Monday, April 7, 2003

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Scandal in the blogosphere

This Wired story (link via Glenn Reynolds) reports that Sean-Paul Kelley has been plagiarizing reports from's U.S.-Iraq War Web Site on his Agonist site. By plagiarize I mean he's copied them verbatim without attribution or with false attributions. If you want examples, go to Strategic Armchair Command's original post outlining specific examples of plagiarism.

Kelley's quote from the Wired story: "You got me, I admit it.... I made a mistake," Kelley said. "It was stupid."

Last week, Sean-Paul posted a defense of his actions. Today, he's posted a somewhat more contrite apology, which contains the following:

"I want to state explicitly that what I did was inexcusable and for many readers may be unforgivable. I understand that and am willing to accept the consequences of my actions.

I make no excuses for what I did." [UPDATE: Meryl Yourish thinks that what follows this post is a series of excuses]

Initial blogosphere reaction comes from Glenn Reynolds, Matthew Yglesias, Overspill, Rafe Colburn, Colby Cosh, Samizdata, N.Z. Bear, Meryl Yourish, Ken Layne, and Jeff Jarvis. My thoughts turn towards the exact magnitude of Kelley's infraction and the comparative advantage of the blogosphere.

1) How much did Kelley cross the line? The reason I originally linked to the Agonist was not because I thought Kelley was doing any original reporting, but because I thought he was doing a nice job of collating and posting recent information about the war from the Internet. I had always assumed his unlinked reports came from secondary sources that were not on the web. In other words, I never thought the comparative advantage of the Agonist was original reporting. Substantively, this disclosure does not change my opinion of the site's content.

It does change my opinion of Kelley's ethics, however. The Wired story makes it clear that what Kelley did was plagiarism, pure and simple. He copied source material word for word without attribution. He prevaricated about it when questioned by Wired's reporter. He also dodged the question in this Dallas Morning News story:

War blogs have had their own spats. On Tuesday, Kelley's got involved in a controversy because, he says, another war blog accused him of stealing information without proper attribution.

But Kelley says his audience trusts him. 'For my readers, it's like their personal news service,' he says. 'They send me an e-mail, and I send them a reply right back.'

One could also argue that Kelley had a larger obligation to the Blogosphere, since he was one of the poster boys of the spate of recent coverage of warblogging by MSNBC, the New York Times, the Financial Times, and the Washington Post.

As a graduate student in international relations, Kelley knew (or should have known) he was in the wrong as he was lifting Stratfor's content, and he was in the wrong again when he initially tried to deny the plagiarism. Stratfor, to its credit, has come to an amicable agreement with Kelley on future posts, so it looks like some wrongs are being righted. However, I can't endorse what Kelley did, so I've decided to replace Kelley's spot on the blogroll with the Command Post and Stratfor -- at least until the war ends.

2) What does this mean for blogging? The Wired story has the following quote:

"I really thought that The Agonist was going to be the vanguard that pushed news blogging over the top and gave many of us new hope," opined a MetaFilter poster named Dean Paxton. "Instead, I fear that this is an enormous setback. Especially when the blog-savvy media pundits are turned on to this."

Paxton may be right about media reaction, but he's wrong about the comparative advantage of the Blogosphere. Blogs, taken in their entirety, do occasionally provide news scoops. However, there are two other blogtasks that are much more important.

First, some blogs can act as focal points for information provision. Now, by definition, there can only be one or two focal points. Glenn Reynolds generally acts as one for bloggers. During concentrated crises -- Josh Marshall in the case of Trent Lott's downfall, or Kelley for Operation Iraqi Freedom -- others can spring up. These blogs serve the useful purpose of collecting and distributing already available information to interested readers. In doing so, these individuals help to frame and propel debates of the day. They also reduce search costs for the rest of us [Example?--ed. Consider that the original blogger discovery of Sean-Paul's plagiarism was made a week ago -- but it was on a blog that I don't read regularly. I didn't know about it until it was on InstaPundit.]

Second, most bloggers provide value added in the form of criticism and commentary. We don't generate new facts so much as put already existing facts into a larger framework. We then look at other people who do this and comment and critique their efforts. This is my comparative advantage, at least.

This scandal, as it were, might alter media perceptions of what the Blogosphere is about. It will not alter its fundamental nature.

UPDATE: Mac Diva, a journalist-turned-blogger, offers her opinion here.

posted by Dan on 04.07.03 at 04:40 PM