Montana writer Don Thomas lost his 18-year freelance gig with Ducks Unlimited after he wrote a column for another publication critical of a Ducks Unlimited trustee, Cox Enterprises’ chairman James Cox Kennedy.
Thomas was the field editor for Ducks Unlimited’s magazine but got the axe not over anything he wrote for the organization but over his article in Outside Bozeman.
Ducks Unlimited’s website identifies itself as “the world’s largest and most effective private waterfowl and wetlands conservation organization.” It is based in Memphis, Tennessee.
James Powell, Ducks Unlimited’s director of communications, told iMediaEthics by email that Thomas technically “was not fired as he was not an employee of Ducks Unlimited but a contributing freelance writer (an independent contractor).”
Thomas’s article for the fall 2015 issue of Outside Bozeman was titled: “A Rift Runs Through It: Fighting for Access to the Ruby River.”
In a statement about the issue Thomas has sent out to friends and journalists, he summarized his article: “To summarize a complex issue for those unfamiliar with the case, wealthy Atlanta businessman James Cox Kennedy engaged in extensive litigation to prevent such access, only to be denied repeatedly in court due to the efforts of the Montana Public Land and Water Access Association. While the article was not complimentary to Kennedy, no one has challenged the accuracy of the reporting.”‘
The Associated Press added: “Thomas’ article accused Kennedy of believing that Montana laws do not apply to rich people.”
Thomas sent iMediaEthics the letter he received from Ducks Unlimited ending its relationship with him, saying it was the only “written communication” from Ducks Unlimited. The Nov. 10 letter from Matt Young, the editorial director of Ducks Unlimited, clearly states the reason for firing was because his story criticized “a member of the DU family and a trustee of our foundation, Wetlands America Trust.”
The letter reads in part:
“As I explained during our phone conversation, our decision had absolutely nothing to do with stream access laws. DU’s mission is solely focused on wetlands and waterfowl conservation. This decision was made entirely because your story included personal attacks against a member of the DU family and a trustee of our foundation, Wetlands America Trust. The result would have been the same if you had written similar statements about any member of the Ducks Unlimited or Wetlands America Trust boards, which consist of our dedicated volunteer leaders.”
The letter goes on to accuse Thomas of bias, unfairness and breaking the magazine’s trust, and said the magazine would pay him for already submitted work but not publish it and not have any further business relationship with him. Young’s letter goes on:
“We fully respect your right to express your opinions any way you see fit, but from a journalistic standpoint, the piece you wrote demonstrated great personal bias and a lack of fairness by vilifying an individual without allowing that person the opportunity to provide his perspetive. We simply cannot condone this type of vitriol directed by one of our contributing editors toward a dedicated DU volunteer, who is among the nation’s most ardent and active waterfowl conservationists. The relationship between a magazine and its contributors is one of trust, and by presenting only one side of a complex subject involving another member of the DU family, you betrayed that trust.”
“The only reason for my termination was board displeasure with an article I wrote for another magazine about a Montana land access issue, which had nothing whatsoever to do with DU,” Thomas told iMediaEthics. Thomas said he was “proud to be associated with” Ducks Unlimited but considered it “chilling” that he lost his gig over a critical article on an important issue.
Ducks Unlimited’s Powell told iMediaEthics that Kennedy didn’t ask for Thomas to be canned by the organization and that the decision was strictly in-house. “I did not speak to Mr. Kennedy personally but have been told specifically that Mr. Kennedy did not at any time ask that Mr. Thomas be dismissed from the magazine masthead,” Powell wrote in an e-mail. “We simply felt it would be untenable to continue the writing arrangement based on what we felt was an unfair and unprofessional personal attack by a DU Magazine representative on a respected DU volunteer and former officer.”
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Ducks Unlimited also sent us this statement about Thomas:
“E. Donnall Thomas was a freelance contributor to Ducks Unlimited magazine. He was not a DU employee. He wrote the “Closing Time” column, which appeared on the back page of every issue. Mr. Thomas had been writing this column for DU since 2001.
“In the Fall 2015 issue of Outside Bozeman, Mr. Thomas wrote an article entitled: “A Rift Runs Through It; Fighting For Access to the Ruby River.” The article dealt with ongoing legal challenges related to public access on a portion of Montana’s Ruby River that runs through a longstanding DU volunteer leader’s property in Montana. DU recognizes there are many views on this issue, but our mission is waterfowl and wetlands conservation. As a result, DU has no position on the stream access issue in Montana.
“In DU’s opinion, the article published by Mr. Thomas in Outside Bozeman publicly and very personally attacked a DU volunteer leader. We felt that the article demonstrated a lack of fairness in vilifying a member of the DU family without allowing that person the opportunity to provide his perspective.
“As a result, DU decided to discontinue its relationship with Mr. Thomas. We would be similarly concerned if Mr. Thomas had written comparable statements about any DU volunteer leader. DU honors freedom of speech, but also honors our volunteers.
“Mr. Thomas has the right to express his opinions in any way he sees fit. DU has the right to choose who contributes to its publications.”
Despite that criticism of Thomas’s article and decision to stop working with him, Outside Bozeman editor Mike England told iMediaEthics by e-mail that neither Ducks Unlimited nor Kennedy has complained about the article to him.
“With only a couple of exceptions, the response has been universally in favor of Don Thomas, his article in Outside Bozeman, and public access to the Ruby River,” he added. England said he gets why Ducks Unlimited made its decision but still sees it as a “betrayal.” England wrote:
“I can understand how Ducks Unlimited was put in a tough position… as good of a writer as Don is, he can be replaced. Kennedy’s multimillion-dollar donations likely cannot. Still, DU is a sportsmen’s organization, and to fire Don for supporting sportsmen’s rights does seem like a betrayal – in DU’s eyes, perhaps, it’s the lesser of two evils. Regardless, our hope is that all this will highlight how important stream-access is to Montanans, and that Kennedy will finally resign himself to the longstanding Montana ethic of inclusiveness, instead of continuing his fight to keep fishermen off the river.
“So we say, let’s stop all this fighting and find common ground by going duck-hunting together. We’ll park on Seyler Lane, which bisects Kennedy’s property, and hunt our way up and down the Ruby River. Ducks are fast, so everyone should bring plenty of shells.”
iMediaEthics asked Cox Enterprises if it or Kennedy complained to Outside Bozeman or Ducks Unlimited about the article. “This is a matter between Mr. Thomas and Ducks Unlimited, so the Ducks Unlimited organization is the best contact for your request,” Cox Enterprises spokesperson Elizabeth Olmstead told iMediaEthics.
Hat Tip: UW Journalism Ethics