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It's the Plagiarism, Stupid
It's not about Chris Spence, or Margaret Wente, or Madhavi Acharya-Tom Yew

Outgoing TDSB Director of Education Chris Spence. Image via flickr / ABBYAD

It looked like we cared quite a bit about plagiarism in September and October when Margaret Wente got called out.

But now I wonder.

This week, the Star has apologized twice for plagiarism in its pages, once for an offence by a 17-year veteran journalist (16 of which have been at the Star) and once for a guest opiner, the now ex-head of the Toronto District School Board Chris Spence. The latter is a different issue than Wente’s, and the attention is ramping up as the extent of his offence becomes clearer, but the phrases lifted by Madhavi Acharya-Tom Yew are just the same as Wente’s. Someone who should have known better has apparently gotten into the sloppy habit of cutting and pasting information in the course of researching a story and ended up keeping the borrowed material — the point at which it becomes stolen material — instead of re-wording or re-writing as, presumably, she originally intended.

So why no hew and cry? Acharya-Tom Yew is not a name brand — in the words of one long-time Star staffer, “she’s an unobtrusive person writing an unobtrusive story in an unobtrusive section” — so her misdeeds would naturally get less press, but there’s been next to none. Just one piece by the reliable Craig Silverman at Poynter acknowledging the printed apology. That little attention to as serious a case of plagiarism as any of Wente’s — and lifted from the competition, no less — tells me we’re not actually that interested in the crime as we are the criminal. Tall poppy syndrome? The crab trap conundrum? It certainly has at least something to do with the unpopularity of many of Wente’s opinions, and it wasn’t helped by the tone of her response.

But the problem is the plagiarism. It doesn’t matter that more people read Wente; it’s not about exposure. It’s not even about intent. Whether Acharya-Tom Yew just forgot to remove some cut-and-pasted material or thought she could get away with a bit of a grab doesn’t matter. It’s about the very fundaments of journalism. It shouldn’t have taken an Ottawa artist to point out what Wente was doing wrong. That’s what editors are for. And it shouldn’t have taken Steve Ladurantaye, the Globe reporter of the piece that was plagiarized (and which beat the Star on the story by a day), to notice the use of the word “orphan” in Acharya-Tom Yew’s piece to bring it to the paper’s attention. That’s what editors are for.

As I wrote that last sentence, I caught myself thinking something I’m going to guess some of you are thinking right now: We can’t expect newspaper editors to spontaneously recognize plagiarism. They can’t read everything. There’s too much out there. Now, it’s true, some of Wente’s victims were obscure. But she did it repeatedly, over the course of years. Letters to the editor were written and published. People should have been checking as a matter of course. But with Acharya-Tom Yew, even though it seems to have just been this once (though if this is her research and writing protocol, I imagine someone might find some more if they cared to go back through her stuff), editors could have and should have caught this. She copied from the Globe and Mail.

The editors at the Star should be reading the Globe and Mail. And the business editors of the Star should be paying especially close attention to the business section of the Globe and Mail. And the National Post. And vices-versas. And what’s more: They used to. The Globe used to have little stands with that day’s edition of the Star and the Post at the end of each row of cubicles. At one point, around 2006, they stopped stocking the Post in what I was told was a delightfully bitchy dig: They no longer considered them competition.  But they still had the daily Star there. They still have the day’s papers in the office for reference, but they’re now centralized, along a wall. The Star does the same thing.

Things are complicated by the fact that all these papers run online-only material (like Ladurantaye’s story), but that complication is not immeasurable. Given that it seems some journalists are now cutting and pasting as a matter of (possibly time-saving) habit, this should be something editors are looking out for, just as much as misspelled names, typos and missing nut grafs.

But more important is that both papers used to have a sufficient number of editors to spread the daily workload out enough that editors might conceivably have the time to read the day’s papers. And being word folks, those editors would have twigged to Acharya-Tom Yew’s use of “orphan” too, or the almost identical list of movie titles. The fact that neither paper does anymore is of grave concern.

Online journalism has brought many good things to market, but the only true path for journalism to follow is a synthesis of those instant hits, phone videos and links with the distillation of hundreds of years of print journalism. I like Buzzfeed and TMZ, but I don’t trust them. That cat may have spread-eagled itself beautifully against the backdrop of the clear night sky, or the picture could have been altered. Britney may have just quit X Factor, or maybe not. And as anyone in a monogamous relationship who’s ever been cheated on can tell you, trust is like a toe: once broken, never healed.

Chris Spence is not a journalist, and though the fact that he was head of a school board with its own policy on plagiarism is problematic, that’s his problem, not ours. Our problem is the fact that the editors who handled multiple pieces by him did not check him. Would a carpenter sit a on stool built by an amateur wood-worker without first making sure it could support her weight?

Journalism’s facing a lot of problems right now, and though as I’ve said before I don’t think technology is putting it into any mortal peril, I’m starting to wonder whether the big traditional players — at least in this country — are not actually committing seppuku, eviscerating themselves with lay-offs and buy-outs that leave them unable to survive, economically or even in terms of the quality of their content, in the digital world.

A paragraph has been added to this story to reflect the fact that Steve Ladurantaye’s story, from which phrases were taken by Ms Acharya-Tom Yew, did not appear in the paper’s printed edition. The writer regrets the oversight.

____

Bert Archer writes for Toronto Standard. Follow him on Twitter: @bertarcher.

For more, follow us on Twitter: @TorontoStandard, or subscribe to our newsletter.

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