09/28/2012 11:17 EDT | Updated 11/27/2012 05:12 EST

Watching the Watchdog: The Globe Put Itself Before Readers

Tim Knight writes the regular media column Watching the Watchdog for HuffPost Canada.

Here's what this Wentegate fuss is all about.

Margaret Wente, award-winning three-times-a-week columnist at the Globe and Mail is accused in the blog Media Culpa of serial plagiarism. Seems she's been exceeding sloppy in attributing sources which is a journalistic sin.

It takes three days for the Globe'snewish public editor, Sylvia Stead (a version of ombudsman), to respond. When she does, her response is far less than clarion:

"... there appears to be some truth to the concerns but not on every count."

Bloggers, columnists and journalists start picking up the story.

After another three days, the Globe's editor-in-chief John Stackhouse intervenes:

"... this work was not in accordance with our code of conduct and is unacceptable."

His mild solution to the problem is to transfer Stead's public editorship from the newsroom to the publisher's office (where it should have been from the beginning) and announce unspecified "disciplinary action" against her.


Twitter On Wente Plagiarism Allegations

The next day, Stead admits after what must have been considerable pressure:

"I erred in not being more forthright in saying that the work in this complaint was unacceptable and failed to meet Globe and Mail standards."

Criticism of Wente, Stead and Stackhouse, most of it in social media, goes international. Nobody thinks the three are handling the crisis professionally, openly or honestly.

CBC Radio's Q with Jian Ghomeshi announces it's suspending Wente as one of its media critics.

Jeffrey Dvorkin is Director of the Journalism Program at the University of Toronto. He's also Executive Director of the Organization of News Ombudsmen, made up of news ombudsmen and readers' representatives around the world. The organization's job is to "help the journalism profession achieve and maintain high ethical standards in news reporting."

Who better to comment on Wentegate?

Dvorkin criticizes "the initial reticence of most media to report this story" and explains his concern to me:

"There is a culture of conformism and tribalism that instinctually wanted to either look away or defend Wente because of her high profile and influence. Many journalists were dismissive of the blogger as a nuisance. This doesn't auger well for the health of Canadian journalism."

I think he's dead right.

My own reaction to all this is to quote myself in my book Storytelling and the Anima Factor:

"It is demanded of (journalists) that we put the people's interests before either our own or those of the powerful. Our first loyalty is not to any employer. Nor to any union. Or nation. Or cause. Our first and only loyalty is to the people -- and the people's right to know."

It's clear to me that all three Globe journalists put their own interests and the interests of their employer before the interests of the people, their readers.

It's now ten days since the Media Culpablog started its viral spiral.

Like a lot of other journalists who care greatly about free, honest journalism as a vital cornerstone of democracy, I've waited patiently for the Globeto take some reasonably adequate action.

Nothing's happened. At least not in public, where it matters most.

So allow me to seize the public editor's office for this brief time and make my own ruling:



Wente sinned, of course. She got sloppy.

Cutting and pasting over all those years can do that to a columnist. And she gave a damned silly response to the blogger's charges of plagiarism. But my reading is that her sin is venial rather than mortal.

I hold no such generous brief for editor-in-chief John Stackhouse or public editor Sylvia Stead.

They committed more serious sins. For the first few days I'm told, they shrugged it all off as if nothing much had happened. Wentegate was no more than an unseemly squabble between a famous columnist and an anonymous blogger over a few lousy quotes.

Not good enough.

With all that evidence of plagiarism detailed in the blog, they should have immediately suspended Wente until such time as her alleged offences could be investigated properly.

Then they committed their mortal sin. They tried to excuse and coverup. Like the Roman Catholic Church with pedophile priests. And Richard Nixon with the Watergate scandal.

In effect, the two joined Dvorkin's "culture of conformism and tribalism." They protected their own. And by so doing, they seriously and publicly harmed our free marketplace of ideas -- which already has quite enough problems.

The editor-in-chief and public editor of the Globe have the high honour of being the two people most responsible for guarding the newspaper's journalistic integrity.

It's soul.

Their job is to ensure that the newspaper's journalism serves the people. That it's honest, fair, balanced and unbiased. That the people can trust it. For without the people's trust, a newspaper is no more than a bunch of advertisements interrupted too often by some stranger's opinion on the doings of the day.

Stackhouse and Stead haven't done their job.

By not doing their job -- and not doing it publicly, in front of the people they're supposed to serve -- they've betrayed a trust.

To preserve their own honour and the honour of the national newspaper they serve, Stackhouse and Stead should offer their resignations.

It's entirely up to you, of course, whether those resignations are accepted.


(Full disclosure: Wente was on a course I led on TV journalism back when I headed CBC TV journalism training. We've since had drinks on one occasion. I've met Sylvia Stead a couple of times at journalistic conferences. No drinks.)