Blaming the Messenger: Slagging Prop. 8 Donor Mashups

Interesting piece by Brad Stone of the NY Times on Proposition 8 donor mash-ups — sites like eightmaps.com that contain freely-available information on people who donated money in favor of Proposition 8.

Stone goes into near-hysterics in his attack of the site, calling it “controversial and provocative” (even though the site’s display of information could not be more neutral) and strongly implying that the site is somehow directly responsible for threatening emails and phone calls that are being made to political donors who oppose marriage equality.

He does point out that information on political donations must be made public under California law (the raw data that people are using to make mash-ups is on the California Secretary of State’s site), but he doesn’t mention that Prop. 8 donors actually went to court to try to keep their donations secret (a judge told them to shove it). But it’s clearly not just the public information, but the mashup that’s to blame here in Stone’s eyes — never mind that this is just a visualization of information that’s already publicly available.

So this is definitely a case of blaming the messenger. But the thing that struck me about Stone’s piece was its utter one-sidedness. Stone couldn’t find a single person who thought that publishing the names of donors was a good idea? How about asking the people who actually, you know, published them? I realize that may be difficult (the owner of the eightmaps.com domain is hidden behind an anonymizer) — but this in itself might have been a relevant fact to include in the piece.

The story quoted the sharp and savvy Kim Alexander, who is pretty much the go-to gal for voting matters in California (and who I’m acquainted with — we attended UCSB at the same time). Kim supports Stone’s assertion that there’s a tension between the public’s right to know who funds political campaigns and the expression of freedom of speech represented by a political donation, and that’s fair. But by making this so one sided, Stone essentially boils a potentially interesting civic dilemma down to another tired version of The Internet Ate My Baby.

On top of all that, I can’t help but think there’s at least a hint of elitism (much as I hate to use that oft-flogged term) when a newspaper attacks web sites run by civilians based on public information and not, say, the Prop. 8 donor sites run by other newspapers that do essentially the same thing using the same information.

Intimidating political donors is obviously wrong. Duh. So let’s enforce the laws that are already on the books pertaining to that instead of weakening the laws pertaining to openness and transparency (as Stone suggests in the piece). Put it this way: If a bunch of chumps from Utah or Colorado are trying to influence how my state is run, I deserve to know about that. And if schoolteachers are making $100 donations to attack the notion of equal protection under the law, I want to know about that, too, before I let them try to teach my kids social studies.