On the basis of a self-described ‘investigative report’ (which fails to meet any of the eight criteria required of such a report), DisCon III has removed the successful female publisher of Baen Books (Ms Toni Weisskopf) as DisCon’s Guest of Honour.
Or to put it another way, DisCon III is refusing to celebrate the success of the female publisher of Baen Books (Toni Weisskopf) because of the poorly argued hatchet-job undertaken by Jason Sanford concerning the adequacy of the moderating process on some of Baen’s forums. DisCon acted despite Ms Weisskopf immediately suspending all the forums while the company investigated. Indeed they removed Ms Weisskopf as a Guest of Honour four days after she had suspended the forum. The removal is the first time that such an action has been taken in the 80 years of WorldCons. (Note: the Macquarie Dictionary defines ‘hatchet job’ for Australian users as: ‘a verbal or written attack on a person, designed to destroy their credibility or ability to function’).
Firstly a couple points regarding my own background before I explain my concerns regarding the action, particularly given the many and significant failures of Mr Sanford’s report.
- I am a trained and highly experienced Administrative Investigator, (7 years as the Manager Investigations at the Western Australian Ombudsman’s Office, and 9 years as the Deputy Inspector at the Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services).
- My own politics is broadly Socialist. And although a male I have strong feminist sympathies, which have been reinforced as the result of being married to a strong, articulate woman for nearly 40 years.
- And lastly I am also one of the 64,280 registered users of Baen’s Bar. Like many, however, I have never posted, and have only visited the site once (when I registered).
Here’s a timeline with links to the main documents relevant to understanding the background to DisCon’s actions:
- 15 Feb 2021 – Jason Sandford releases his self described ‘investigative report’ about ‘how Baen’s Bar, the private forum run by the science fiction and fantasy publishing company Baen Books, is being used to advocate for extremist political violence’: https://www.patreon.com/posts/baen-books-forum-47582408
- 15 Feb 2021 – Toni Weisskopf, Baen’s Publisher announces that effective from noon 16 Feb the Bar has been closed (https://www.baen.com/bb021621):
‘It’s been brought to my attention by some helpful folks that speech not everyone agrees with, and that may have become unlawful speech, has occurred on Baen’s Bar. In order to fully investigate those serious allegations, and any violations of the Bar “no hitting” rule, we will be taking a break from the Bar as of noon February 16th, and encourage all our readers to enjoy their lawful conversations elsewhere for the time being.—Toni Weisskopf, Publisher’
- 17 February 2021 – Eric Flint (best selling SF writer and Baen Books’ author) responds with his analysis of Mr Sandford’s post (The Controversy About Baen’s Bar | Eric Flint)
- 19 February 2021 DisCon III (World Con 2021) after discussion with Ms Weisskopf removed her as a Guest of Honor – no reasons were given: https://discon3.org/news/update-on-editor-guest-of-honor/
Now to my concerns.
Firstly, Mr Sanford described his post as ‘an investigative report’. Unfortunately, while it may have been intended as such, it failed to meet most, and perhaps all of the eight principals of Excellent Investigations set out in Gareth Jones ‘Conducting Administrative Oversight & Ombudsman Investigations’ (Canada Law Book: 2009). These being:
- the investigator must be as independent as possible
- the investigator must be trained and experienced
- all potentially relevant issues must be identified and, where appropriate, pursued
- the investigation must be sufficiently resourced
- all relevant physical evidence should be preserved, collected and examined as necessary
- all relevant documentation must be secured and reviewed
- all relevant witnesses must be identified, segregated where practical and thoroughly interviewed on all the issues under investigation
- the analysis of all the material gathered in the investigations should be objective and based solely on the facts.
Some may argue that, despite Mr Sandford’s claim to the contrary, the report was not an ‘investigative report’ but simply a setting out of some concerns that warranted further investigation. I would normally agree with this argument except it was on the basis of the report that DisCon III took action to remove Ms Weisskopf as a Guest of Honor.
My concern is that despite Mr Sandford’s article not being fit for the purpose of serving as an ‘investigative report’ (see following), it served as the basis for DisCon III decision to cancel Ms Weisskopf’s attendance as a GOH (no other reason having been provided). Perhaps because she was a female, and the DisCon Committee fell into the familiar trap of holding females to a higher standard than their male counterparts. There is certainly an argument that can be made that the decision by DisCon to disinvite Ms Weisskopf may be the result of a fear of the ‘cancel culture’. A recent opinion piece in the Washington Post by Matt Bai https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/03/12/are-we-all-being-canceled-no-cultural-revolution-is-real/ makes it clear how dangerous this can be.
In conclusion I also note that DisCon’s action has robbed Mr Sanford of the opportunity he was hoping for to have a number of questions put to Ms Weisskopf at the convention.
The following addresses my concerns regarding Mr Sandford’s document as an ‘investigative-report’. Addressing each of the eight requirements for such reports in turn:
- The investigator must be as independent as possible.
While Mr Sandford appears on the face of the matter to be independent of the matters he is raising, this is not a matter that can be ascertained from his report. It would have been helpful if he had set out what relationship, if any, he had had with Baen’s Bar. However, given the warning in the opening paragraph, ‘Warning: This report includes discussions of possible political violence along with quoted comments containing racism, white supremacy, and more’, it would appear that he sought to write the report with the intention of making the report as contentious as possible to incite interest. I must stress, that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this approach unless you are seeking to portray the article as unbiased and suitable for others to make decisions on – which people have.
- The investigator must be trained and experienced.
According to Mr Sandford’s twitter profile he is an “Archaeologist turned author with a science fictional take on life.” His short story, The Eight-Thousanders is a finalist for the 2021 Nebula Award for Best Short Story. While all admirable, none of this means he is either trained or experienced in conducting an administrative investigation.
- All potentially relevant issues must be identified and, where appropriate, pursued.
One major issue I have with the report, as has Mr Flint, is that the report tars all of the SubForums with the same brush of containing “discussions of possible political violence along with … racism, white supremacy, and more”. For example he writes that “the Baen’s Bar forum definitely has a conservative tilt. This can be easily seen in many of the Bar’s most contentious subforums, such as those dealing with politics and other controversial issues.” This is a ridiculous statement which denigrates over a quarter of American adults and is playing towards his perceived audience. In Feb 2021 Gallup polling found that 32% of Americans identified as Democrats, 26% identified as Republican, and 41% as Independent.[“Gallup Historical Trends: Party Affiliation”. Gallup News. Retrieved 2021-01-16.”].
- The investigation must be sufficiently resourced.
One person, working remotely, regardless of the number of people who “gave me [Mr Sandford] feedback on this report prior to publication” does not a team make, particularly where the people involved were presumably simply checking the grammar rather than addressing the quality of the underlying investigation. The resourcing was, however, adequate to prepare an initial paper that could then be used by Baen Books to serve as the starting point for their own investigation, which it has done.
- All relevant physical evidence should be preserved, collected and examined as necessary.
Not relevant in this case – but see the next point.
- All relevant documentation must be secured and reviewed.
In my view this is Mr Sandford’s biggest failure. In seeking to assess the validity of Mr Sandford’s accusations I sought to access the original documentation – unfortunately this is impossible because the forums have been taken down, and the few screen dumps Mr Sandford took fails to show the complete thread of any discussion I sought to access. Unfortunately, given my experience I am only too aware of how selective people can be when preparing an argument.
In the one case where he does provide partial evidence from a thread last year titled ‘Soft Civil War & Trump’s Army,’ https://www.dropbox.com/s/z6x4w7ikewlkipq/BaenBarFeb2020_Captrandy_c.jpg?dl=0 which he believes demonstrates ‘racist comments and innuendos’ he quotes user Captrandy as stating ‘that political conflicts in the USA could be solved if “all the angry and non angry white males should stop going to work for a month or so.”’. I note that this was in response to an article in the New York Times referring to ‘white males’ and the quoted text is simply advocating a withholding of labour – which can by no stretch of the imagination be described as either racism, innuendo, or a call to violence.
In a further example, in Note 5 of Mr Sandford’s report he writes “that Bob Nelson has described being banned from the forum ‘for not agreeing with Mr Ringo’s vision of the universe.’ Nelson later wrote a more detailed post on what happened, describing how he argued against the sad puppies and other issues on the forum prior to being banned.” Have read Mr Nelson’s self-congratulatory blog posts I have to say that I most certainly would not accept Mr Nelson’s claims without checking the original Baen posts. Unfortunately they are presently not available.
- All relevant witnesses must be identified, segregated where practical and thoroughly interviewed on all the issues under investigation.
Here Mr Sandford has simply ignored the need to check with relevant witnesses which has resulted in significant errors. For example Mr Sanford writes:
For example, a Baen’s Bar user from India was nicknamed “The Swarthy Menace” on the forum by author Tom Kratman. People on the forum thought that was the height of clever humor.
As Mr Flint points out in his response
He provides one—and only one—example to substantiate his charge that Baen’s Bar has also become well-known in the genre community as a place where racism, sexism, homophobia and general fascism continually pop up. He is outraged that the racist nickname “The Swarthy Menace” was inflicted on a poor downtrodden fellow from India by the wicked Colonel Kratman.
I happen to know the truth about this incident, which is that “The Swarthy Menace” himself, whose actual name is Arun Pradhu, thinks it’s funny—and he developed the nickname with Tom Kratman. He did so because someone he got in an argument with assumed he was Caucasian and accused him of being a racist. He is also, by the way, hopping mad at Jason Sanford for lying about him.
If Mr Sandford had interviewed witnesses instead of relying on hearsay he might have uncovered the truth instead of leaving himself open to claims of sloppy work.
- The analysis of all the material gathered in the investigations should be objective and based solely on the facts.
Mr Sandford’s report is not an investigative report, it is a partisan and polemic argument. As such it fails the test of objectivity. Having said that, there is nothing wrong with such articles, except when they pretend a level of objectivity they simply don’t possess.
As a partisan and polemic post Mr Sandford does successfully appear to make the case that some parts of the forum may demonstrate a failure of moderators to ensure posters adhere to the forum’s ‘no-hitting’ rule, and the politeness that one might expect on a public forum. See Cat Rambo’s intelligently written article on moderation http://www.kittywumpus.net/blog/2021/02/18/opinion-on-baen-books-moderating-discussion-boards-political-expression/