Checking facts and quotes is sort of like the morning crossword. Sometimes it turns up alarming things, like when Margaret Wente apparently picked up a “John” on some website and took him to the Occupy protests.
Maybe Ms. Wente sprinkles quotes in her columns to make it look like she does research. But often these people are “her friends”, like “Virginia”, or “Ben”. Columns frequently begin and end with personal anecdote, making it seem as though the ideas and insights spring from her own experience. But there are problems.
Today's attribution issue: Ontario’s new anti-bullying initiative for schools, which Wente opposes. “Plenty of teachers are skeptical, too”, she writes, offering examples of what readers assume are some of those skeptical Ontario educators to backstop her claim. Wente provides three un-sourced quotes. One is something she says an unnamed teacher “told her”.
And: “’Administrators have had their spines surgically removed,’ one teacher says”.
This quote turns up on a 2001 blog post that has nothing to do with bullying or public schools, let alone the new Ontario law at the center of Wente’s article. Linda Seebach’s comment concerns academic freedom in American universities. Don’t know whether that’s where Ms. Wente found it, but given “John”’s surprising second life as an Occupy protester, one has to wonder.
Seebach, a geriatric blogger and contributor to the far right FrontPage Magazine (amongst other publications), also writes about the “nanny state”, “leftist universities”, and (like Wente) the appalling state of math instruction. A decade ago, she penned a diatribe on “political correctness” on American campuses that included this line:
“If you’re not routinely involved in higher education, you may not realize that many senior administrators have had their spines surgically removed as they crawled up the academic ladder.”
Seebach identifies herself as a “retired editorial writer and op-ed columnist” from Minnesota, “where in an earlier century she had been a math professor at St. Olaf College”. Given that they seem to share so many things, perhaps Ms. Wente considers her a kindred spirit, but Seebach’s comment appeared as that of an editorialist on another topic, and cannot legitimately be viewed as the solicited reaction of a “teacher” to Ontario’s new legislation.
We’ll skip over the problems with facts and arguments, and go to the third quote.
Wente: “As one school safety consultant says, ‘Parents and educators have the most important tools that legislation cannot deliver – education and supervision.’”
Kenneth Trump of Cleveland: “Parents and educators have the most important tools that legislation cannot deliver: Education and supervision”.
So, while it would have been both relevant and important to obtain reaction from Ontario educators about the new anti-bullying proposals, Wente contents herself with old, borrowed material, providing not one identified quote from the “plenty” of teachers she claims oppose it.
And as with “John”, it’s reasonable to ask how appropriate or professional it is to take un-attributed quotes from one context and repurpose them for a different issue.
More quote/attribution problems:
As has happened before, Ms. Wente fails to capture the entirety of a passage in quotation marks. Does the second sentence (in bold caps) constitute plagiarism?
Joel Kotkin, Foreign Policy: Cities often offer a raw deal for the working class, which ends up squeezed by a lethal combination of chronically high housing costs and chronically low opportunity in economies dominated by finance and other elite industries. Once the cost of living is factored in, more than half the children in inner London live in poverty…
Wente: As Mr. Kotkin has written, “Cities often offer a raw deal for the working class, which ends up squeezed by a lethal combination of chronically high housing costs and chronically low opportunity in economies dominated by finance and other elite industries.” Once the cost of living is factored in, more than half the children in inner London live in poverty.
Wente: “The environmental movement is deeply stained with a sort of Malthusian current,” Mr. Owen says. “It's anti-urban, anti-industrial, agrarian, primitivist.”
David Owen, quoting Daniel Lazare: Recently I asked (Daniel) Lazare whether he detected that same antagonism in the American environmental movement. “Unquestionably”, he said. “Green ideology is a rural agrarian ideology… The environmental movement is deeply stained with a sort of Malthusian current. It's anti-urban, anti-industrial, agrarian, primitivist.”
Maybe Ms. Wente doesn’t like the work involved in gathering quotes or soliciting comment. Recently she recycled a bit from an article she had written just weeks earlier:
Wente, July 30, 2011: As Fortune’s Nina Easton writes, 20 per cent of all American men are “collecting unemployment, in prison, on disability, operating in the underground economy, or getting by on the paycheques of wives or girlfriends or parents.”
Wente, August 16, 2011: These men, as Fortune’s Nina Easton observes, are either “collecting unemployment, in prison, on disability, operating in the underground economy, or getting by on the paycheques of wives or girlfriends or parents.”
The August column also includes a quote from Karl Marx. One might be forgiven for wondering whether Margaret has a bedside copy of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. Or is it possible the quote came from an editorial in the Australian on the same topic?
Wente, August 16, 2011: Karl Marx described such people as “vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, brothel-keepers, organ-grinders, ragpickers, knife-grinders, tinkers, beggars.” (He was referring to 19th-century France.)
Brendan O'Neill, The Australian, August 6: …this welfare-state mob has more in common with what Marx described as the lumpenproletariat. Indeed, it is worth remembering Marx's colourful description in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon…“vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, brothel-keepers, organ-grinders, ragpickers, knife-grinders, tinkers, beggars…”
Addendum: Today’s column is pretty much a rehash of one from earlier in the year – again re-using an identical quote.
Wente, Dec. 10, 2011: This steady rise in material well-being helps explains why the Occupy movement didn’t catch on as many people expected it to. On the whole, average people think their lives are pretty good. “They don’t feel the moral outrage that radiates from the more passionate egalitarian quarters of society,” writes Prof. Cowen.
Wente, Jan. 7, 2011: There’s a reason people aren’t rioting in the streets over rising inequality. As Tyler Cowen writes in a widely noted essay (The Inequality that Matters) in The American Interest quarterly, ‘when average people read about or see income inequality, they don’t feel the moral outrage that radiates from the more passionate egalitarian quarters of society”.
And just to demonstrate how common this is, from the same January 7 column, more migrating quotation marks. The passage about The Economist, which Wente presents as if she dug it up herself, in fact appears in an earlier review of the same book she discusses (The Spirit Level). Not only does she reproduce the quote, the highlighted words - which appear within quotation marks in Snowdon’s version - are presented as Wente’s own prose in the Globe.
Christopher Snowdon: The Economist published its Quality of Life index in 2005, the relative income theory was explicitly rejected: ‘There is no evidence… that an increase in someone’s income causes envy and reduces the welfare and satisfaction of others. In our estimates, the level of income inequality had no impact on levels of life satisfaction.’
Wente, Jan. 7, 2011: And The Economist, among many others, argues there is no evidence that an increase in someone’s income causes envy and reduces the welfare and satisfaction of others. “In our estimates, the level of income inequality had no impact on levels of life satisfaction,” it noted in its quality-of-life index.