Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Margaret Wente and The Washington Post


I was reminded of this recently.  Back in 2009 (along with a number of other issues) I alerted The Globe and Mail to some similarities between a March 31, 2009 column by Margaret Wente and a March 30 column by The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank.  They begin like this:
Milbank: Has Barack Obama got a deal for you! "If you buy a car from Chrysler or General Motors, you will be able to get your car serviced and repaired, just like always," the president announced from the Grand Foyer of the White House this morning.
And that's not all! "Your warranty will be safe," the salesman-in-chief went on. "In fact, it will be safer than it's ever been, because, starting today, the United States government will stand behind your warranty." And check out these incentives!
Wente:  Hey there, folks! My name is Barry O., and I'm not gonna mess around. Your GM franchise is under new management. Let me say it as plainly as I can: If you buy a car from Chrysler or General Motors, you'll be able to get your car serviced and repaired, just like always. Your warranty will be safe. In fact, it'll be safer than it's ever been. Because starting today, the U.S. government will stand behind it. So come on down! The deals are unbelievable. Just look for the giant gorilla hanging from the roof.

Milbank extends his satirical take on the president – who he calls the “salesman in chief” - with, “If you act today, he may even throw in the floor mats”, and later, "Will he throw in a few oil changes?"
Wente also uses the “salesman in chief” line elsewhere in her column, along with similar or identical language and imagery: “He did everything but throw in a set of floor mats and a free oil change”.
I received a reply from The Globe saying, “These were comments of a kind naturally suggested by Barack Obama's announcement. The words that are identical are words directly quoted from Mr. Obama.”

A couple of obvious problems with this; one, it doesn’t address the bits of identical or near identical language not directly quoted from Obama, and more importantly, the opening of Wente’s column actually contains no quotation marks to indicate which (if any) words are “directly quoted” from President Obama.

Milbank’s version, above, properly puts Obama’s words in quotes, so the reader can distinguish what was a real (and significant) announcement from a journalist’s humor, comment, or criticism.  Despite the Globe’s claim, Ms. Wente’s version contains no punctuation to indicate where the president’s words begin or end.  That would seem a fairly egregious omission.  Imagine the implications, if one can add, subtract, or move quotation marks at will?  As we’ve noted, missing or migrating quotation marks frequently enough with Ms. Wente.  Are such mash-ups acceptable at Canada’s “newspaper of record”?

The Globe’s claim that the similarities were “of a kind naturally suggested by Barack Obama's announcement” seems intended to suggest coincidence - that Ms. Wente hadn’t read Milbank.

But one is entitled to wonder if she had indeed scanned The Washington Post website.  Particularly when there are other overlaps of prose apparently from the same day Milbank’s column was published (March 30).  For example, the sentence below appears on their site as the caption to an embedded video accompanying The Post’s report about the GM bailout.
Washington Post:  The White House says neither General Motors nor Chrysler submitted acceptable plans to receive more bailout money, setting the stage for a crisis in Detroit that would dramatically reshape the nation's auto industry.
Wente:  The White House says neither General Motors nor Chrysler submitted acceptable plans to receive more bailout money, setting the stage for a crisis in Detroit that would dramatically reshape the nation's auto industry.

Again, this is just one of many such queries about Ms. Wente’s attribution practices.  Here’s another.

When it appeared, similarities between Margaret Wente’s November 2010 column and an October article by Charles Murray in The Washington Post were noted by others.  Wente’s column contains what she describes as a “patented Elite-O-Meter quiz”.  Not sure that patent would stand up.
In an October MacLean's post, Luiza Ch. Savage observed that she couldn’t find a link to the original ‘elite’ quiz that ran in The Washington Post, so she reproduces it.  Claire Berlinski on The Daily Caller (and on the Ricochet site), created a similar, related quiz, based on Murray’s - again, with links to The Post and acknowledgement of the previous mock questionnaire.  Wente does add some “Canadian content” to her version, but a surprising amount of the content is similar – she doesn’t even bother to throw in a hockey reference.  Some comparisons here:
Wente: …What do these initials stand for?  NPR (+10 if you know) MMA (-20 if you know)
Washington Post:  Do you known what MMA and UFC stand for? Yes/No
Wente:  …Who is Jimmie Johnson (not the football coach)? (-40)
Washington Post:  Do you know who Jimmi Johnson is? (The really famous one, not the football coach.) Yes/No
Wente:  To get some exercise, you prefer Yoga and Pilates (+10) Hunting and fishing (-20)
Washington Post:  5. Can you hold forth animatedly about yoga? … How about pilates?
Wente:  As an adult, have you ever lived in a small town for at least a year? (University towns don't count.) (-20)
Washington Post: Have you ever lived in a town with fewer than 25,000 people? (During college doesn’t count.) Yes/No
Wente:  Have you ever read a book by Tim LaHaye? (-20)
Washington Post:  Can you named the authors of the “Left Behind” series? (Tim LaHaye) Yes/No
Wente:  Your idea of good TV is:  The Sopranos or Mad Men (+20) Oprah or The Price is Right (-20)
Washington Post:  they can probably talk about a few trendy shows -- "Mad Men" now, "The Sopranos" a few years ago. But they haven't any idea who replaced Bob Barker on "The Price Is Right." They know who Oprah is, but they've never watched one of her shows from beginning to end.
And there’s other stuff; Wente doesn’t actually introduce Murray until about half way through her piece, where she notes his recent article in The Post and offers him credit for “providing the inspiration and some of the content for the Elite-O-Meter.”  Not sure this is quite enough, given how much her column relies on his.  And unlike Savage in MacLean’s, she doesn’t actually tell readers that The Post ran its own quiz, before her “patented” version appeared.

Other similarities may not amount to the level of plagiarism noted by Wente’s colleagues and assorted experts in past instances, but they don’t demonstrate much in the way of originality either.

Starting with her first paragraph (well before she mentions him), Wente echoes the ideas in Murray’s introduction; like him, she begins with the Tea Party, then notes what she calls the ‘anti-anti-elite’ reaction – not unlike Murray’s examples of Maureen Dowd and company.  And just like Murray, she singles out Richard Florida’s “creative class” as emblematic of the new supposed elite.

Murray:  The new elite “ were surely pleased when Richard Florida celebrated their wonderfulness in his 2002 work, "The Rise of the Creative Class."
Wente:  If you are on the plus side of the Elite-O-Meter, there's a good chance you belong to Richard Florida's Creative Class.
She echoes Murray’s ideas about the university’s role in creating the new “meritocracy”.

Murray:  …membership in the New Elite, the nation's most prestigious colleges and universities. In the idealized view of the meritocrats… now they are peopled by youth from all backgrounds...
Wente:  You are the product of the modern meritocracy.  Although your family may have come from humble origins, you have joined the ruling class - the one that runs our major institutions...
Here we see we see Murray’s ideas (and some specific terminology like “social churn”):

Murray:  When educational and professional opportunities first opened up, we saw social churning galore, as youngsters benefited from opportunities that their parents had been denied. But that phase lasted only a generation or two…
Wente:  A generation ago, as our higher education system opened up to everyone, there was enormous social churn as people from formerly excluded groups got their chance.
The “bubble” language and ideas are also similar:

Murray: …many of them have been ensconced in affluent suburbs from birth and have never been outside the bubble of privilege…When they leave college, the New Elite remain in the bubble…
Wente: … But they've grown up in a bubble, and they will go on to work in the same bubble.
Murray:  The New Elite marry each other, combining their large incomes and genius genes, and then produce offspring who get the benefit of both.
Wente:  These people married other seriously gifted people, and had seriously gifted children who are now graduating at the top of their class and marrying each other…
As one commenter put it on The Globe’s website, Wente clearly fails the Are You a Plagiarist Quiz.

http://www2.macleans.ca/2010/10/25/quiz-are-you-elite/

She lifts the Jimmie Johnson question right down to the "not the football coach" in parentheses part.”  (That 2010 comment was before The Globe started systematically removing any mention of plagiarism from Wente’s comments following the scandal that resulted in her being “disciplined” in 2012.  Seems Globe elites have made sure that little people don’t get to exercise the same ‘freedom of speech’ reserved for well-paid columnists).

I won't comment on the kind of reverse identity politics favoured by Ms. Wente and those from whom she borrows, like Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve, a book described by some as a “synthesis of the work of disreputable race theorists and eccentric eugenicists”.  (For those unfamiliar with it, that book claims Blacks and Latinos are less intelligent than Whites and Asians.  It benefited from financing by The Pioneer Fund, which, says ABC News, “has promoted the study of racial purity as an ideal… the Pioneer Fund contributed $3.5 million to researchers cited in The Bell Curve”.  These “researchers” include people who think, incompetent cultures should be phased out.”)
Wente, (a true ultra elite herself) concludes with a bit of advice for “latte lass” (a recurring caricature): Go to Tim Hortons for a change”, she admonishes. “As Bill Clinton once put it, ‘Some of us are going to cross the street, folks.’"  Funnily enough, Bill Clinton’s statement "Some of us are gonna have to cross the street, folks", was not made in reference to Murray, but to Bill Bishop, whose book The Big Sort, is a more intelligent read.
And speaking of ‘crossing the street’, Ms. Wente could certainly have done just that when the Occupy Protests were happening.  I’m sure if she’d climbed down from her condo tower, to do some real journalistic work, she could have found a real person to interview, rather than borrowing that unfortunate non-Occupier, "John".

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Globe and Mail falls off its “pedastal”


A story by Oliver Moore on page R14 of Saturday’s print edition of The Globe and Mail carries the headline “Off the bike, and the pedastal”.  Can’t find it with that headline anywhere online. 

To be fair, though, it was pointed out to me that the teensy, tiny cottage industry that is this blog used the (legitimate) variant “miniscule” rather than the more appropriate “minuscule” in a previous post.

“Pedastal” though, seems to be just a goof.

Margaret Wente’s “Big Wind”: another error?


In her latest column against sustainable energy, Margaret Wente writes that, “Big Wind is among the biggest lobbyists in Washington”. 

She provides nothing to support a claim that appears to be false.  Here’s a list of the 20 biggest lobbyists in Washington from the Center for Responsive Politics.  Topping it is the US Chamber of Commerce which spent $136 million on lobbying in 2012, followed by a variety of sectors like Real Estate, Pharmaceuticals, Blue Cross, Oil, and Communications.  “Big Wind” is nowhere “among the biggest lobbyists in Washington”.

The same body notes that, “Until 2008, AWEA (American Wind Energy Association) failed to crack the $1 million mark in annual lobbying expenditures -- and most years, it spent less than $500,000.”  
According to Business Pundit, which lists “10 of the biggest lobbies” in Washington, Tech (at “$120 million” - Google alone doled out $20 million for lobbying in 2012), Big Oil (“$150 million”), Agribusiness (“$150 million”), Financial (“hundreds of millions”), Big Pharma, Defense, Mining, and AARP all dwarf the pitiful lobbying dollars of wind power.  Even the NRA and the Pro Israel lobbies are larger.
In 2009, lobbying by the American Wind Energy Association did increase dramatically to $5 million and then dropped back down to about $2 million in recent years.  A report from January 2013 in the Washington Free Beacon confirms this, noting that,  The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) spent more than $2.1 million in 2012, a 61 percent increase from the $1.5 million it spent the previous year.”
It’s not clear what Ms. Wente means by “Big Wind”. Aside from the industry organization, many individual wind energy companies’ lobbying expenses were so miniscule they fell below the threshold for reporting, but if she is referring to Nextera (which she mentions in her article), her claim is also incorrect. 

Nextera, formerly Florida Power and Light and now one of the largest providers of wind energy, spent about $5 million in lobbying last year.  But as wind makes up about half of the company’s power portfolio (the rest includes gas, nuclear, hydro, solar and others), it would be equally erroneous for Ms. Wente to claim that this company is the “Big Wind” lobby.   Half of $5 million is about equivalent to the amount spent by the American Wind Energy Association and is still dwarfed by any one of the hundreds, if not thousands, of lobbyists in Washington who spend many, many times that amount.

Perhaps Ms. Wente meant to say that “Big Wind” or Nextera was one of the biggest electric utility lobbyists in Washington.  But this wouldn’t be true either.  It’s lobbying constituted only about one third of the nearly $16 million spent by the largest electric utilities last year, and if one subtracts the non-wind percentage of its holdings, it drops out of the top ten utility lobbyists altogether. 

By any measure, $2 million represents a tiny fraction of what the “biggest lobbyists in Washington” spent last year.  So unless Ms. Wente can provide sources and facts to support her claim, it should be corrected.  

As for her claim that Nextera paid no income tax, Ms. Wente omits to mention that there are dozens of other companies, like Verizon and Boeing, who, due to U.S. tax structure, are in a similar position.

In addition to a significant number of past plagiarism and attribution problems, Margaret Wente has engaged in previous misrepresentations of environmental issues, from nearly doubling the number of polar bears in Canada (to support her claim that they’re not at risk), to her claims about electric cars.  One might also ask whether, when writing about energy issues, it might be appropriate to disclose her longstanding position on the board of Energy Probe.

According to its wikipedia page, “Energy Probe is a non-governmental environmental policy organization based in Toronto and best known for its role in opposing nuclear power,[1][2][3] and as a free-market lobbyist for fossil fuels[4] and well-known Canadian proponent of climate change denial.”