The Most Surprising Heartland Fact: Not the Leaks, but the Leaker

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I know that many of you are probably sick of this story, for which I apologize.  I'm crunching on a column after a weekend family emergency, so the other blogging which would normally be interspersed with the Heartland stuff is going to be very light through at least tomorrow.


There's been a bit of back and forth with some correspondents, asking why I was not outraged about the East Anglia hack?  Interestingly, no one has asked me why I wasn't outraged by the Buffalo reporter who called Scott Walker pretending to be David Koch--which seems to me to be a closer parallel.

There are a lot of answers to that, but the largest is that I am not surprised by leaks--but I was very surprised that a man of Gleick's stature would take this sort of risk, on such flimsy evidence.

Scientists and journalists are held to higher standards than, say, your average computer hacker. Trust in our work product is dependent on our personal integrity, because it can't always be verified independently.

Impersonating an actual person is well over the line that any reputable journalist needs to maintain.  I might try to get a job at a Food Lion to expose unsafe food handling.  I would not represent myself as a health inspector, or the regional VP.  I don't do things that are illegal--at least, not things that are illegal in the stable western democracy in which I live.

Nor would I ever, ever claim that a document came from Heartland unless I had personally received it from them, gotten them to confirm its provenance, or authenticated it with multiple independent sources.

And ethics aside, what Gleick did is insane for someone in his position--so crazy that I confess to wondering whether he doesn't have some sort of underlying medical condition that requires urgent treatment.  The reason he did it was even crazier.  I would probably have thrown that memo away.  I might have spent a few hours idly checking it out. I would definitely not have risked jail or personal ruin over something so questionable, and which provided evidence of . . . what?  That Heartland exists?  That it has a budget? That it spends that budget promoting views which Gleick finds reprehensible? 

On that note, a few more questions about Gleick's story:

How did his correspondent manage to send him a memo which was so neatly corroborated by the documents he managed to phish from Heartland?  

How did he know that the board package he phished would contain the documents he wanted?  Did he just get lucky?

If Gleick obtained the other documents for the purposes of corroborating the memo, why didn't he notice that there were substantial errors, such as saying the Kochs had donated $200,000 in 2011, when in fact that was Heartland's target for their donation for 2012?  This seems like a very strange error for a senior Heartland staffer to make.  Didn't it strike Gleick as suspicious?  Didn't any of the other math errors?

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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