Co-founder Jim Tobias says it’s a safer, more private way for whistleblowers to bring important information to light and could fill in some of the gaps left as traditional news coverage dwindles in rural areas. The creators hope the platform they developed, which is freely available on their West Virginia-based site, will inspire similar projects in other places: Honest Capitol Hill, co-founder Garrett Robinson suggested, or Honest Wall Street.
Honest Appalachia joins a volatile mix of efforts echoing and supporting WikiLeaks, including groups such as Anonymous, AntiSec and Occupy that have popped up in recent months with goals of exposing the secrets or destabilizing powerful institutions they have targeted. WikiLeaks, which earned admirers when it gave voice to Chinese dissidents, is tangled in several court battles and has been accused by government officials of endangering U.S. service members after leaks including the release of hundreds of thousands of secret diplomatic cables.
Like WikiLeaks, Honest Appalachia sparks a range of reactions: Some see it as idealistic and badly needed. Some see it as damaging or dangerous. Some say it’s likely to be a mix of both extremes.
And like WikiLeaks, it seems to ask more openness of others than it offers.
It’s unfortunate that there were problems with WikiLeaks, Robinson said, “because their overall goal of transparency is laudable. It’s really essential for any democracy to try to have better accountability so citizens are better informed. . . . There’s a real hunger for awareness and sharing.”
Resources and barriers
“Metropolitan newspapers are pulling out of rural America,” said Al Cross, director of the institute for rural journalism and community issues at the University of Kentucky. “They’ve pulled out of Appalachia.”
What’s left, for the most part, are weekly newspapers that usually don’t have enough staff or money to dig into long investigations. The stories are out there, he said — the Herald Courier of Bristol, Va., a small paper in the coal fields, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for exposing a complicated scandal in which energy companies avoided paying natural gas royalties to thousands of landowners. “But when you don’t have reporters turning over rocks in these places, they’re just not going to get turned over.”
There are other barriers to investigative reporting in Appalachia, he said, including the closeness of weekly papers’ staffs to their communities; the mountains, which make travel more difficult; and the dominance of a single industry — coal — known for playing hardball.
Letters to the editor are rare there, he said, but anonymous calls allow them to, in some way, hold people in authority accountable. In that setting, a WikiLeaks-type site makes sense, he said. “They know that people are scared to death of going public with anything. But they know that there’s a lot going on.”