Friday, September 28, 2012

That whole Wente thing

When I’ve fallen out of blogging for a long time, it gets harder and harder to get back into, even as I feel a vague sense of guilt for ignoring this blog for so long. But then something happens, or I read something, which either delights or infuriates me enough that I feel compelled to return to the blogosphere.

This post falls into the “infuriated” category.

I’ve posted a few times in the past about my antipathy to Margaret Wente’s column in the Globe and Mail, both for her frequent anti-academic screeds and for her generally inept and misleading argumentation. So when accusations of plagiarism on her part came to light recently, I followed the story with about as much schadenfreude as you might expect, though it was tempered by the tepid response in mainstream Canadian media … a response that was puzzling, considering that these were not vague smears but well-documented instances of Wente basically cutting and pasting from other sources. That she plagiarized was not in question, as much as Sylvia Stead, the Globe’s public editor, tried to soft-pedal it. The point of contention became whether this was really as big a deal as people were making it out to be.

Speaking as an academic? It’s a big deal. Say what you will about the U.S. print media—and I could say a lot—but they deal with journalistic malfeasance with extreme prejudice. Jason Blair became a pariah; Jonah Leher has basically had his very existence scrubbed from Amazon’s lists; and now Fareed Zakariah is under the gun. To be fair, this isn’t to suggest that all sins against journalistic ethics go un-punished (still waiting for Judith Miller’s virtual exile), but there’s at least an overriding sense that intellectual dishonesty is a very serious offense.

Slowly, slowly, mainstream organs have started to respond. MacLean’s published an editorial condemning Wente; the National Post then followed suit, and CBC Radio issued a release stating that she would no longer be a frequent panelist on Jian Ghomeshi’s show Q. But then this morning I came across an editorial in the National Post by Terrence Corcoran, who defended Wente and attacked her detractors as “self-righteous, self-important, self-aggrandizing competitors” and “dreary dictatorial avatars of pretentious rules and political correctness.”

Political correctness? Really? Pretentious rules? Once upon a time, conservative thinkers were reliable guardians of such “pretentious” rules as intellectual honesty and scholarly rigor, and they lambasted liberal and left-leaning thinkers for such “postmodernist” offenses as pastiche and moral relativism; certainly Wente has sought to establish her editorial bona fides by way of constant pseudo-contrarian attacks on liberal groupthink and academic political correctness. Which I have to imagine is why Mr. Corcoran then attacks Wente’s attackers as foot soldiers of the PC thought police. For the record: her professionalism is not being questioned for critiquing multiculturalism, defending Rob Ford’s incompetence, attacking universities’ academic standards, mocking public transit, vilifying organic food, disdaining the Occupy movement, characterizing Newfoundlanders as lazy welfare addicts, accusing professors of being overpaid and underworked, or any of the dozens of columns she has written for the express purpose of poking us Liberal Elite with a sharp stick.

No: her professionalism is being questioned here for the very specific reason that using someone else’s words as your own is plagiarism. Full stop. As any undergraduate student knows, there are very specific rules determining this, and rather severe penalties for those who transgress, starting with a zero on the assignment, progression through a zero in the course, and potentially culminating in expulsion. Considering how frequently Ms. Wente has written about the slipping standards at Canadian universities, one might imagine the rigour with which we set such rules would be on her mind. (As a friend of mine suggested, perhaps Wente would consider availing herself of one of the academics she has vilified to educate her on the definitions of plagiarism.)

I honestly had to read Mr. Corcoran’s editorial twice to be certain of its seriousness, and double-check the URL to make sure I hadn’t been sneakily redirected to The Onion. Basically, the gist of the argument is as follows: Ms. Wente has been victimized by haters and rivals, and the whole issue of “plagiarism” is a trumped-up charge by the PC crowd, something really hardly worth mentioning because all she did was leave out some scare quotes. We all make mistakes, not that this was a mistake, but if it was it was entirely understandable and hardly reprehensible. Oh, and the post of “public editor” is totally an infringement on the rights of journalists to write whatever the hell they want, and probably a contravention of free speech.

Seriously. Here’s his argument:

Newspapers and journalism in general, once bastions of press freedom, are now under the thumb of throngs of second-rate moralizing “experts” and outsiders who like their press freedom tightly controlled and monitored. There’s nothing wrong with criticizing writers, but there is a problem when outsiders can use artificial structures to suppress and control those writers.

I’m not entirely certain how you progress from a question of intellectual dishonesty to Big Brother. Considering the fact that the allegations against Wente are three years old and only now gaining national attention, and would not likely have come to light at all were it not for the “anonymous blogger” Professor Carol Wainio and her blog Media Culpa, it’s a bit of a stretch to suggest that Ms. Wente is the victim of totalitarian thought police. And if you think my characterization there is an egregious overstatement of Mr. Corcoran’s words, here’s his concluding sentence:

Ms. Wente, I suspect, now knows something of what it felt like during the Cultural Revolution in China, when ideological enforcers roamed the country to impose their views and expose running-dogs, remove people from their jobs and purge them from the system.

Yes. Poor Margaret, dragged from her home for her counter-revolutionary sentiments and sent to a brutal reeducation camp, rather than being privately censured and kept on at her job. (Then again, she was barred from Q, which may be punishment or reward).

But to return to the editorial: Mr. Corcoran’s sneering characterization of “outsiders” who have the temerity to (gasp!) have an informed opinion is shamefully anti-democratic. Given that Mr. Corcoran is a business writer, one would assume that the issue of intellectual property is something of a going concern for him. Or perhaps he is something of a radical on this front? Did he advocate, once upon a time, for such companies as Napster and their right to flout copyright? Does he scoff at anti-piracy commercials preceding movies? If so, this column would have been an ideal place to assert his quasi-Marxist ideals—it would have made his defense of plagiarism more coherent.

Then again, he does seem to believe plagiarism is a relatively new idea, as he asserts that Ms. Wente’s “major alleged crime against journalism was to fail to put quotation marks around somebody else’s words, something that is now defined in the blogosphere as plagiarism.”

Let that sink in a moment. Reread that sentence. And read it again. And then go back to his editorial to assure yourself that I got it right. “Now defined in the blogosphere as plagiarism.” Now. As in recently. In the blogosphere. Among the best responses to this editorial I have heard was someone characterizing it as trolling in a major newspaper, because really, the claim that the accusation of plagiarism is somehow a new thing invented by liberal bloggers to smear a respected columnist? … well, I just don’t know where to start.

So I won’t. I will leave it there, and hope that anyone else with half a brain recognizes the sheer absurdity and idiocy of that statement.

In the end, this “scandal” (which at this point really needs to be in scare quotes, because any real censure for Ms. Wente’s theft remains undelivered) is shocking but utterly unsurprising. Unsurprising because it is the logical end-point of Ms. Wente’s particular argumentative strategy. Among the defenses I have heard for her plagiarism is the plaintive “But she writes three columns a week!” Yes, at about one thousand words or so per column, she has quite the prolific output. It is perhaps serendipitous that I’m currently working my way through Christopher Hitchens’ Arguably, his last collection of essays published before his death. Oddly, it makes me even less sympathetic to Ms. Wente’s plight … not that every journalist and pundit should be held to Hitchens’ standard, but somehow reading Hitch’s often infuriating but always brilliant arguments throws Wente’s  practice of vilification by way of cherry-picking into stark relief. Her strategy is lazy enough, intellectually speaking—every other column of hers I read is a paraphrase of some book she happens to be reading—that it should come as no surprise that she slipped up and forgot to throw up some quotation marks around a passage or three.

But does that make it forgivable? No. No, in thunder. The defenses of Ms. Wente’s transgression range from the absurd (see Corcoran, Terrence, above) to the disingenuous … and while it was the former that prompted me to post this, on reflection it is the latter that is most dangerous. Ms. Wente has written endlessly, and stridently, about the loosening of standards, the slipping of intellectual rigor, the “everyone wins” ethos adopted by the education system, and above all the need for those who fail to suffer consequences.

Time for her to put her principles where her mouth is.


UPDATE: Carol Wainio responds to Mr. Corcoran's editorial here