Globe and Mail finds itself in a pickle after appointing an insider as public editor
The Globe and Mail is not the New York Times, no matter how hard it tries to present itself as the newspaper of record in Canada. The Toronto Star has more impact in the country's largest city, and the Globe is a secondary player in all other markets with the possible exception of Ottawa.
Unlike the New York Times, the Globe has never broken a story quite like the Pentagon Papers, which exposed U.S. government lies during the Vietnam War. It also wasn't given early access to the WikiLeaks leaked diplomatic cables, unlike the Guardian, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, El Pais, and, yes, the New York Times.
However, the Globe racked up its share of major news scoops during the 1980s when it employed muckrakers like Victor Malarek, Jock Ferguson, and Stevie Cameron. That helped establish it as a significant player in the Canadian media landscape.
But in one key respect, the Globe has something in common with the New York Times: a high-profile, award-winning writer has come under a cloud. And it threatens the credibility of the paper, which can have an effect on how the public perceives journalists like Jeffrey Simpson and André Picard, who do outstanding work.
In the case of the New York Times, the journalist was Pulitzer Prize winner Judith Miller. She filed a series of articles based on unnamed sources baldly declaring that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. This helped lay the groundwork for the Bush administration's attack on Iraq in 2003.
One of Miller's unnamed sources was Scooter Libby, then-chief of staff to U.S. vice president Dick Cheney. Libby was described as a "former Hill staffer" (which was true, though somewhat misleading). Miller also outed CIA agent Valerie Plame before leaving the paper in 2005.
The Globe and Mail scandal is much more mundane. According to a detailed blog post by former Ryerson journalism head John Miller, an artist named Carol Wainio documented instances in which columnist Margaret Wente appeared to take credit for quotes given to others. Miller stated that it looked like Wente had conducted the interviews.
Wainio also raised this issue earlier this month in connection with another article.
The Globe's public editor, Sylvia Stead, recently wrote that she "investigated the matter", but commented only about a column from July 2009.
"We have looked into all of the complaints raised by the anonymous blogger regarding Ms. Wente and other writers at The Globe and Mail and made corrections or clarifications where information was incorrect or unclear," Stead wrote.
The headline, "Public editor: We investigate all complaints against our writers", doesn't mention Wente by name.
In his response, Miller claimed that Stead "treats it as a minor misdemeanor, a bit of temporary carelessness over one single attribution, worthy of only an editor's note in the paper's electronic archives".
He added that this was a "shockingly inadequate response" from a newspaper executive whom he professed to respect.
Sylvia Stead involved in Jan Wong firing
Let's not kid ourselves. There's more than just a newspaper writer's reputation on the line here. If Stead, editor-in-chief John Stackhouse, and publisher Philip Crawley had laid the lumber on a marquee columnist like Wente, it would have hurt the brand of the Globe and Mail. Rival publications like the National Post and the other Postmedia papers would play this up, which could have an effect on the Globe's circulation and revenue.
And anyone who read former Globe and Mail reporter Jan Wong's devastating book, Out of the Blue: A Memoir of Workplace Depression, Recovery, Redemption and, Yes, Happiness, knows Crawley values how his paper is perceived.
"You have hurt our brand in Quebec," Crawley once told Wong, according to her book, after she had spoken to the media—with the then-editor's authorization—about one of her stories.
Wong also revealed how Stead, as the paper's then–deputy editor, along with the then–vice president of human resources coldly fired her.
Stead didn't come across particularly well in Out of the Blue as a key management person who kept in contact with Wong throughout her ordeal. And Stead's handling of the Wente case doesn't get a stellar review from Miller.
Globe readers might wonder why the company appointed a former management insider as its public editor—rather than naming someone with more of an arm's-length perspective.
The CBC went the independent route in hiring Kirk LaPointe, a former Vancouver Sun managing editor, as its ombudsman. He hadn't supervised and worked closely with the journalists whose stories he was evaluating.
The Globe and Mail, on the other hand, chose someone from the inside, which probably appeared safer at the outset to Crawley and Stackhouse. But it could raise a more serious threat to the paper over the medium to long term.
Wente, like the editor-in-chief, is a former editor of the Report on Business section.
The Globe could learn from the New York Times
It's intriguing to see how the New York Times has tried to bounce back from the Judith Miller scandal, as well as from another embarrassment involving a serial-fabricating "journalist" named Jayson Blair.
In a fairly slick move, the New York Times has turned a former alternative-newspaper-editor-turned-media-columnist, David Carr, into a roving ambassador. Carr goes on the road attacking the paper's left-wing critics at public forums and defending the paper's integrity.
Meanwhile, its public editor, Margaret Sullivan, was not an internal hire—she came from the Buffalo News. And as Julie Moos noted on the Poynter site, Sullivan has been including links in her articles, which enhance her credibility.
Stead's article about the Wente controversy, on the other hand, included no links, making it more difficult for readers to look at the primary sources.
Perhaps the time has come for the Globe to appoint a public editor who will respect people's curiosity in the same manner as Sullivan does. I have just the arm's-length candidate in mind: John Miller. You can bet that like Sullivan, he would provide the necessary links to help readers come to their own conclusions about any controversies involving the journalists.
Over the long term, that would build public trust and shareholder value.
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.