How Aaron Swartz Helped Save My Ass

I was deeply saddened to hear this morning that Aaron Swartz had died. He was not a close friend of mine, I had only met him a few times, which made one particular instance of his help ever the more remarkable.

In October 2010, I wrote the most controversial story of my career. I uncovered how a group of well-regarded progressive activists — Melanie Sloan, Executive Director of Citizens For Reform and Ethics in Washington and Tom Matzzie, former Washington Director of MoveOn — were secretly working in conjunction with for-profit college lobbyists to slander the reputation of education activists pushing against predatory college lending patterns. Indeed, in an Orwellian twist, Matzzie and Sloan claimed that the education activists were secretly working on the payroll of Wall Street short seller Steve Eisman who was a for-profit college opponent.

I debunked Matzzie’s claims that people like Barmark Nassarian and Pauline Abernathy were secretly working for Wall Street speculators and showed that indeed the reverse was true. I had no doubt that highly regarded  progressive watch dogs Matzzie and Sloan were the ones working secretly with those who had a financial stake in defeating the regulations. Six weeks after my story exposing Sloan, she would accept a job with for-profit colleges’ top lobbyist, Lanny Davis. (To understand the implications of this scandal in the progressive community, see Reuters’ piece on the impact of my expose)

However, despite the thoroughness of my reporting, I received attacks from liberals. Sloan and Matzzie were part of the cool kids club. They had been inside the Beltway for years and knew everyone. I was a nobody. So Sloan and Matzzie used their relationships with credible progressives to try to discredit my piece through whisper campaigns and the incredulous gossip channels of private, progressive listservs.

My credibility was under attack for factual reporting. While outlets like Reuters cited me as accurate, nobody on the Left was willing to step forward.  Even my former employers at the Institute for America’s Future told a colleague of mine not to speak up defending me saying “Elk is on his own.” I feared for my reputation as a reporter and my ability to continue the work I find so valuable and rewarding.

Few on the Left were willing to defend me besides for Aaron Swartz. Without prompting, Swartz plunged himself into defending me on listservs and social media. He would email me from time-to-time asking for more details on how I had done my work and on Matzzie’s and Sloan’s relationship. His assistance was good-natured, selfless, and a natural outgrowth of his character.

Over the years, Swartz would sometimes email me with a friendly note regarding an article or expose. I would talk to him when I did stories on why unions like the Communication Workers of America did not fully embrace his positions on net neutrality. I really didn’t understand his world but Aaron was always eager to help me in any way he could.

This morning when I heard he had committed suicide, I felt so sad and guilty that I hadn’t done more to help him in his legal struggle than send out a few tweets. It just didn’t seem appropriate for a journalist like myself to get involved in an activist cause on a subject I knew so little about. I should have done more to defend him, like he did for me and so many others.

The only thing left to do is to rededicate myself to what Swartz committed so much of his energy to — getting knowledge to the public that the elites want to keep to themselves.

Aaron Swartz was a good guy.