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Tuesday, April 08, 2003  
The Agonist: from hero to zero?

Wired online reports on the scam that earned Sean-Paul Kelley accolades as a war blogger in a thorough, three-page story yesterday.

Kelley's insightful window on the details of the war brought him increasing readership (118,000 page views on a recent day) and acclaim, including interviews in the The New York Times and on NBC's Nightly News, Newsweek online and National Public Radio.

The only problem: Much of his material was plagiarized -- lifted word-for-word from a paid news service put out by Austin, Texas, commercial intelligence company Stratfor. "You got me, I admit it. . . . I made a mistake," Kelley said. "It was stupid." In a series of interviews with Wired News, Kelley changed his story several times. At first, he said he used just four or five Stratfor items a day without crediting the company. Later, he owned up to "six or seven days when half was from Stratfor."

As someone who began her work life as a print journalist and returns to reporting from time to time, I am not the person to sympathize with Kelley. Not only did I pay my dues as a journalist, I have friends who are in the Middle East exposing themselves to injury or death.

In retrospect, the warning signs that Kelley was up to something are pretty obvious to the discerning eye. His paucity of experience as a news gatherer (three weeks at a small newspaper, according to the Wired article) gives off smoke. I also detected style over substance in some of Kelley's pre-war blogging. He seemed to be saying what he thought would please people too much. His appeal for money to take a trip abroad also caused me to raise an eyebrow.

I don't know how knowledgeable Kelley is about the law. Perhaps he convinced himself, wrongly, that it was acceptable to plagiarize if the material was published in a new, untested medium such as a web log. Or, maybe he kidded himself about the nature of his contract with Stratfor, which, unseen, I think would allow for fair use of its material, only.

Aside from a few scattered attributions, Kelley presented Stratfor's intelligence as information he had uncovered himself, typically paragraph-long reports detailing combat operations in Iraq. He took these wholesale from a Stratfor proprietary newsletter, U.S.-Iraqwar.com, which Kelley admits he subscribes to.

"Many postings on the (Agonist) pages I looked at are word-for-word verbatim," said Stratfor chief analyst Matthew Baker.

Kelley also offered bogus claims about anonymous sources to try to cover his trail. On the bright side, it was a fellow blogger, General Roy, of Strategic Armchair Command, who blew the whistle. In an open letter today, he says, in part:

Dear Agonist,

It is interesting that you have labelled us nefarious when in fact it is you who may have to some degree mislead thousands, if not tens of thousands of people.  We, on the other hand, openly posted our thoughts, and have not hidden anything from anyone.

As for your excuses, the idea that you were unable to cite all your sources because you were blogging mobile is lame at best.  All you needed to do was add "Via Stratfor" after every VERBATIM post from them.

I disagree with the General's pro-war position, but agree with his response to Kelley.

So far, there doesn't seem to be litigation in the air between The Agonist and Stratfor. The supposed outcome?

In a surprisingly amicable resolution, Stratfor and Kelley have agreed that he can use no more than two Stratfor items per day, and always with attribution.

However, I believe Stratfor lost something valuable, its right to claim the goodwill and marketability from the labor of its employees and agents, in this episode. We may not have heard the last of this.

In the stories I read about Kelley, I keep coming across descriptions of him denigrating journalists. I criticize reporters too -- when I know of something specific they've done wrong. However, Kelley's contempt for journalists is general, and, considering these revelations, I perceive it as sour grapes.

How will bloggers respond to a malefactor in their midst? The proprietor of The Ideal Rhombus is a Kelley fan and will continue to frequent the site for now.

It' a blow to the blogging community in general, especially as mainstream media and the rest of the world begin to take note of the legitimacy of blogging and bloggers. Will I stop reading? Probably not, but I'll take it with a grain of salt more appropriate to CNN or Fox News than the CBC or BBC.

Technorati currently lists The Agonist with 547 inbound blogs and 850 inbound links. His numbers dwarf those of all but the most popular blogs. They nudge the hard-working and honest Josh Marshall and DailyKos down in the ratings.

The Truth Laid Bear objects. (Kelley has dropped to the top 20 in its ecosystem rankings from the top five. Initially, I thought the Agonist had been removed.) He suggests the Agonist wear the scarlet P. Bear counsels:

Misdeeds should have consequences. Even now, Sean-Paul continues to reap the benefits of his earlier transgressions. Perhaps the people flocking to his site tonight would be doing so today even had he not lifted Statfor's work. But more likely, many of them would not. And more appalling is the fact that even now, new readers to Sean-Paul's site --- today, and next week, and the week after that --- may never know that he has admitted to such a breach of ethics.

And so I have a suggestion. If Sean-Paul is truly repentant for his actions: if he truly wishes to apologize and begin anew, then he should put a banner message at the top of his site, informing of readers of his past plagiarism, and linking to the relevant Strategic Armchair Command and Wired News articles.

And he should leave it there. Not for a day; not for a month. Maybe for years. Maybe forever.

News of this revelation has barely begun to penetrate the blogosphere. I am curious to see whether bloggers, who hold mainstream journalists to very high standards, will, like Truth, do the same for one of our own.

Note: As a new blogger who has no relationship with Sean-Paul Kelley, it is easy for me to more or less objectively consider his situation. I will understand if other bloggers, some of whom may have sent him wedding gifts a short time ago, choose not to blog about him.

4:49 PM