Thursday, October 07, 2004

It's Called Freedom of Speech

But it's too much for a university professor to handle, accustomed as he must be to the cozy confines of academic speech codes. I'm thinking of the University of Utah's David Hailey, whose ill-begotten effort to salvage the Rathergate memos was thoroughly debunked by Paul at Wizbang. Paul's posts triggered an avalanche of ridicule and e-mail abuse aimed at Hailey. Wired carries a somewhat balanced story by Staci D. Kramer about the whole business:
David Hailey says he didn't know much about blogs before he flipped on his office computer one late September morning and watched hate mail flood into his inbox.

Author of a report (.pdf) claiming that the controversial CBS News Texas Air National Guard memos could have been produced on a typewriter, the Utah State University associate professor of technical communications didn't know he had become fodder for vigilant political blogs and discussion boards. To liberals, the report was proof that CBS was in the clear -- making it another claim for conservatives to debunk.

But the debunking quickly turned into name-calling, with a guest blogger at Wizbang, a conservative political blog, leading his detailed critique with the since-retracted accusation that Hailey was a "liar, fraud and charlatan." It escalated as Hailey updated what he calls a work in progress and his critics declared a cover-up.

The result was what Howard Rheingold, author of Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution, calls "a semi-organized swarming." It is but one of a spate of recent incidents that underscores the power of a rapidly mobilized group online to accomplish a goal -- and the potential for harm when online mobs form [like Democrats beating up Republicans at rallies, destroying lawn signs, and damaging Republican offices -- only not as bad.]....

"For political figures, it's fair game," said Rheingold. "For people expressing political opinions, it's scary. If some researcher does something you don't agree with and you go after him personally, that's scary."...

At first, Hailey thought it was funny that his type-matching exercise ticked people off enough for them to write. By the second day, he was far from amused. By the end of the week, the tenured academic literally cried in relief when university officials called him to a meeting to express their support; many of them had received numerous e-mails demanding his dismissal and calling him a liar or a fraud [not surprising, given the sloppiness of Hailey's work].

"It's one thing to go to a university and point out that there are these problems," Hailey said. "It's another thing to start character assassination."

Wizbang owner Kevin Aylward says that was never the intention but admits the language used in postings got out of hand.

"People are trying to make this into 'we're out to get him,'" Aylward said. "We were out to discredit the report."

The guest blogger on Wizbang was spurred by a post on another blog suggesting that the Boston Globe was working on a story; the thread is called "Fact Checking the Boston Globe in Advance."

Aylward apologized for the name-calling, which he retracted from his guest blogger's post.

"It was a bad idea to use those words, they didn't further the story. They were opinion, not news." Still, he asked, "don't you think when you inject yourself into that debate you're stepping onto a national stage?"

He points to a Sept. 16 message from Hailey at liberal weblog Take Back the Media linking to the post. Hailey, a Democrat who contributed $250 to Kerry's campaign, also posted a link at

Asked if he hoped as a Democrat to redeem the memos, Hailey replied, "I'm a complete person. I'm a liberal. I'm a Democrat. I felt Dan Rather was being totally abused ... [so he tried, ineptly, to salvage the forged memos] but mostly it's like a crossword puzzle."...

For Aylward, the matter's already moved to the back burner. He shut the comments down in the main Hailey thread. Guest blogger Paul wrote a coda, expressing dismay about the personal attacks that followed his first post.

"I was admittedly rude with my first post. With the benefit of hindsight, it was not my finest hour," he wrote. "But some of the things you people are doing is just beyond the pale."

Utah State Counsel Craig Simper, who has been monitoring Hailey's situation for the university, was struck by leaps to conspiracy theories and assumptions that a downed server meant Hailey was being fired.

"One of the bloggers claimed it's not the crime; it's the cover-up. This conspiratorial mentality is absolutely scary. It's incredible," Simper said, adding, "It's very chilling." [not like being shot at]...

Hailey credits the questions from Wizbang and others for spurring him to make the report stronger and encouraging him to mark works in progress as drafts. He's even enthralled by the possibility of blogs.

But he's still feeling the effects of the last few days.

"It doesn't matter if you vindicate yourself, you're stained," he said. "(The university) can support me and that stain won't rub off. I can sue the pants off these guys.... That doesn't change anything because everybody else only sees what is out on the internet."
If you can't stand the consequences of true academic freedom, perhaps you shouldn't be an academic. The Wired story omits two critical facts: Wizbang's Paul was absolutely on target in his debunking of Hailey's work. And that debunking has been underscored by Joseph Newcomer, a professor at Carnegie-Mellon University. Newcomer's detailed and devastating review of Hailey's work is here, and Newcomer's resume is here. Hailey should have sought expert peer review before exposing his half-baked and perhaps politically motivated work to the wonderful world of the web.