The recent actions of Patheos are representative of broader trends in our society which are deeply troubling.
A little background…
… in case you don’t know what happened. If you do, feel free to skip to the end (“the big picture…”).
Until this week, I wrote a blog at Patheos called “The Allergic Pagan.” I had been writing for Patheos for about four years. A few months ago Patheos was purchased by Beliefnet, which is owned by an evangelical organization. There were concerns over what this would mean for the Pagan channel, but our editor, Jason Mankey, assured us that nothing would change.
On January 30, 2017, the writers at Patheos, who are all independent contractors, received new contracts to sign—not because our contracts had expired, but because Patheos/BN wanted to change the terms. For many of the writers, they had no prior notice from their editor that the new contract was coming. I had been given a heads up by Mankey the Friday before. However, all he said was that there would be changes to the pay structure. He did not give any indication of any of the other substantial changes in the contract.
When I received the contract on the following Monday, I was shocked by what I read. I am a lawyer by profession and reading and interpreting contracts is something I do regularly. This was an egregiously one-sided contract. (Here are a links to the contract pages: 1, 2, 3, 4.) And the contract was due by February 1st, less than 48 hours later, giving writers little time to consider the contract or consult legal counsel.
What the contract said…
The most problematic part of the contact had to do with new editorial controls. The new contract allowed Patheos to edit any of our posts “without limitation.” We were explicitly prohibited from using profanity (with some exceptions). The contract required that the “tone” (a very subjective term) resemble that of other online media with which Patheos compared itself, like Slate and Huffington Post. The contract also prohibited advertising or “self-promotion” (another vague term). We were also barred from posting a “farewell” post without approval, and even approved farewell posts would be deleted after seven days. Patheos could move any of our posts to Beliefnet or any other site that it acquired in the future. And, finally, Patheos could delete any post it deemed, in its sole discretion, to be “offensive” (yet another ambiguous term).
The contract also prohibited “disparaging” of Patheos or any “related” company. A little research by Pat Mosley revealed that Patheos was related to a number of far right-wing organizations, including the National Rifle Association, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Focus on the Family, Gun Owners of America, Promise Keepers, Concerned Women for America, the American Family Association, and the American Center of Law and Justice.
The American Center for Law & Justice (ACLJ) for example, promotes conservative Christian laws in Africa, including support for a bill in Uganda that would have implemented the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality”. The connection between Patheos and the ACLJ is not hard to trace. Jeremy McGee is President and COO of Patheos, and also also on the Board of Affinity4. Both Patheos and Affinity4 are BN (Beliefnet) Media brands. Guess who else is on the 4-person Board of Affinity4? Jay Sekulow, who is is Chief Counsel for the ACLJ!
Under the new contract, the organizations could be considered “related” companies that Patheos Pagan writers not permitted to “disparage.” This interpretation of the contract was independently confirmed by another lawyer and by Gwion Raven, who also reads contracts for a living.
You see, lawyers thrive on ambiguous language like “related,” “offensive,” “self-promotion,” etc. Because Patheos can afford to pay for lawyers, and many of the Patheos Pagan writers cannot, and because the contract required that legal disputes be settled in the state of Patheos’ choosing, these contract provisions would most likely be interpreted to favor Patheos.
What happened next…
When some of us raised these issues with our editor, Jason Mankey, he told us to contact the President/COO of Patheos to discuss them. I repeatedly urged Mankey to act as our advocate and not just a messenger for the corporation, but he acted as powerless as we felt.
So, the following morning, on Tuesday, I wrote a post on my blog on the Patheos Pagan channel. The post was entitled, “Read This Before Patheos Delete It.” (You can read it here, where is has been reposted.) The subject of the post was the terms of the contract and my criticism. The title of the post was deliberately provocative (and I did use the f-bomb once), but it was otherwise an analysis of the contract (kind of boring as blog posts go).
After posting the article, I was contacted by Mankey who asked what I wanted. I reiterated that I wanted him to renegotiate the contract for us. I also told him that I did not intend to sign the contract as written, but that neither was I voluntarily leaving Patheos. I told him I would await Patheos’ response. An hour later, the post was summarily taken down and my access to my entire blog (almost 1000 posts) was blocked. This was done without any further contact from Mankey or anyone else at Patheos. No request was made to me to remove the post (I wouldn’t have consented, but I should have been asked) and no warning was given before my account was blocked.
Now, all this was done before the new contract period began. This means that the terms of my original 2013 contract were still in effect when Patheos blocked my access. The 2013 contract (a link to which I have provided here) had no editorial limitations. There was no “disparagement” clause in the 2013 contract, and no right of Patheos to remove the post, much less block my access to my blog.
Rhyd Wildermuth offered to repost my original article at Gods & Radicals and I agreed. (You can read it here.) This apparently peeved Patheos off, and Mankey insisted that I amend the post to reflect his more generous interpretation of the contract. I refused. Mankey then blocked me from the Patheos Pagan Writer’s Facebook group, where there was an ongoing debate about how to respond to the new contract.
Pat Mosley, another Patheos Pagan writer, also wrote a critical analysis of the new contract, entitled “What the Fuck Just Happened at Patheos?” Pat focused on the relationship of Patheos, via Beliefnet, to the above-mentioned right-wing organizations. Now, Pat posted this on this personal blog, not on Patheos. Nevertheless, he was then banned from Patheos without notice.
The debate begins…
I won’t deny that I poked the bear. Of course, I did it intentionally. It was a test… one which Patheos failed. Patheos showed its true colors when they deleted my post and blocked me and Pat from our accounts. They said (actually in the contract) they wanted to be treated like journalistic institutions like HuffPo and Slate. Well then, they should act like HuffPo and Slate. They should act consistently with journalistic ethics. And that includes abiding public criticism in an opinion piece, even from one of your own writers.
Subsequently, Gwion Raven and I initiated discussions with Jeremy McGee, the President and COO of Patheos, to attempt to renegotiate the contract. I requested that my access to my site be restored as a sign of good faith, and I offered not to post any “disparaging” comments about Patheos during the contract renegotiation process. My request was ignored. Meantime, Mankey and McGee were telling everyone that (1) Patheos did not intend to enforce the terms of the contract and (2) we should all trust Patheos based on their “track record” and Mankey’s faith in their “intentions.”
First, it was irresponsible and naive of Mankey to suggest that we should sign an agreement under the belief that the corporation will not exercise the rights it has explicitly written into the contract. Mankey and the other editors have insisted that no one was trying to censor us, or alter our work, etc. Then why, I asked, include provisions in the contract which allow them to do exactly that? The President and COO of Patheos wrote that if we wanted to change the “without limitation” language, then the discussion was “done.” Why, if they did not intend to enforce the contract terms, insist on those terms? Neither Mankey nor McGee have ever answered that question.
Second, the notion that Beliefnet had a proven track record after only four months since purchasing Patheos is absurd, especially when you consider that those four months include their peremptory and punitive action against me and Pat. And if we look further back, we discover that Beliefnet does in fact have a history of censoring Pagans. I talked to Gus DiZerega, who used to write for Beliefnet. He told me that he left Beliefnet after they summarily deleted a conversation on his blog criticizing a Christian who had condoned the abuse of African witches by African Christians. When Gus complained, he was told it was their site not his, so he left.
And let’s not forget the contract itself. Just sending the contract to us, knowing that most people would sign it without reading or understanding it, was itself an act of bad faith and indicative of the attitude of the new owners of Patheos.
Mankey wanted us to believe the best of Patheos. I have no doubt about Mankey’s sincerity, but it would be naive to ignore the fact that he is paid by Patheos. And that does affect people’s judgment, whether they realize it or not. Mankey even told me that we should trust Patheos because they are flying him out to visit their corporate headquarters. That, in my opinion, shows an impairment of judgment.
Mankey has posted his response to recent events on Patheos (and you can read it here). However, he has closed the comments to the post, which is telling in itself.
After the situation exploded in his face, the President and COO of Patheos did strike a slightly more conciliatory tone with us. A few changes were made to the contract, but Patheos still retained the right to remove posts it deemed “offensive” and to move posts to any other site it owns or may own in the future, and writers are still prohibited from using more profanity than Patheos likes or “disparaging” Patheos or Beliefnet.
Ultimately, several people left Patheos, in spite of the changes, including myself, Pat Mosley, David Dashifen Kees (who was the editor of the Agora hub on the Pagan channel), Cat Chapin-Bishop, Shauna Aura Knight, Yvonne Aburrow, Peg Aloi, Lupa, Dana Corby, Catherine Clarenbach, Laine Lundquist, Christopher Scott Thompson, Sam Webster, Starling Foster, Gus DiZerega, and possibly others I don’t know about—that’s more than a third of the active blogs at Patheos. There are still people deciding whether to leave. Now, I know some of you probably think I’m a loose cannon, and you’d be right. But anyone who knows anything about the people above who have left would have to conclude that there must be something really wrong at Patheos. (It’s also telling that quite of few people who have been consistent critics of my writing at Patheos have publicly expressed their support now.)
For some people, it was the relationship between Patheos and far right-wing groups that was the most problematic. The exact degree to which they are intertwined is unknown and difficult to suss out, but it was enough to make most of us uncomfortable and enough for some people to leave. Others who have left or are considering it were most bothered by the contract terms and/or Patheos’ censoring of me and Pat or a combination of all of the above.
The bigger picture…
Now I’m going to get to my point. Throughout all of this, we were told by Mankey and McGee that this is “standard in the world of online publishing”. Words like “boilerplate” were thrown around. First of all, there was nothing “boilerplate” or “standard” about many of the provisions in the contract. If I had sent that contract to another attorney, they would have considered it a slap in the face.
Not only was the contract extremely one-sided, it was also unusual. I write for the Huffington Post (with whom Patheos now compares itself), and I didn’t have to sign anything to write for them. I also didn’t sign anything to write for Witches & Pagans or Gods & Radicals. I did sign something for Patheos in 2013, but it contained no editorial controls. Christine Hoff Kraemer, my editor at the time, did send me a FAQ document (you can read it here) with editorial guidelines. But these were not included in the contract. They were offered in the spirit of creating a relationship, power-with rather than power-over. McGee claimed he wants a relationship with his writers, but he only knows the language of corporations, the language of power-over.
But, to a certain extent, Mankey is right: Patheos’ conduct was just standard corporate operating procedure. The thing is, that’s a problem. What happened at Patheos is a microcosm of some of what has been happening on the national stage recently, with the power of corporations expanding and those same corporations (through their political lapdogs) trying to put limits on our freedom of speech, and with the swallowing of journalistic institutions by for-profit corporations.
When we hear the words “standard in the industry,” they should signal to us, not that everything is copacetic, but that there is a problem with the industry. It’s a problem when we normalize bad corporate behavior with words like “standard” and “boilerplate.” It’s a problem when we are so accustomed to bad faith and manipulation by corporations that we just shrug it off. And it’s a problem when we shame those who try to stand up to corporate abuse.
And most of all, it’s a problem when we think we have no power in dealing with corporations. That’s what the words “standard in the industry” and “boilerplate” are meant to do. They’re meant to make us feel powerless. But we do have power. We have power when we are informed. We have power when we use our voices, and when we use our feet. We have power when we act together.