Backroom deals and the secrets whispered over neighbors’ fences could go high-tech, viral and explosive if a new Web site modeled after WikiLeaks takes off in Appalachia.
Honest Appalachia, which was designed by some recent college graduates in hopes of exposing private documents about corporate and government wrongdoing, promises anonymity to people who leak information to the site.
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.”
“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.”
At the moment, as WikiLeaks has been struggling through court battles, groups of activist hackers such as Anonymous and AntiSec have risen to wreak havoc on institutions that have opposed it. Anonymous recently breached FBI files.
WikiLeaks has ardent supporters, who say it is bringing the truth to light. And it has many critics, including people who say the goal was not transparency so much as attacking powerful institutions such as the U.S. military — that it was always driven by its founders’ political agenda.
Michael Ratner, the former president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which helps represent WikiLeaks in one of its cases, has been giving Honest Appalachia legal advice to steer the site from the biggest risks.
Robinson said he tried to make the site as secure as possible, to prevent exposure of the people who leak documents, because some would be risking their jobs to reveal wrongdoing. Tobias said the small group of volunteers will carefully vet documents for authenticity before making them public. A $5,000 grant from the Sunlight Foundation, based in Washington, helped get the project off the ground.
A little sunlight on Honest Appalachia: It’s not actually in West Virginia at the moment, other than its post office box in Charleston.
Tobias is working in Montana. This winter, when he has some time off, he expects to go to either West Virginia or Ohio to work on the project. Robinson lives in Berkeley.
Tobias, who said he had worked on several things after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 2010 including freelance journalism and conservation work, acknowledged when asked that he had also been involved with Climate Ground Zero, a group led by one of the co-founders of the radical environmental Earth First! movement. There, he helped in the fight against mountaintop removal coal mining in West Virginia, in which companies blast off the tops of mountains to extract coal.
In 2010, he was arrested with protesters who locked themselves to mining equipment to try to stop strip mining by Massey Energy.
His involvement came after a 2010 explosion that killed 29 men, the worst U.S. mining disaster in decades, which exposed faked safety records, weak oversight and other major failings. Alpha Natural Resources, which bought Massey Energy, recently agreed with federal prosecutors to pay a $209 million penalty and add safety protections for miners.
A spokesman for Alpha declined to comment on the new Web site.
In a letter on the Climate Ground Zero Web site, Tobias wrote: “In Appalachia, an alliance of land companies, coal companies, big banks and Wall Street investment firms are tearing this land to pieces. . . . I along with many others refuse to sanction the desecration of this earth, our home, and its inhabitants for the sake of a greasy buck.”
Tobias said he hasn’t been very involved with Climate Ground Zero for a year and a half. That’s not what Honest Appalachia is about, he said. Although the co-founder of the Sunlight Foundation said the grant proposal focused on the mining industry, Tobias said that Honest Appalachia always planned to look at as many institutions and agencies as possible and that it will be nonpartisan and professional.
For some people, the idea of anonymous leaks is troubling in itself.
“The National Mining Association speaks on the record. . . . We stand by any information we provide to the public and do so in a transparent manner. We would expect the same of others,” spokeswoman Carol Raulston said.
Raulston wrote in an e-mail that there are systems in place for people to report suspected wrongdoing or safety issues without using their names; mining operations post the phone number of the federal agency that oversees safety for the industry.
Robinson said the Web site is better for whistleblowers because it allows people to download documents and photos to back up their complaints and because it is so encrypted that users do not need to worry about exposure.
Several professors said anonymity will be key to getting information: If people aren’t sure that disclosures can’t be traced back to them, they will be reluctant to come forward.
The flip side is that anonymity makes reporting far more difficult. Is it someone with an ax to grind? A longtime employee? Without knowing the source, Honest Appalachia volunteers will have a much tougher time proving that the information is true.
“I don’t know any investigative reporter who would just accept information from someone they don’t know,” said Roy Gutterman of Syracuse University.
The Web site has received several tips, Tobias said, including documents alleging wasteful spending at a major state agency in West Virginia. It has shared the information with local reporters who, Honest Appalachia hopes, are digging into the story.