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Plagiarism allegations against Wente are serious, so why the kid gloves?

The allegations against Margaret Wente are serious and numerous. So why the Globe’s kid gloves? Perhaps it’s because Wente is, well, Wente.

Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente has found herself in the middle of more plagiarism allegations.

The Canadian Press

Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente has found herself in the middle of more plagiarism allegations.

Exhaustive the Globe’s response is not.

After columnist Margaret Wente was again accused of plagiarism this week, the Globe and Mail issued a correction, an apology and a promise it won’t be repeated.

All three appeared in a story, which Walrus editor Jonathan Kay noted reads more like a press release, bylined by the public editor Sylvia Stead. A public editor is intended to be an arm’s length arbiter of media ethics, which is why a corporate-response-esque piece strikes as odd.

Odd, too, is the fact that while Stead’s article quotes liberally from the Globe’s code of conduct on plagiarism (which is wide-ranging and vague about what “may” constitute plagiarism) neither Stead, nor the single quote from editor-in-chief David Walmsley, actually uses the word. Instead, euphemisms abound: “similarities,” “issue,” “without acknowledging,” “same phrase… repeated,” “fell short of standards,” “did not attribute” and “mistakes.” Nor did Wente’s name appear in the printed correction.

As for what this, Wente’s second plagiarism scandal in four years, requires in terms of action by the Globe, we have this promise from Walmsley: “The Opinion team will be working with Peggy to ensure this cannot happen again.”

That would be again, again.

Let’s assume we won’t be getting a second column-of-defence from Wente, since what’s the point in repeating herself. “I’m far from perfect. I make mistakes. But I’m not a serial plagiarist,” she wrote in 2012.

But for the Globe, there are other options than “working with” a writer. And if the paper-most-hoping-to-be-the-New-York-Times wants to be taken seriously on this, it should pick one.

On the harsh end: The Vancouver Province fired a sports columnist in 2008 after he lifted a phrase about Guys and Dolls from Sports Illustrated magazine. Despite the writer’s repeated apologies (akin to “Ms. Wente said she deeply regrets these mistakes”), the Province did not budge.

The Times has responded to allegations of plagiarism by its writers with investigations, to varying outcomes (resignations, months-later buyouts). Among the most exhaustive reactions to plagiarism was Wired magazine’s hiring of an outside journalist to chart wrongs in the work of science writer Jonah Lehrer; and Buzzfeed’s review of more than 500 posts by Benny Johnson.

Wente’s putative wrongdoing is not on the scale of Lehrer’s or Johnson’s, but the allegations are serious and numerous (Canadaland counted six in recent columns). So why the Globe’s kid gloves? Perhaps it’s because Wente is, well, Wente. She’s among the country’s most read — and most hate-read — writers. And in the age of media fracturing, a name that draws readers and spurs debate is only rising in value.

So perhaps the Globe’s response is tailor-made for a seemingly priceless pundit. Standing behind Wente does appear to be worth more, financially speaking, than offering the public the appearance of a thorough going-over of the allegations. At any rate, it’s hard to imagine a lowly intern who clipped whole sentences from other writers getting the same loyal treatment.

And: Would other legacy media brands act any differently to accusations against their crown jewels? I’m not claiming they would; I’m genuinely wondering. Because while it’s good business to appear to be ethically beyond reproach, it’s bad business to lose your golden calves.

Possible double-standards are elsewhere in this fiasco, too. We know about the allegations because the media critic Carol Wainio has been combing through Wente’s work for years, posting her findings intermittently on her blog, Media Culpa. You have to wonder how many other infractions by other writers we’re unaware of, thanks to the lack of a dedicated sleuth.

It’s also clear by the glee on Twitter that many — and many in the media — love nothing more than a good, juicy Wente controversy. She got one thing absolutely right when she said in 2012 “what I often am is a target for people who don’t like what I write.”

I’ve often wondered if they also don’t like that she’s a woman, since right-wing male voices don’t typically elicit the same vitriol. A hate-on for Peggy feels like the admission price to progressive Canada, and progressive Canadian media. Would the scandal be quite so … titillating … if it had another villain?

Perhaps, perhaps not. But I see no holier-than-thous in Wente’s second brush with scandal.

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