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Aggregate Journalism at Salon

Aggregators are parasites, only slightly more benign than plagiarists – and sooner or later, parasites kill the host. Someone has to actually create words for other people to steal. It’s just that actually paying for people to be creative is expensive.

Journalist Willard Foxton

In the yard on a sunny afternoon tending my kid goats, I get a telephone call from freelance journalist Alexander Zaitchik. He said his editors were asking him about W. Cleon Skousen and his relationship to the public lands grab, and that he called me because I was the “expert on these things.” Although I’ve written almost a dozen pieces on the subject, I demurred, as he’s a noted professional who in 2009 wrote Common Nonsense, a book about Glenn Beck and Skousen’s influence. Alex and I became acquainted after I wrote Constitutional Crisis in the Heart of Dixie that was published in CounterPunch, the piece a description of the LDS Church/Koch business and ideological connections to the lands transfer / Sagebrush Rebellion movement.

Dixie and other pieces that were published in the Southern Utah Independent would later gain some traction after a contingent of Mormons led by the Bundys and LaVoy Finicum took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. The day after it began, I declined several interviews, including Oregon Public Broadcasting, and later accepted one, Real News, to speak of the Mormon contingent and their influence. In CounterPunch, I later chronicled meeting Finicum when he was supposed to be at the standoff, breaking the story that the principles were traveling freely out of Oregon, questioning that the FBI had no perimeter to prevent recruitment, and that this allowance was white privilege. The piece and themes were later ‘aggregated’ by Raw Story, Alternet, The Guardian and Salon – sometimes without attribution.

My investigative journalism, amateur and without the benefit of a line editor, is steeped in political science and public administration combined with an inside knowledge of the public lands players, their organizations, and bureaucracies. I am humbled by the number of professional journalists with whom I have since become acquainted, and I continue in a sense to be a student in the field. I call my work “compelled folk art.”

I told Zaitchik that I had no Skousen anti-public lands quotes and reminded him of my SUIndy two-part 50 Year Leap, whereby I describe Skousen Theo-constitutionalism and the indoctrination network the LDS Church directed him to develop. I also told him that two weeks prior I wrote Donors Trump Administration, again published in CounterPunch, detailing the political motivations and players who are acting on ready made Koch Donors Trust / American Legislative Exchange legislative policy during the first 100 days, beginning, What seems to be the best kept secret is the importance of the Koch Donors Trust network and political minions from both Utah and Wisconsin to a Trump Administration.”

Later the same day, Amanda Marcotte follows me on Twitter. Three days later Salon publishes her piece Behind the Western land war: How the fringe ideology of anti-government cranks is becoming the GOP mainstream: Nutty right-wing theories meet the fossil-fuel industries, and the result is an all-out war on public land.

***

Aggregate journalism in the internet age is somewhere between ambulance chasing and field reporting. It’s certainly not investigative, no original. It’s capitalizing on the work of others. It’s retail, inherently akin to filling the shelves with plastic products. Often lacking substance, more often clickbait, it becomes throw-away, the idea to create a constant stream of content on the backs of hacks like me.

Marcotte is an Aggregate Journalist, a blogger doing it for a living primarily covering feminism politics. She describes herself as a Politics Writer at Salon and has contributed to other media aggregators including Raw Story and Slate.

Salon’s business model and quality moved from the investigative journalism of Glenn Greenwald to a low grade, high traffic, aggregate model on purpose, chronicled in Kelsey Sutton and Peter Sterne’s Politico piece The fall of Salon.com: How a digital trailblazer and progressive powerhouse lost its way: 

“Twelve current and former employees said they were discouraged from doing original journalism out of a concern that time spent reporting could be better spent writing commentary and aggregate stories. “

Marcotte is referenced in Sutton and Sterne’s piece, noting allegations of Salon’s bias against “Bernie Bros.” for a commentary she wrote during the 2016 Democratic primary. No doubt trafficking well, the stories an indication that as Salon strives for success in the aggregate form Marcotte is a good fit.

Behind the Western land war grabs from two sources. First, the Center for Biological Diversity recently published their “15 Top Public Lands Enemies in Congress”, the medal sweep being Skousen theo-constitutional Mormons. Marcotte explains the report then centers on several Utah Congresspeople, sliding to the Bundy’s use of Skousen ideology. Her second grab was from Zaitchik who forwarded my work to Marcotte and demurred to me the Skousen / Koch connections with the anti-public lands radicals. This is likely the reason for Marcotte’s follow via Twitter.

Marcotte had three primary sources she utilized while aggregating her story – and appears to have knowingly only attributed two, “clipping” my blood, sweat, and tears. I maintain Marcotte and her CounterPunch reading editors at Salon listened to the secrets I told in Donors Trump. Aggregating Behind the Western land war, they knowingly stole my thesis, neither crediting me nor Counterpunch.

Beyond thesis and attribution, I largely write about public lands and my partner works in public land management. Our vocational endeavors crossed professionally mid-life, our ideas crossing like Mary Matalin and James Carville but not quite. So, not only have I never asked for compensation for my journalism but my subject matter creates possible retribution and tests our thankfully strong relationship. I – we – have skin in the game.

Consider my SUIndy piece Mike Noel owes an apology for his ‘there will be bloodshed’ statement made during Malheur at a McCarthy-esque Congressional Field Hearing jointly hosted in St. George, Utah by CBD Enemies list entries Representatives #2 Rob Bishop, #6 Chris Stewart, and #10 Jason Chaffetz. All of these politicians, including Senators #3 Oral Hatch and #1 Mike Lee, are lobbying President Trump to make Noel Director of the Bureau of Land Management, our nation’s largest public lands agency.  Asshat Noel’s comment was directed at civil servants like my partner. He could be her boss.

In the aggregate, although I give of myself freely, Marcotte and Salon, through no fault of Zaitchik who attributed, got my goat.

And, after all of this, Marcotte and Salon, like Sam Levin and the Guardian, still get it wrong: They do not Bite the Bullet and name the Mormon problem concerning public lands policy in the west. All continue to fail to address the role of theology and Prophet directed theo-constitutional indoctrination programs Skousen was to implement, and all continue to fail to address the LDS Church corporate, for profit motivation that is based in both real estate and one of the nation’s largest agricultural holdings.

***

Never plagiarize. Always attribute.

– Society of Professional Journalists, Code of Ethics

 

Of course this piece is directed at Marcotte, Salon and professional journalism as a whole. To give you the perspective of a folk artist.

I called up a journalist I’ve gotten to know, Christopher Ketcham, to ask his opinion. Ketcham has lived in Mormon country, writes about public lands politics, and has used my work as a guide to understanding the religious threat to the public domain. “What you are experiencing happens all the time to writers,” Ketcham told me. “Not enough of us speak out to tell smooth operators like Salon to fuck off.”

Consider the Columbia Journalism Review piece Why Plagiarize when you can rip off a writers thoughts?  Washington Post Senior Editor Marc Fisher concludes, “In the cultural battles over aggregation, the word “plagiarism” gets bandied about all too loosely. Often, the grumbling about aggregation is really more about basic courtesy.”

Indeed.

Fisher quotes fellow editor Steve Buttry, “There was always a genre of story we called the ‘clip job,’ where a reporter parachuted in, did some original reporting to advance the story, but mainly relied on a whole lot of stuff from other sources that wasn’t credited. What’s new is that there are people out there being plagiarism cops.”

This is what Marcotte and Salon did, and I have become a cop – as the SPJ Code of Ethics suggests I should. While I don’t mean to be too sensitive and I continue to altruistically believe in building upon one another, this story is telling, contributing to my education in the world and state of journalism.

***

The internet allows for a new form of journalism and journalist, and I must thank editors like Jeffrey St. Clair and Joshua Frank of Counterpunch, along with Josh Warburton and Darren Edwards of the Southern Utah Independent. They all gave me a chance, will likely give YOU a chance, even if your grammar sucks, to break news, investigate and report without the undue influence of retail aggregate journalism. Attribution matters not only to the author but also the rags that publish them. I’m certain CP and the SUIndy could have used the extra foot traffic to help pay the bills. Subscribe and donate, and give them some clicks.

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Chris Zinda is an activist and writer living in Oregon.

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