No one likes their own weapon turned against them.
One side first
About a week back, Keith Kloor wrote in his blog, in rather nonplussed fashion, on a currently unfolding event in the US state of Wisonsin. A professor of history, William Cronon, whom Kloor admired, had become the subject of requests for his emails under the state’s ‘open records law’ – similar to FOI requests we are familiar with.
The historian William Cronon’s very first blog post appeared last month. In his post, Cronon wrote extensively about the state’s Republican party ‘legislative momentum’. He noted how ‘well-organized’ and coordinated many of the recent framed legislative bills seemed to be. In a profusely linked argument, he laid out how a purported shadowy organization called ‘ALEC‘, was behind many Republican bills that sought to wrest back environmental protection and union benefits that were previously gained. Notably enough, Cronon recommended to his readers that they use two websites to research ‘conservative groups’: rightwingwatch.org and sourcewatch.org.
What did the Republican party do? They filed a FOI-like request with the University office, asking for emails from Cronon’s ‘state email address’ which included Republican politicians’ names as search keywords.
The wall of support and the firestorm of articles that followed supporting William Cronon was impressive. ‘Supression of dissent’, ‘supression of academic freedom, ‘chilling effect’, ‘FOI harassment’, ‘shabby crusade’, ‘academic intimidation’, ‘silencing of dissent’, ‘abuse of tools of democracy’, ‘concerted attempts at intimidation’, ‘silencing of liberal academics’, ‘retaliation for criticism’, etc — this was the general slant. Cronon himself protested vehemently against the FOI requests on his blog.
Keith Kloor was no dissimilar: in the post and the comments, Kloor described about how he ‘abhorred’ the Republicans’ ‘attempt’ to ‘intimidate a critic’, that their FOI requests had shone a ‘spotlight’ on their ‘own brass knuckle tactics’, that the requests were ‘nothing but naked politics’ and an attempt to intimidate ’others who might now hesitate to speak their minds’. He saw good in FOI requests, but was ‘torn’ by its misuse and hoped there would be a debate on the ‘appropriate use of FOI’.
The other side next
Kloor, surprisingly enough, did not like the Sourcewatch page on him. In an atypically long and sentimental post, he inquired strongly whether his decades-long career in environmental journalism was accurately reflected by the Sourcewatch page. Was it fair that (all) his efforts be summed as someone who ‘fostered inactivism’? Was he to be described to the world in the words of his worst critic Joe Romm? ’Is my blogging in anyway against the spirit of Sourcewatch’s charter’? - he exclaimed to his readers. What were the result of his protests?
What happened next
Here are two instances which display same patterns. William Cronon felt strongly, that his article encouraging readers to use Sourcewatch to dig up dirt about an organization ALEC (among other things), fell wholly under the purview of academic freedom. On the other hand, he felt that the party whose politics Cronon’s article likely impacted, were in no way entitled to dig up any potential ‘dirt’ on him using FOI. In turn, Kloor, a journalist, felt that the Republican party had no business employing FOI to obtain information. And yet, on the other hand, he did not appreciate any information that he felt adversely portrayed his work and career appearing on the same Sourcewatch.
In the brain-melting discussion thread that followed on Keith Kloor’s blog, amidst the volleys of mind-numbing “he-said, she-said”, one thing becomes clear. An entrenched Kloor wrestles and bullies his commenters, demanding answers to his question – “Did Sourcewatch accurately potray me? Was I not wronged?”. “Yes, you were” – comes the much-belated, much-hesitant faint echo in the end, from a threadbare clutch of commenters.
The outcome: Anna Haynes took down the Sourcewatch page she had created on Kloor. The article was interesting because it actually cited articles from several climate change activist bloggers to support its formulation. In other words, it was accurate but perhaps not complete or unbiased. Just the same however, it would now not see the light of day as a result of the self-wrought censorship. What is more surprising is how seasoned commenters in the online climate debate, were snookered into agreeing with Kloor.
Cronon pointed out, that to learn about the forces that shape our governments and laws, is not wrong and every bit of information goes one step in that direction. So it must be then with material that inform us of Cronon’s own politics too – as long as such information is legitimately obtained. If there is information to support a view that Keith Kloor fosters ‘inactivism’ in the climate change arena, it need not be censored simply because information to support views that Kloor did not foster inactivism exist too. Would we be comfortable if ALEC exerted pressure on Sourcewatch to take down their page so full of the nasties, because Cronon publicized it widely?
In the world of Cronon and Kloor however, we would all be using Sourcewatch as a source of information about Republican politics. But Cronon’s own methods and contacts would be beyond scrutiny, because he felt it to be so. We would not employ FOI to gain information from professors just as Kloor might recommend as being appropriate. At the same time, we would learn nothing of Kloor’s contribution to slowing down climate action via Sourcewatch, because Kloor felt it ought to be so.
Ironically enough, Sourcewatch is presently engaged in an active campaign, espousing the cause of Wisconsin union rights in their tussle with the state governor - a banner appears on every page of theirs, including the ill-fated Kloor page. Even more ironically, Sourcewatch’s page on ALEC has significant, majority contributions authored by Anne Landman, managing editor at the Center for Media and Democracy, the very organization that runs Sourcewatch. Indeed it is hard to imagine this not to be a mildly conflicted position for Cronon to be in.
Academics, and increasingly journalists, appear to be sensitive to queries about their own politics, but yet wish to retain full and active participation in manipulation of policy. One can call Anna Haynes all the names one wants, but she is neither a journalist nor an agent of government. She did not post information that attacked Kloor personally. She deserves support to publish information freely.