By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
"John Moredock," the pseudonymous scribe behind Try-Works, a blog at TryWorks.org, never minced words when it came to slamming the media. Consider a November 29, 2006, post that lambasted a piece by the Rocky Mountain News's editorial-page editor. Riffing on the item's subtle title -- "Fuck Vince Carroll" -- Moredock declared, "Fuck him with every ghastly medieval torture device known to humankind.... Had we our way, we'd stake his lower intestine to the ground and make the motherfucker take a half-mile walk."
Moredock, who borrowed his name from the Herman Melville book The Confidence-Man, was just as delicate in a November 10, 2006, reference to Westword editor Patricia Calhoun's column about Mike Jones, the man whose revelations concerning gay sex and meth purchases brought down Colorado Springs evangelist Ted Haggard. After quoting Calhoun's tongue-in-cheek announcement that she'd been "fucked by a male escort" (Jones had told his tale to Westword but then decided against going public, only to do so with other outlets), Moredock wrote, "We only wish it could've been with a wood rasp."
Still, Try-Works' principal mission was to champion University of Colorado-Boulder professor Ward Churchill, who Moredock and other contributors felt was being unfairly excoriated in the mainstream press -- and the site's colorfully profane approach to defending him promptly spawned rumors that Moredock and Churchill were one and the same. When yours truly asked him about this theory in an e-mail circa November 2005 (three months after Try-Works' launch), Moredock shot it down. But he remained in the crosshairs of Churchill critics eager to expose him, and last December, one of them, Illinois resident and fledgling documentarian Grant Crowell, scored a bull's-eye. Following an e-mail exchange with Moredock, Crowell employed the "view source" command in his Microsoft Outlook system to discover that the sender was actually Benjamin Whitmer, an untenured, part-time CU instructor in the very same Ethnic Studies program that had long employed Churchill.
Shortly after his identity was divulged on a pair of Colorado-based Churchill-bashing pages -- PirateBallerina.com, run by Jim Paine, who couldn't be reached for comment, and Drunkablog.com, the domain of John Martin -- Whitmer pulled Try-Works down. But it returned on January 4, with Whitmer explaining that he'd removed all previous content in an attempt to prevent his fellow Try-Works bloggers from being outed in much the same way he'd been; with the exception of Erin Rosa, a regular on the Colorado Confidential blog, most of them filed under nom de plumes. However, he'd decided to keep up the online fight under his real name. In his words, "It'll be fun to give you, dear reader, the opportunity to hate me for myself."
Of course, this disclosure also provided ammunition to his enemies, and they wasted little time firing it back at him. Martin doesn't advocate censorship against Whitmer: "He should be able to say any damn thing he wants, and we should be free to mock him for it," he believes. But as someone charged with teaching young people, Whitmer "should be held to a higher standard," Martin allows. "Somebody in a position of responsibility shouldn't be so reckless."
Crowell echoes this last observation. "What does it say about people in academia?" he asks. "And where does responsibility come in academic freedom? Certain jobs come with a sense of authority and trust, and when you feel that trust is betrayed, what kind of reputation does it leave? I'd ask the Ethnic Studies department: Is any kind of conduct on the outside acceptable?"
Absolutely not, replies CU-Boulder spokesman Bronson Hilliard. CU has neither the resources to monitor all outside activities of staffers nor the desire to "play referee over every debate," he says, but when complaints are made against faculty members and so forth, they're investigated on a case-by-case basis. Hilliard, who hasn't received any such grievance related to Whitmer, estimates that "99.9 percent of the time, it's a pure free-speech issue." But he stresses that action can be taken against employees and students if they use a CU server to disseminate libelous, slanderous or threatening posts and e-mails, or if they conduct such activities in ways that imply they're operating under the university's auspices.
Whitmer asserts by e-mail that he did nothing of the sort. Try-Works isn't on the campus system, and he maintains that in his posts, "I was in no way acting as a representative of CU. Hell, I was anonymous. Obviously, none of my students knew about it -- I was having a little fun in my free time poking back at people I thought were intrinsically full of shit."
A native of upstate New York, Whitmer has lived in Colorado since 1996, and he earned two English degrees at CU. Beginning in 2005, around the time Churchill came under attack, he was put in charge of what he calls an "Indians in Lit" class, and since then, he's overseen numerous courses in the Ethnic Studies department, only one or two of which were previously on Churchill's schedule. In addition, he's participated in Columbus Day parade protests, and despite having been arrested in both 2000 and 2004, he pledges not to stop until the parade does.
Try-Works has demonstrated just as much resolve when going after perceived enemies, as Rocky writer Charlie Brennan understands. In 2005, after the site spent weeks ripping Brennan's coverage of Churchill, a Try-Worker got hold of sometimes flirtatious, often embarrassing e-mails the reporter sent to a woman he may or may not have thought was an American Indian Movement source and began posting them in serial fashion. Before long, Brennan vanished from the Churchill beat. He refers questions about the move to Rocky editor/publisher/ president John Temple, who characterizes it as a mutual decision designed to avoid any perception of bias.
Like Brennan, Whitmer has now lost a piece of his privacy, as well as one of his website's greatest assets. The presumption that Moredock was Churchill "created a kind of mystique," he notes. And if conjecture that Churchill was behind every word may have made slaps at the media seem like personal vendettas, it generated "this kind of cult following from the anti-Churchill bloc, which took everything we said really seriously."
Granted, some secrets remain. Now that they know Moredock isn't Churchill, both Martin and Crowell think the embattled professor likely writes for the site under a different moniker, "Charley Arthur." Whitmer offers no help pinning down the facts: "I've only communicated with Charley Arthur via e-mail. I've got a couple ideas as to who he is, but Ward Churchill's not tops on my list." Churchill, for his part, didn't respond to several interview requests.
What's gone, however, is Whitmer's ability to smash opponents from behind the veil of anonymity, as he did to Drunkablog's Martin. Following the release of a damning report against Churchill, Martin says, "I mentioned in passing that I imagined Moredock was face down in a puddle of his own vomit -- and he commented back that the only puddle of vomit he'd seen was after 'somebody puked in your wife's cunt and I was eating her out.'"
Will Whitmer continue using startling language like this now that everyone knows he teaches at CU? University spokesman Hilliard hopes not. After hearing samples of Moredock's bluer material, he says, "We like not just free speech but better speech, enlightened speech. Much of what you're describing to me is personal vitriol, and that's rather disappointing."
No wonder Whitmer isn't exactly cocky about job security. "Since I'm an adjunct, I have no protection whatsoever," he notes. "They can just choose not to renew my contract, and I'm gone." Still, he refuses to soft-pedal his opinion about CU's treatment of Churchill, who is currently on paid administrative leave. "I love the Ethnic Studies department, I love my students, and I love teaching," he asserts. "But I think the university at large has been the worst kind of cowardly, folding like a yard-sale card table under the slightest media pressure. I don't plan on ever being quiet about that."
Even so, the new Try-Works seems more polite than its predecessor. The 2007 posts aren't timid, but neither have they involved torture fantasies -- and Whitmer doesn't know when or if that will change. "I'm not entirely sure," he concedes. "It's probably less nasty at this point -- but then, I haven't had much time to get rolling."
If he does, hang on to your intestines.