Wente’s Wendigo: Social media is the only real public editor in Canada

Publishers and editors hate being corrected by artists – trust me on this one.

Carol Wainio, the artist and professor based in Ottawa, has forced to the light a serious issue in our country simply by observing the truth that a columnist for the Globe & Mail, Margaret Wente, has committed plagiarism . She has also, to me, revealed some of the deep seeded problems with most industries in our country – namely that each sector is so small that inside politics essentially negates a merit-based system and duplicates behaviours that others may call corruption. Entitlement, protection, unaccountability, job opportunities for collaborators and exile for critics – this creates a closed community and defensive organizational behaviour that is currently on display with the Globe & Mail.

I don’t like how Wente and The Globe & Mail have treated this so far. In particular, the dismissive tone of the editorial staff and the passive-aggressive non-apology from Wente focusing on disparaging the efforts of an “anonymous blogger” bothers me. She uses words in this context such as “self-styled”, “obsessive” and “publicly complaining”. And for the rest of us sharing this developing story via social media, she says “were retweeted by a number of people who didn’t bother to think twice – or ask for a response – before helping her to smear my reputation”. So in other words it’s unfair and unreasonable because of the public, and presents a dim view of “the blogger”. A relatively closed organization culture is hinted at here, as the reprimand and results of the Public Editor’s investigation are being kept confidential with Wente presently looking like she gets to keep her job.

You see, these people all know each other. Most of them are friends. They have drinks together, dinner and give each awards. If you were to be critical of a colleague, boss or owner – especially publicly –  you will almost certainly face career-affecting ramifications for the rest of your life. Conversely, if you play your political and social cards right you will get fantastic opportunities that others deserve more – I have also seen this happen. This is not a conspiracy or specific to any one industry or sector, it’s simply a logical result, a matter of scale as the reality of being Canada is a norm of small and largely centralized industries that are or share a monopoly. Well, the news media industry used to be similar to a monopoly but not really anymore thanks to social media. Perhaps the relationship between these two entities can be better understood if we think of social media as a multi-national corporate entity and major player on the scene, as they have almost no overhead and an army of 5 million interns with no editorial bottleneck.

Oh how the publishing industry in particular disdains bloggers, google and social media in general. To label many news media old guard as unimaginative slow adopters might be an understatement. Often I had to fight tooth and nail to get a media organization to even consider a Twitter account.

Also, to me, it is not a surprise to see that an artist has brought about this public discussion. Artists are, can be, outside of and included in every social class. Most successful artists are generally very methodical and focused on tasks, which Wainio certainly is. Slandering contemporary artists historically has limited success by virtue of the fact they are at least romanticized for quixotic efforts and alternative opinions. It can argued that is their job. Demeaning the artist blogger did not work for the Chinese government in regards to Ai WeiWei, so I’m not sure why the Globe & Mail and Margaret Wente thought the same approach to dismiss an outspoken artist blogger would work. The fact Wainio is protected in an academic setting and safely able to publicly list problems with a large and powerful public record is part of what being in a university is supposed to be all about –  though I am sure the same could not be said for, say in this particular Wentegate issue, an economics, journalism or business program. Fine art in higher education still has a position of relative intellectual freedom because, I think, it is largely ignored in importance to the corporate and political influence over our higher education (I wish the same could be said for the art sector in general…).

So in steps the crowd, that unruly mob, the chattering classes, the chorus that can insist on accountability and answers (I am referring to those who read as well as write, as well as back up arguments with facts and references. sorry right wingers 😉 yelling at people in comment sections does not make you justified). A public editor, or even ombudsman and certainly most “customer complaint departments” is simply not good enough anymore to be trusted because when the top of the heirachry is rotten, it affects the rest of the culture of the organization.

So established Canadian media organizations, you close your eyes and ears to bloggers and social media at your peril. You are not too big to fail and as many downsized organizations have found out the online community tends to create elsewhere what is missing in your product. I’ve seen this happen as well.

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