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Lessons learned: Ducks Unlimited vs. Don Thomas

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As a freelance writer and photographer, every time a magazine changes editors, I feel vulnerable, and I wonder if the new one will want my work. On the flip side, I’ve stopped querying a number of publications over the years because the pay was too low, the editor too heavy handed, or the direction of the media outlet veered from my own. Once in a while an editor has simply stopped communicating with me or vice versa, and we’ve drifted apart. These situations are normal in freelance media work. Doors open. Doors close. Other doors open hopefully wider.
In early November, when Ducks Unlimited ended its multi-year relationship with freelancer Don Thomas after he wrote a strongly-worded piece in favor of public access to the Ruby River in Montana and opposed actions by James Cox Kennedy, a wealthy landowner and by coincidence, a Ducks Unlimited member, it shook the foundations of both the freelance and conservation worlds. (For OWAA’s public statement and background materials on the situation, go to https://owaa.org/blog/2015/11/statement-thomas-ducks-unlimited/)
The story erupted nationally. At first blush, it appeared Ducks Unlimited cold-heartedly released one of its more popular columnists and a highly respected conservation writer as a favor to one of its big rollers, and over the issue of public access to outdoorsmen, something many of its members value. However, according to the organization’s CEO Dale Hall, Kennedy did not know that Ducks Unlimited fired Thomas until after the fact. The organization fired Thomas because it could not tolerate one of its writers characterizing one of its members in such a negative way in any context. What remains at the heart of it for many OWAA members is another fact: Thomas’ relationship with Ducks Unlimited ended over an article that had nothing to do with ducks or waterfowl conservation.
I was off the grid, deer hunting in the Black Hills of South Dakota on an assignment when the situation erupted. My phone, or was that my brain, threatened to overheat despite the single digit temperatures. The press and members of OWAA wanted a statement. The distraction did little for my aim with a rifle.
The situation was complicated. Ducks Unlimited was well within its right to select whomever they want to write for the organization’s magazine, but my colleague reeled from his sudden divorce from an organization which he had supported both professionally through his writing, and personally through his membership, attendance at fund-raising dinners and donations to silent auctions.
What could OWAA do? Some of our members said do nothing. It’s not OWAA’s battle. Others were outraged and severed all ties to Ducks Unlimited or lambasted the group in various public and private ways while calling on OWAA to defend a fellow journalist. Many looked to OWAA for guidance. As your president, it was my job to be thoughtful about how we handled the situation while privately I was deeply disturbed by the debacle. A number of thoughts clouded my scope:

  • We all depend on and value the First Amendment. However, although we have the freedom to speak (or in this case, write) what we want, that doesn’t mean there won’t be repercussions. That’s a risk we take when we take a position in our prose.
  • As a freelancer contributing to more than 25 magazines and websites, I can’t possibly clear what I write for one media outlet with the rest of them. There is always the possibility of offending someone unless I stick to white-bread topics such as “10Ways to Waterproof my Hiking Boots.” Tepid how-to articles may get people outdoors, but they don’t raise awareness about conservation challenges I care about.
  • Don Thomas has been a member of OWAA for a couple of decades. Ducks Unlimited has been a supporter even longer,32 years. Just as Thomas and Kennedy were members of Ducks Unlimited’s family, so are Thomas and Ducks Unlimited members of OWAA’s family. In the OWAA family, two cousins wounded each other, but their battle should not tear the OWAA family apart.

I turned to OWAA’s mission statement for guidance. The last phrase, which discusses providing opportunities for craft improvement and mentoring the next generation of outdoor communicators, caught my eye. Perhaps we — both freelancers and conservation groups — could learn from this troubling situation.
What’s next? In my conversations with Thomas and Hall, both said they supported an initiative through OWAA to educate freelancers and magazine editors regarding the risks and obligations to each other. I’m not sure what forms that initiative will take. Options include a craft improvement session at an OWAA conference, articles in Outdoors Unlimited, or an OWAA hosted webinar.
OWAA’s board embraced this idea and helped craft the public statement you’ve already received. As it was hitting your email in November, our executive director, Tom Sadler, commented how OWAA has done its best to make lemonade out of lemons. If you have an idea that will sweeten the drink, let me know. Even long-time freelancers stand to gain from the information, whatever forms it takes. ♦
— OWAA President Lisa Ballard, Densmore1@aol.com
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