss, Globe editor David Walmsley, Stead appears to be allergic to that nasty, inconvenient word plagiarism, not using the p-word once herself to refer to Wente’s discreditable conduct.

Instead, the Globe subsequently issued two short corrections and apologies to the two writers Wente forgot to “attribute” her “prose” to, without mentioning you know what. Reading the cockeyed apologies, I was reminded of the Globe’s equally absurd editorial endorsing the Conservatives, but not you know who. For her part, Wente trotted out — with the apparent approval of her editors — that old, reliable saw that she “regrets” making those silly “mistakes” again and again and again.

Trouble is that other “bloggers” have started unearthing more examples of Wente’s “mistakes.” Not surprisingly, Wente, Walmsley and Stead have taken quick and, no doubt, comfortable refuge in the cone of silence as the prickly questions about media ethics, accountability and transparency gather momentum.

Chief among them: Why does Wente still have a job?

Having worked at the Globe many years ago, let me try to make an informed stab at addressing that nagging mystery.

First, the Globe’s legendary institutional vanity and hubris will not allow an online “mob” to force its hand, even though that mob is acting more diligently and responsibly than the supposedly sage types that populate the newspaper’s masthead.

Many Globe writers are keenly aware that if they were found guilty of plagiarism, they’d be deemed persona non grata faster than Edward Snowden.

Wente is the walking, talking, writing embodiment of that signature and corrosive vanity and hubris. Like the Globe, she is likely steadfast in her determination to beat back the mob attacking her in the blogosphere. Critics who suggest, quite rightly, that the Globe’s reputation has taken a debilitating hit because of Wente’s conduct, don’t understand that ultimately the Globe’s hierarchy won’t permit the newspaper to be defined or dictated to by outsiders, particularly by a gaggle of amateur, wannabe sleuths. The Globe’s singular history and abiding sense of exceptionalism counts as more than enough of a bulwark against these rough, unflattering times.

Others have suggested that Wente hasn’t been escorted out the doors by security guards because she is protected by a collective agreement to which she is presumably a party. That may be, but it doesn’t adequately explain her survivability in the face of such damning and mounting evidence. Wente is an old, politically savvy Globe hand. She has deep, intimate roots inside the newspaper.

More than that, she has, I suspect, powerful allies in and outside the newsroom that few others enjoy. (I can assure you that many Globe writers are keenly aware that if they were found guilty of plagiarism, they’d be deemed persona non grata faster than Edward Snowden. And don’t count on a palace revolt by the worker bees, many of whom dearly value and want to keep their impressive-looking calling cards.)

In the end, Wente will remain at her desk, defiant and unmoved, until she becomes an expendable liability. Then she will discover what most journalists already know: no one is indispensable.

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