The Upside to the GOP Targeting of William Cronon

Long before William Cronon rocked Wisconsin Republicans’ world, he rocked mine when I read his first book, Changes in the Land. It pretty much reoriented my intellectual framework. (Another journalist seems to have had a similar experience.) Here’s the 1984 NYT review of the book that launched Cronon’s career.

But I’m just a piker. There are famous, accomplished others who have been similarly influenced by Cronon’s work.

As for the current political attention he’s receiving from angry Republicans, it’s worth recalling that this isn’t the first time that Cronon has found himself in the crosshairs for something he’s written. As I discussed in a previous post, environmentalists gave him a good working over in the mid-1990s for this provocative essay. He struck a nerve then, and I think he’s right to assume he’s struck another nerve recently–with Wisconsin Republicans.

Most of the commentary in the media (regarding the current controversy) that I’ve read sides with Cronon’s view–that the FOIA request for his university emails is a politically motivated witch hunt. One notable exception is Jack Shafer at Slate, whose headline says it all:

There’s No Such Thing as a Bad FOIA Request

That’s a debate worth having, but with Cronon I see an upside to this ugly episode because as distinguished and well known in academia as he is, Cronon is now being discovered by a wider public. Consider this admission from Salon’s writer:

A week ago, I had never heard of Cronon. This is embarrassing, since it doesn’t take much digging around to discover that he is one of the most highly regarded historians in the United States (not to mention president-elect of the American Historical Association).

A commenter elsewhere also observes:

the  [Salon] author, Andrew Leonard mentions that he just purchased two of Cronon’s books; when I checked at Amazon, those two books were ranked something like #45 and #51 “” not bad for history publications!!


So as much as I abhor the the Republican attempt to intimidate a critic, they have introduced a brilliant mind and gifted writer to a broader, worldwide audience. In doing so, they have also shined a spotlight on their own brass knuckle tactics. And before this is all over, they may have even ignited a useful debate on the appropriate use of FOIA.

UPDATE: Paul Krugman in his NYT op-ed column today, writes about “the Cronon affair”and makes a climate connection:

The demand for Mr. Cronon’s correspondence has obvious parallels with the ongoing smear campaign against climate science and climate scientists, which has lately relied heavily on supposedly damaging quotations found in e-mail records.

20 Responses to “The Upside to the GOP Targeting of William Cronon”

  1. sambo says:

    In order to draw the parallel between this case and climate science, you must show that those making the FOIA requests are doing so for  purely political reasons. While I know many commenters here would say that it is clearly what is happening, I don’t hold that view and neither do a large portion of the readership.
    Looking at someone like Steve McIntyre, I cannot say what his political affiliation is. Considering this is the person who has been the most active in the FOIA requests (whatever you may think of them) I don’t see the clear parallels at all!

  2. kdk33 says:

    Public and private sector unions are two different beasts.  Private sector unions must maintain a reasonably symbiotic relationship with management or the business goes under and everyone loses.  Public sector unions don’t; they have one mission: taking money from tax payers and transferring it to union members (and union bosses).  The mechanism is the union contracts they negotiate with politicians – politicians that are indebted to public sector unions via campaign contributions.  The system is prima-facia corrupt, and it’s not a secret.  Depowering public sector unions is a legitimate and proper political goal.  Cronon’s conspiracy theory that Walker and Wisconson republicans are dancing on the strings of some murky evil minded right wing pupeteer is tin foil hat nonsense.

    Second, as I understand it, the FOIA request covers Cronon’s university e-mail account.  Here in the real world, the private sector, there is no – and I mean none, zero, zip, zilch, nada – expectation of privacy on your work e-mail.  (Got sensitive traffic, send it on a private e-mail – something that anyone with an internet connection can obtain, for free).  Cronon is a university employee paid by taxpayers; if he does not like the conditions of his employment, he is free to try it elsewhere.  He’ll be disappointed.

    Third, the notion that an FOIA request is legitimate subject to the perceived intent of the requester, is not only BS, its dangerous BS.  If Cronon wants to argue that his e-mails are not open under FOIA, then he’s wrong, be he has a right to that argument.  The argument that information within the open domain should only be available to certain people for certain reasons is one that nobody – left, right, or center – should tolerate.

  3. lucia says:

    I agree these FOIA requests are almost certainly politically motivated. It’s a bit disturbing and I would prefer not to see this sort of thing.
    That said: politics is politics.  There are lots and lots and lots of political groups and members of the public.  So it is hardly surprising that some political group or person might use all legal means at their disposal– blogging their views (as Cronin did) or FOIA as those who seem to be targeting Cronin did.
    The remedy for someone like Cronins– a faculty member employed  at a public university is to recognize that FOIA applies to email sent using the state university account and use an alternate free email for their private mail. It’s slightly cumbersome to use two emails, but it’s not that huge a burden. Many people working in the private sector already do this sort of thing to screen their private email from their employers or any discover that might happen should their employers become part of an investigation or suit.  Everyone would be wise to keep their private email private by having a separate email account.
    It’s too late for Cronin in this instance, but I assume he will now set up a separate account for those discussions that he does not wish to be subject to FOIA for whatever reason.
    I think it’s also worth recognizing that the politically motivated FOIA requests are worded to exclude purely personal emails. Hypothetical emails Cronin inviting friends to happy hour will generally not fall into the net (provided he didn’t also discuss topic related to WI politics.)  Also, the Republican’s seem to have clearly stated the willingness to pay for the costs, writing “please make us aware of any costs in advance of preparation of this request.”
    On the issue of intimidation: Have the FOIA requests intimidated Cronin?  He posted a fairly feisty blog post in response. I’m guessing the FOIAs have not and will not intimidate Cronin.  Moreover, since the emails are likely stored by the university, the effort to identify the specific emails will probably barely involve him. Assuming teh university complies, they  will probably have an IT person run a script on emails stored on the archive and hand them over. That will involve almost no effort on Cronins’ part.
    Also, with respect to the motives of the Republicans. I agree they are political.  The Republican’s are a political party– just like the Democrats. Political parties do things for political reasons.  But we could suggest two possible motives:
    a)Motive 1: The Republican’s wished to discover whether Cronin (a University employee) “…[used] these resources to support the nomination of any person for political office or to influence a vote in any election or referendum.”   or
    b)The Republican’s wish to intimidate Cronin by requesting his emails — and act that would happen to permit them to determine whether he violated a statute.
    Quite possibly, the Republican’s motivations are mixed. But it seems to me that (a), while political,  would be a perfectly legitimate reason for anyone to make a FOIA request. I think it’s one of the reasons voters enacted FOIA.
    I think (b) is not legit. To the extent that I suspect this, I think less of Wisconsin Republicans.  But how does one distinguish which motive the groups might hold?   Also, I don’t think it’s possible to craft a FOIA law that permits requests motivated by legitimate reason (a) while blocking those motivated by less honorable reason (b).
    So, once again, I get back to the remedy: If a state employee wants to keep private emails private, he should use a private email address. That’s what people working in the private sector do!

  4. Keith Kloor says:


    I confess I am slightly torn over this issue, because my gut tells me this is nothing but naked politics and an attempt intimidate not just Cronon but others who might now hesitate to speak their minds, for fear of similar fishing expeditions waged against them.

    But like most journalists, I’m a reflexive defender of FOIA. It’s a huge (and underutilized component in my profession). And the truth of the matter is that many deadline journalists don’t have the time or perseverence to FOIA. So third parties (e.g. interest groups) with well greased lawyers take it on. On balance, I think this is a good thing. One could easily argue that some of these groups (across the ideological spectrum) have their political motivations. So the sword cuts both ways.

    Shafer also makes a number of valid points in his Slate piece.

    So there is a grayish area here that should be discussed, and it involves, among other things, separating out motive, and whether it is appropriate or even possible to do so.

  5. Jonathan Gilligan says:

    Lucia: Cronon is very clear that he did set up a private email account years ago and has scrupulously used it for his personal and political correspondence.

    What he’s worried about here includes two things that I don’t see addressed in your comment: First, should he tell his students in his classes not to send email relating to their performance in his classes to his professional faculty account for fear that things they tell their professor in confidence (and which should be protected by the Buckley amendment) might become matters of public record. And second, what about professional matters, such as peer review of other scholars’ work? Should he refrain from giving his honest opinion in a review lest it become subject to a FOIA request. A colleague of mine who used to work at a big state school where tenure review was subject to sunshine laws tells me that this made it very difficult to refuse tenure to sub-standard faculty.

  6. lucia says:

    Is there any evidence that the protection under the Buckley amendment is breached by this FOIA? Particularly vis-a-vis this request? Presumably the university faculty fulfilling the FOIA request would screen for that sort of thing just as they would refuse FOIA requests for Cronin’s social security number etc.
    Out of curiosity, why should Cronin refrain from giving an honest opinion in a review lest it become subject to a FOIA request?  If he has an honest opinion about a paper or someone’s work he should give it. Period. FOIA or no FOIA. If faculty don’t have the testicular fortitude to give honest reviews for fear that someone might read the reviews, that’s not a problem with FOIA; it’s a problem with faculty members.
    As for tenure: Why not just get rid of it? It has plenty of perverse effects without becoming an excuse for state employed university professors to be set aside from FOIA which applies to all other state employees.

  7. lucia says:

    So there is a grayish area here that should be discussed, and it involves, among other things, separating out motive, and whether it is appropriate or even possible to do so.
    I agree. I think the Cronin incident is one where likely, intimidation is at least in part a motive if not the single motive. But I really don’t know how to filter for the motive.
    Certainly, one can think of all sorts of hypothetical reasons an individual might decide to lodge a FOIA with mixed motives. For example:
    Consider a student who got a bad grade in a class. He’s angry. Maybe he also strongly suspects the faculty member has been up to sexual shenanigans with another undergrad on the side in violation of university policy and even knows the name of the undergrad who happens to be the student’s  cousin .  Suppose he gets his frat buddy to FOIA the faculty member’s email with appropriate search terms.  Let’s assume his motive is retribution for his bad grade (which may or may not be deserved.)  Should he get to FOIA?  Suppose his motive is anger that the faculty member took advantage of his cousin?  Or suppose a newspaper got wind that this faculty member was constantly having affairs with student, can they FOIA, do they get to FOIA?
    Turning to some of Jonathan’s concerns: In any of these instances, should be be the least bit concerned about the possibility that these FOIA’s might inhibit some professor somewhere from giving a frank appraisal of a journal article during the peer review process because an angry student might later FOIA a professor in an attempt to prove that faculty member had violated a university policy? Should we worry that some professors might be inhibited from giving frank reviews during tenure reviews?  (I think the answer to both the later are “heck no!” and “heck no!”  Faculty members ought to have the guts to give frank and fair reviews to journal articles even if there is the possibility that someone, somewhere might at sometime discover that they thought a particular manuscript submitted to Journal X was poor.  If they don’t have the guts to do that, then that’s pretty pathetic.)

  8. NewYorkJ says:

    The purpose of these sorts of FOI requests is to ultimately silence the target (for whatever political or ideological purpose) and/or boost the stature of the requester.  The FOI requests themselves have the effect of direct initimidation (deterring others from communicating or conducting work).  If the requests are successful, the contents are subsequently fished and quoted-mined for anything that might cast the target in a negative light.

    The persons making the requests might not pledge loyalty to a particular political party, but nonetheless, sometimes such requests are entirely self-serving, as those making them tend to gain fame doing it, by working to create the impression that one has uncovered great misdeeds on the part of prominent academics.

    The connection to climate science is pretty clear.

  9. lucia says:

    It doesn’t appear this FOIA is likely to silence Cronin.  Far from it: He publicized the request.
    For what it’s worth, I don’t see any particular connection between this FOIA request and climate science. But I guess if you want to see one, you’ll see one.

  10. Keith Kloor says:

    Lucia, Cronon is spelled with a second o, not i.


  11. lucia says:

    Thanks.  Well… at least now you’ll get google search returns on both the correct and incorrect spellings. 🙂

  12. toto says:

    FOIA or no FOIA. If faculty don’t have the testicular fortitude to give honest reviews for fear that someone might read the reviews, that’s not a problem with FOIA; it’s a problem with faculty members.
    You’re basically saying that we don’t need anonymous reviews. As a non-tenured scientist having been in the position of reviewing tenured academics’ works, I can certainly think of a couple reason why we really do need anonymous reviews!

  13. sharper00 says:

    Faculty members ought to have the guts to give frank and fair reviews to journal articles even if there is the possibility that someone, somewhere might at sometime discover that they thought a particular manuscript submitted to Journal X was poor.  If they don’t have the guts to do that, then that’s pretty pathetic.)

    Maybe the kind of person with the sort of technical skills necessary to properly critique the paper is not the kind of person with the “guts” to go on public record criticising other people’s work.

    Maybe academia isn’t supposed to be a realm dominated by testicles, guts, dicks and whatever other body parts you feel appropriately represents the kind of people you think should be doing that work. It’s a realm that’s supposed to be dominated by free enquiry and the power of argument.

    Maybe people feel extremely uneasy when the tools of accountability are instead abused by politicians and special interests to enforce their own power. The mechanisms that are supposed to empower the people are instead used to empower the establishment against them and silence those who would criticise the political convenience of the day.

    Maybe people feel that academia is not perfect but generally it works pretty well or at least well enough to be suspicious of those who want to tear it down.

  14. Ed Forbes says:

    LoL…..FOI and climate science:

    Labour MP Graham Stringer asked Jones why he refused to comply with requests to share data to which Jones answered:”Because all he [a skeptic] wants to do is find something wrong with it.”

    So Keith, how much does this post have to do with climate science? If it has a strong parallel, I take it the repub’s might find quite a bit after digging around. But I doubt that it does, so little will likely be turned up.

  15. JohnB says:

    “Maybe people feel extremely uneasy when the tools of accountability are instead abused by politicians and special interests to enforce their own power.”

    You mean like when Greenpeace went after Pat Micheals emails? Or is it only bad when Republicans/sceptics do it?

  16. John Mashey says:

    ALEC is a non profit 501(c)3, although it really is a kind of lobbying entity. Its funding is fairly opaque, almost certainly on purpose, as it is in essence a money-laundering conduit for (especially) fossil fuels and tobacco companies to influence legislation.

    I’m afraid Professor Cronon has run afoul of the same collection of organizations that have harassed climate scientists for years. See <a href=”“> Crescendo to Climategate Cacophony (CCC). and continuing with similar attack on U of Virginia and Michael Mann by VA Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.
    ALEC is listed, with a few URLs on CCC p.52, including pointers to their 990 form (since they are a 501(c)3 nonprofit).

    p.93 starts 3 pages of funding matrix of funders vs organizations, with the 3 pages sorted roughly by relevance to climate anti-science. ALEC makes the first page.

    As can be seen, of the $3393K identified there, a small fraction of their income:
    $1,200K from ExxonMobil.

    $1,645K from Allegheny (Richard Mellon Scaife; Google his name plus swift boat)
    $0,050 from Scaife family
    $0,273 from Charles G. Koch
    $0,195 from Lambe (Koch brothers)
    $0,450 from Castle Rock

    This works as follows: the big family foundations provide “seed money” and continuing support, but effectively require ambitious entities to scramble for more and get other donors. This is very cost-effective.  Follow the Kochs lines across pp.93-95.

    The Kochs of course funded Freedom Works and Americans for Prosperity, the two key starters for the Tea Party.

    The Kochs run Koch Industries, 2nd-largest private company in USA.  They fund many entities whose missions include elimination of environmental laws and any possibility of CO2 restrictions or R&D leading to alternatives to fossil fuels.  they gave some money to Cuccinelli, and of course they are the #1 contributor to <a href=””>Sen. James Inhofe.</a>
    In addition, the T at the top shows tobacco connection, as ALEC is oft-mentioned in the <a href=””>Tobacco Archives</a>. Search for American Legislative Exchange Council and stand back.

    ALEC has been a big help to tobacco companies in their mission to addict children to tobacco.  Cigarette companies have known for decades that lifelong customers are created only getting them young. See RJR, ~1984 on <a href=>The Importance of Younger Adults</a>, meaning 12-18-year-olds, since the addiction needs to set while brains are developed.
    ALEC has helped. Why not? While it’s hard to see how that fits legitimate conservative thinking, tobacco companies do pay well.

    On the other hand, a legitimate conservative of the old style named George Schultz (remember him) led the fight in California versus <a href=>Prop 23</a> funded by the Kochs and some Texas oil companies.
    Anyone who studies this seriously finds a maze of funders, hidden funding paths, front groups, thinktanks, front spokespeople, odd connections to politicians. It is a great meony-laundering machine.

    But indeed, Cronon’s discussion of ALEC turns out to be quite relevant to climate issues, although he may not have realized it at the time. ALEC is a key entity in generating local legislation, and given its funding, has serious interests in climate anti-science.

  17. R.Connelly says:

    Are we sure about the ‘private email account’ – Im not sure a private email account being used on company/university computer system means you can avoid the FOIA request.  Private email account on private computer – avoids the issue.

  18. lucia says:


    I’ve done peer reviews for papers in Physics of Fluids, Journal of Fluid Mechanics, Journal of Fluids Engineering and other journals.  I think it is silly for someone to suggest that a person would be inhibited from giving a fair review because they were afraid someone else would file a FOIA to uncover who reviewed a paper.

    You’re basically saying that we don’t need anonymous reviews.

    I don’t really think we need anonymous reviews. To be sure, anonymity has some benefits.  But I don’t think there is any need for reviews to be anonymous to the extent that faculty have an absolute shield preventing the public from investigating possible breaches of state laws nor even from merely learning how state funds are being used at universities.

    I think it is sufficient that the reviews be treated confidentially by journals editors.  I think it’s pretty unrealistic to imagine that there is any serious risk that a review you write might be promptly FOIA’d by someone who wishes to later take revenge.

    Besides which– one can’t FOIA secretly. If another academic got the reputation of requesting FOIAs to hunt down reviewers, people would talk about him. The notion that FOIA represents a threat to reasonable levels of anonymity in peer review strikes me as a concocted excuse to claim academics need levels of privacy far beyond what is accorded others.

    It’s a realm that’s supposed to be dominated by free enquiry and the power of argument.

    FOIA is also a tool of free enquiry. Democratic societies require free inquiry and information to foster debate and argument by the public.  I think the importance of FOIA to free enquiry by the public supercedes the need protect anonymity for journal articles to protect enquiry among a subset of the public (who can, in anycase, continue to study and argue even if the occasional reviewer gets leaked to the public).

    Presumably, a faculty member writing a persuasive well reasoned review of a manuscript can do so even if there is some slight possibility that at some point in the future some person might FOIA something that might, hypothetically, breach the anonymity of the review and then others might read it.
    Maybe people feel extremely uneasy when the tools of accountability are instead abused by politicians and special interests to enforce their own power
    Sure. But I would suggest sticking with that and explaining how and why any particular FOIA request is an abuse rather than suggesting that FOIA itself represents any real threat to peer review.

    Maybe people feel that academia is not perfect but generally it works pretty well or at least well enough to be suspicious of those who want to tear it down.

    Treating all state employees– including faculty members- equally with respect to FOIA is not an attempt to tear down academia. It’s intended to permit the public access to information about what is being done by the state and it’s agencies.  Claiming an FOIA request represents an attempt to tear down academia is arguing by wild hyperbole.

  19. Alexander Harvey says:


    “So there is a grayish area here that should be discussed, and it involves, among other things, separating out motive, and whether it is appropriate or even possible to do so.”

    I see neither the need nor the possibility. One cannot extract someones motives.

    I cannot speak about US federal or state legislation but there could be a test to determine the difference between private and public benefit (interest) in any disclosure.

    Perhaps administration of FOI statutes should be guided so as to maximise public information. Simply fulfilling every FOI request might have the perverse effect of reducing both the amount and quality of public information. It would seem to be a pity for a law promoting openess to usher in totalitarian levels of obfuscation.

    To use FOI legistlation for issues of fulfilling a private interest would seem unproductive. Such issues are dealt with under other legislation, e.g. anti-descimination, or as civil matters, or might simply require further statutes.

    As long as FOI refers to information held by public bodies but not private bodies, arguments based on the public interest (not simply what interests the public) must have a role and it could deal with such matters without the need to speculate on private motives. It would not be a stretch of the imagination to see that the potential of release of imformation against the public interest would soon result in the pseudo privitisation of information in the public interest which would be bizarre.

    Hostile requests are not a bad thing, in fact an argument could be made that given our technical capabilities to disseminate public data in a timely or even real time manner, one could argue that all non-contentious data should be freely available without need to formally request it, leaving FOI requests only to deal with that which is being withheld.

    Academia is an area where it could be argued that the public interest is best served by a system of authorised withholding and embargoed dissemination. I think that it has been recognised that some academic efforts do have a personal investment that may go well beyond what might be expected from a waged employee. And from that some respect of a personal right to maximise personal benefit could be seen to promote a greater good. Such a privelege is neither to condone fraud nor draw a veil over incompetence but to promote excellence in areas that may not be overly rewarded when considering public as opposed to private levels of renumeration.

    Balancing the tension between public and private interest must be at the core of policy regarding information availability. Personally I should wish to see public interest applied to all information (especially where corporately held information relates to health and the environment but also more generally) and thereby make the case for freedom for all information in the public interest.


  20. TimG says:

    An FOI law that attempts to filter requests based on the motivation of is a useless FOI law because targets can make up whatever crap they want to justify the refusal.

    The fact is democrats are up in arms about this request because it potentially undermines their political objectives. A similar request launch by greenpeace would be cheered on by those same democrats no matter what. Let’s despense with the hypocracy.

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