December 21, 2013

Mike Tipping: No amount of online whitewashing will erase Fredette’s sexist statement

Efforts to scrub the Maine House GOP leader’s Wikipedia entry are an apparent breach of ethics.

Someone is trying to cover up an embarrassing, sexist statement made by Maine House Republican Leader Ken Fredette, and signs point to its being a member of his own staff.

In Maine, Fredette may be known for his leadership position in his caucus and his crucial role in helping to uphold all but four of Gov. LePage’s 83 vetoes during the last session, but if he’s known nationally at all, it’s for a remark he made on the House floor this past June.

That’s when Fredette made the strange announcement that he was opposed to Rep. Linda Sanborn’s bill to accept federal funding to expand health care coverage because he has a “man’s brain.” He referred to the book “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus” and noted that someone without his “man’s mind” might think, “This is free, we need to take it, and it’s free. And we need to do it now.”

I remember the statement well because I happened to be watching the Capitol Connection TV channel at the time and, as soon as my shock at hearing those words wore off, I uploaded the clip to YouTube.

The video was picked up by Maine’s media and then quickly went national and viral. Fredette’s remarks came just as the Republican Party was pledging to do more outreach to women and were seen as an example of at least one Republican absolutely failing in that effort.

MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show” picked up the clip, as did a slew of national media outlets, political websites and women’s-issues-focused blogs. Even Glamour Magazine weighed in and excoriated Fredette for his comments.

“These types of comments, regardless of your party or position, are sexist and should have no place on the floor of the Maine House of Representatives,” Kathy Kilrain del Rio of the Maine Women’s Lobby said at the time. “It’s not only an insult to Maine women, it’s an insult to all Maine people that Rep. Fredette would try to dismiss an issue like providing health care coverage to 69,500 Mainers by belittling women’s brains.”

Fredette’s comments also ignored that even the conservative Heritage Foundation admits that accepting federal funds will save the state $690 million over 10 years.

You wouldn’t know any of this if you visited Rep. Fredette’s Wikipedia entry, however, because on Wednesday of this week, someone deleted all references to the “man’s brain” controversy on the online encyclopedia and replaced them with a glowing biography of Fredette.

The edits began anonymously, logged only to the general IP address for the Legislature, but were then continued by someone with the username Dsorensen85. David Sorensen is Fredette’s communications director. (He could not immediately be reached for comment.)

This kind of biased editing of Wikipedia is against the site’s policies. It violates conflict-of-interest guidelines that specifically bar government staff from editing the site “with the intent to slant or spin an article in a manner that is politically advantageous to their employer.” As Wikimedia Foundation executive director Sue Gardner put it, it’s an act that “violates the core principles that have made Wikipedia so valuable for so many people.”

The edits to Fredette’s page were made during the workday from a state government computer network. User Dsorensen85 also edited the entries for Assistant House Republican Leader Alexander Willette and Augusta Rep. Matthew Pouliot.

This wouldn’t be the first time that political staff have been caught editing Wikipedia to serve their bosses’ interests. When a newspaper revealed that aides in Massachusetts Democratic U.S. Rep. Marty Meehan’s office had made (what appeared to be mostly good-faith) edits to their employer’s Wikipedia entry, the congressman personally apologized, saying, “It was a waste of energy and an error in judgment on the part of my staff.”

When Timothy Hill, press secretary for U.S. Rep. David Davis, R-Tenn., was caught making edits to his boss’ page similar to those that have been made to Fredette’s, the matter was referred to the House Ethics Committee, and Hill was required to take a series of classes on the proper conduct of congressional staff.

It remains to be seen how Fredette will handle the apparent ethics breach in his own office.

I’m not surprised that Fredette or his staff would now be attempting to shove this incident down the memory hole. On Jan. 1, when 25,000 Mainers will lose MaineCare coverage and 45,000 more will be denied care, the reasoning that occurred inside his “man’s brain” that prompted him to reject federal funds is going to seem especially wrong-headed and callous.

Mike Tipping is a political junkie who blogs at MainePolitics.net and works for the Maine People’s Resource Center. He can be contacted at:

writebacktomike@gmail.com

Twitter: @miketipping

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