By: Chris Burke
Margaret Wente, columnist for the Globe and Mail, has been accused of plagiarism by University of Ottawa professor Carol Waino. Odds are that you haven’t heard about this story unless you are closely tuned to the world of Canadian media. As John Miller, writing on the matter states, “In contrast, so-called mainstream media outlets — to their great shame — have not yet reported a word of what’s going on” (Source). What’s going on here? Wente is a big name writing for a big publication, yet these serious (and substantiated) allegations of plagiarism, that has gone on for years, has drawn yawns of disinterest from the press.
I won’t go into detail on the plagiarism accusations as they are covered sufficiently elsewhere. You can read about it here (Waino’s blog). I want to use the space I have in this article to ask, “What’s happening to the media in Canada?”
So far, the Globe and Mail’s reaction to Waino’s accusations have been a mix of near silence and dismissal. Miller writes:
According to the Globe, several journalists and others used Twitter to bring Wainio’s blog to Stead’s attention. And on Friday, she quietly put the result of her findings up on the Globe’s website under the headline “We investigate all complaints about our writers.” I’m letting you read it here because nothing appeared in print and there happens to be no direct link to the public editor’s column on the Globe’s website.
Stead chooses to characterize Wainio as “an anonymous blogger,” whereas she describes Wente more favourably as a “high-profile columnist.”
Miller points out that plagiarism is one of the highest offenses of journalism, but here we see Stead, the public editor of the Globe and Mail, appearing to casually dismiss the accusations. Wente’s status as a “high-profile columnist” also speaks volumes about the standards in Canadian media today. Wente’s articles often take an inflammatory tone, reminiscent of the painfully partisan tone of our neighbours to the south. As I wrote in a previous article, Wente accused the PQ leader Pauline Marois of being “basically a socialist”. In Canada, being worthy of “high-profile” status appears to mean minimal fact-checking and baseless accusations against your opponents. Wente isn’t the only notable columnist guilty of this. Rex Murphy and Christie Blatchford are names that immediately come to mind when discussing columnists who seem to be more interested in inflaming than informing.
Followers of The 1837 Society may note that my own articles can move towards the inflammatory end of the spectrum from time to time. However, at the risk of being accused of double standards, I think the medium matters. The 1837 Society web page is a blog, as such the writing style is much more informal than you’d find in other mediums. Those wanting a more in-depth/informative read should turn to our journal. Likewise, when I read an article from a top columnist in Canada, writing for a major newspaper, I expect a certain standard in the work being presented. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect a bit more class from a newspaper article than I would find in a blog article. Some may point back and accuse the blogging world of diminishing the importance of journalism, “Why bother writing something well and detailed if the story will be snatched by the internet before the newspaper can get it to publication?” Miller notes that mainstream journalism appears “out of touch with the internet-savvy”, but the newspapers are a business, and as a business they need to adapt to survive. Today’s model should include both blogging and column writing. If you want to get a piece out on a story in a short time use a blog. However, it’s not unreasonable to expect someone who writes 1 or 3 times a week to take the time to go into detail, get the facts straight, and write well. It’s by no means the easy route, but it’s the one that has to be taken if Canadian journalism is to maintain its integrity.