DU parts ways with ‘Closing Time’ columnist

A disturbing story erupted on the national outdoor writing and conservation scene this week. On Tuesday, social media friends began protesting the termination of E. Donnall Thomas, Jr., as a columnist and field editor for Ducks Unlimited magazine. 
The flash point behind the firing occurred when Thomas wrote a piece that appeared in the Fall 2015 edition of a regional Montana publication, Outside Bozeman  The article, entitled, “A Rift Runs Through It: Fighting for Access to the Ruby River,” was critical of local landowner James Cox Kennedy. The four-page story focused on Kennedy’s legal battle to prohibit public fishing access to a prime piece of Montana trout water adjacent to his property. The issue had nothing to do with Ducks Unlimited  but multi-billionaire cable TV and media mogul Kennedy happens to be a DU trustee.
Lewiston, Mont.-based Thomas tells me he’s been writing for DU for nearly 15 years, including the backpage “Closing Time” column. The November/December edition is sitting on my desk open to his last Closing Time piece, entitled “Eider Down.” On Monday, Nov. 9, Thomas received a phone call from DU Editorial Director Matt Young, who explained the organization wouldn’t be accepting any more submissions from him.
“We’d had a wonderful working relationship but rarely spoke by phone, so when the call from Matt came, I suspected something was up,” Thomas told me Wednesday. “He (Matt) told me he was sorry to have to make the phone call, but Kennedy is part of the DU family and the board was in an uproar about the piece, and they didn’t want any more of my work.”
On Tuesday, Nov. 11, Thomas received an email with a letter attached from Young explaining DU’s position in black and white. You can read the complete letter here. In it, DU maintains the decision to part ways with Thomas occurred because the Outside Bozeman 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.”
Young wrote that the organization respects Thomas’ right to express his opinions, but the piece contained personal bias and vilified Kennedy without allowing space for his point of view.
“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.”
I called the editor of Outside Bozeman, Mike England, and asked whether the piece should have included a comment from Kennedy. England first noted that no one has questioned the accuracy of the piece, then cited the strong support the publication has received from readers around the country this week following DU’s action with Thomas. And in no uncertain terms, England said neither he nor Thomas expected their magazine piece to be impartial. 
“We have a position on outdoor issues in the state of Montana. We’re a community magazine covering our people and public access, and his actions are wrong,” England said.
Kennedy, England acknowledged, is a dedicated conservationist and philanthropist, making the entire situation complex and not a simple good-guy, bad-guy story. As for contacting Kennedy for a response, England said, “In our opinion, he’s behaved badly, and calling him wouldn’t have changed that.”
In an email, Thomas told me he did not attempt to contact Kennedy, but “The legal record, which I reviewed in detail, made his position clear.” Other media outlets have reported on Kennedy’s long-running battle over access and Montana’s popular stream access law.
Thomas’ piece uses strong language, including a subhead that says, “Screw you, I’m rich” and sharp comments within the text like, “Where would rich people be without lawyers?” Its content certainly includes Thomas’ unapologetic, take-no-prisoners attitude toward those who would deny sportsmen public access, but it strikes this editor as a very solid piece of reporting.
To summarize – and here’s where I’ll opine – an experienced, respected outdoor scribe wrote a well-researched piece defending public access for rank-and-file citizens on an American waterway. The landowner whose ox was being gored targeted the writer’s compensation and the organization purchasing content from the writer. The organization – one most conservation scribes would like to believe would err on the side of concepts like public access for the little guy – capitulated. DU terminated the working relationship of a longtime, quality associate because he criticized one of the organization’s wealthy board members on a matter completely separate from DU’s mission.
None of that is illegal, and DU in a statement reminded me that it has no position on stream access in Montana; the group is about wetlands and waterfowl conservation. Per the statement that Eric Keszler, senior communications specialist for Memphis-based DU, sent me on Wednesday: “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.” 
Yes, Thomas angered a big DU supporter. But what about all the little donors DU angered with its actions toward Thomas? The story is another sad example of the scorched earth attitude that dominates American politics and public policy discourse these days, and as a journalist who covers similar hot-button environmental issues all the time, it’s disconcerting.
Thomas (and other outdoor communicators) have some strong feelings about what transpired this week. The online forum at HuntTalk as well as the Outside Bozeman Facebook page contains many comments from readers supporting him and Outside Bozeman. Thomas isn’t looking to get his DU writing gig back, and in a social media post earlier this week, summarized his position on the matter:
“As an outdoorsman and conservationist who supports the North American Model and the Public Trust Doctrine, I find DU’s action reprehensible. As a journalist, I find it chilling. Wildlife advocates today face ever-increasing pressures to abandon these principles in favor of the commercialization of our public resources, largely from wealthy individuals like James Cox Kennedy. If every journalist reporting on these issues faces this kind of vindictive retribution, the future of wildlife and wildlife habitat – not to mention the hunters and anglers of ordinary means who form the backbone of groups like DU – is bleak indeed."
He hopes other sportsmen feel the same way and will share their opinion with DU.
“I encourage others to contact DU, as a staggering number have already done in the last 24 hours – unless of course they are comfortable with having policy for an organization with hundreds of thousands of members dictated by one individual,” Thomas wrote.
Final note: I checked in with the Missoula, Mont.-based Outdoor Writers Association of America to see if the organization has an opinion on the matter. Thomas is listed in the group’s 2014-15 directory as a member, and on Wednesday morning, I requested a statement from Tom Sadler, OWAA executive director. Late Wednesday, Sadler told me he was tracking down organization President Lisa Ballard for comment. “She is on assignment in South Dakota, is aware of the situation, and may have a comment after she has had a chance to gather and review all the information available,” Sadler said via email.
The complete DU statement that Eric Keszler, senior communications specialist, provided to me on Wednesday follows:
 
DU Statement to Outdoor News on Wednesday, Nov. 11
“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.”
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