Here’s another sloppy column by Margaret Wente with misleading attribution

Margaret Wente

Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente has a certain schtick when it comes to her writing. When there’s nothing in the news that grabs her eye, one of Wente’s friends inevitably steps in and provides the inspiration. That’s how her Saturday column started:

I usually hate shopping. I’m too impatient. When I find something I like, I buy two or three of it just to save time. My friend Barbara is different. She regards shopping as a cross between a treasure hunt and an aesthetic act. She can wade into Winners and spot the gold on a rack full of dreck. She has an eye for the rare and the refined. “Buy this!” she orders, and I do. I’ve never been sorry.

Then we transition to an attack on liberals/urbanites/environmentalists whose hypocrisy and small-mindedness never escapes our intrepid correspondent. Turns out today’s “eco-conscious haute bourgeoisie” are wrong about the drawbacks of rampant consumerism and when they sneer at Wal-Mart shoppers trampling one another to death they’re just being snobs, and yadda yadda yadda.

This isn’t a post about how formulaic Wente’s writing is.

This is a post about two misleading quotes Wente uses in her column, after already having been publicly shamed and professionally punished this year for being sloppy in her work. Some even called it plagiarism, which it was.

The gist of the column is about how some people are eschewing the trappings of our consumerist culture while failing to recognize the benefits. Classic “invisible hand” argument that when everyone pursues their private interests, society’s interests are also served. Capitalism gave us the iPod, etc.

Wente introduces us to two guys who call themselves “minimalists”:

Some of us go further. We vow to purge our lives of useless stuff. We embrace the newest status symbol: minimalism. One of the avatars of minimalism is Joshua Millburn, 31, who used to earn $150,000 as a telecom executive. He bought a lot of stuff, but it didn’t make him happy. So he ditched his job, his house, his car and his wife and moved to a cabin in Montana with his best friend, Ryan, who was also sick and tired of empty material success. “Less is more,” he says. Now the two have launched a cottage (or cabin) industry advising other people on how to live minimally, which includes a book you can buy for $14.83 on Amazon.

Based on that passage, most readers would reasonably conclude that Wente had spoken to these two chaps for a while before summarizing their work and quoting one of them as saying “less is more.” But that’s almost certainly not the case, because only a few days earlier the Globe had run a full feature on the two minimalists, in a story by Michael Posner. At the end of that piece, we get the following:

Rather than seeing minimalism as the be-all, Millburn and Nicodemus insist that it is just the tool that clears the path to a richer, if less cluttered, life. “Less is more, yes,” Millburn says. “And more is sometimes less, an overindulgence. But for the more important things, love and relationships, more can also be more.”

It would perhaps surprise you to know that Posner’s article gives a more nuanced review of minimalism than Wente, for whom it’s just a convenient caricature that furthers her argument, such as it is. In any case, Wente appropriated the information from a colleague and made no mention of the previous article. Given that this was likely written for print, the online version is also bereft of any links. It’s not on the level of her previous plagiarism, but it’s at the very least discourteous to another Globe and Mail writer.

It’s Wente’s next quote that made me scratch my head though. Here are two relevant paragraphs:

According to economic historian Deirdre McCloskey, the rise of middle-class consumerism is one of the most significant (and underrated) turning points in the history of civilization. Her book Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World argues that the modern world began around 1800, when values shifted in England and northern Europe. Entrepreneurship and wealth accumulation among ordinary people became celebrated, not despised. The embrace of bourgeois values – industry, commerce, social mobility, innovation – unleashed the greatest creation of material wealth the world has ever known. Real income per person soared, Ms. McCloskey writes, from $3 a day (where it had sat since ancient times) to the $125 a day that much of the world now enjoys.

This explosion of wealth introduced a new age of abundance, not just for kings and princes but for everyone. Prosperity brought much more than material goods. As Ms. McCloskey writes, “Give the middle class dignity and liberty for the first time in human history and here’s what you get: the steam engine, the automatic textile loom, the assembly line, the symphony orchestra, the railway, the corporation, abolitionism, the steam printing press, cheap paper, wide literacy, cheap steel, cheap plate glass, the modern university, the modern newspaper, clean water, reinforced concrete, the women’s movement, the electric light, the elevator, the automobile, petroleum, vacations in Yellowstone, plastics, half a million new English-language books a year, hybrid corn, penicillin, the airplane, clean urban air, civil rights, open-heart surgery, and the computer.”

Once again, a reasonable reader might see the summary of Deirdre McCloskey’s ideas and believe the lengthy quote to come from her book. Once again, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Where that quote does appear is in a New York Post article McCloskey wrote in 2011, which is not mentioned nor linked to. A Google Book search for that passage of text comes up blank. [Update: Prof. McCloskey confirmed this via email.]

One can only conclude that Margaret Wente found a book that seemed to support her argument, didn’t want to read it, quoted the author from elsewhere, but still wanted to look super smart.

Once again, this isn’t as bad as her previous infractions. At least she doesn’t pass off someone else’s words as her own, but she does take credit for work she clearly hasn’t done, be it in interviewing the two minimalists or reading McCloskey’s book. Does this go against journalistic ethics? Is it misleading to readers?

“You always want to be transparent with the reader on what your thoughts are and where you got other information from,” wrote the Globe’s public editor back in September, following Wente-gate.

I guess what I’m saying, in so many words, is that Margaret Wente is a lazy hack. Oh, and the thrilling conclusion to this column? Wente saw an expensive scarf somewhere that cost a lot of money. “And so I bought it. I’m wearing it right now, and I’m feeling very happy.”

Gold star, Margaret.

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