Candidate: Story on me is wrong

The education official disputes a newspaper and a blogger.

Published June 26, 2007

Florida's No. 2 education official is tangled in a cyber-tussle with a tiny Minnesota newspaper and a scientist who blogs about the politics of teaching evolution.

Back in October 2003, the Princeton Union Eagle wrote that Cheri Yecke, then Minnesota's education commissioner, explained in "advance publicity" for a public hearing that "schools could include the concept of 'intelligent design' in teaching how the world came to be."

Big news? Apparently not. The line was buried in the 22nd paragraph.

But four years later, Yecke is Florida's K-12 chancellor and a leading candidate to be its next education commissioner. And now she says the newspaper got it wrong.

Through an Internet company called reputationdefender, Yecke recently asked a scientist who riffed on the statement to either remove his blog post or modify it.

The scientist said he would if Yecke showed proof the statement was wrong. But the newspaper is standing by its reporter.

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Yecke's case is a sign of the times.

When it comes to somebody's reputation, the Internet can be a funhouse mirror and the world's fastest grapevine. It can hurl lies as fast as it spreads truth.

It's easy enough to Google a few examples.

A May story in the San Francisco Chronicle led with the example of Sue Scheff, a South Florida resident who runs a referral service for parents of troubled kids. An angry woman whom Scheff once advised called Scheff a "con artist" and a "crook" on Internet forums. Business dried up.

"You could Google my name, and what would come up was 'beware of Sue Scheff,' " said Scheff, who won an $11-million defamation suit against the woman.

Then there's the Yale law grad who interviewed with 16 law firms but received no offers, according to a March story in the Washington Post. Her theory: She was done in because anonymous contributors to a law school message board called AutoAdmit had posted a number of bogus and derogatory claims about her.

The postings would have been easy to find for any hiring manager.

"Everyone should Google themselves at least once a month," said William McGeveran, a University of Minnesota law professor who studies Internet identity. "Someone can talk about their interactions with you on their blog ... or tag a picture of you in their Flickr photo stream."

And now, it's all out there.

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In Yecke's case, a tiff over a single line in a weekly newspaper might not seem like a big deal.

But then again, it might say a lot about the scrutiny expected for anyone who wants to be Florida education commissioner - and the potency of the debate over evolution and creationism.

Yecke's position on the teaching of intelligent design, a faith-based counterpoint to evolution, was at issue when she was hired in August 2005 by then Education Commissioner John Winn. Critics in Minnesota say Yecke tried to ease such theories into the curriculum by misrepresenting the position of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, and by stealthily tinkering with wording when science standards were drafted. Yecke has called those characterizations off base.

This week she said the Union Eagle statement is inaccurate and worth setting straight because she believes such decisions should be left up to district officials.

Until recently, the scientist in the picture, Wesley Elsberry, worked for the National Center for Science Education, a pro-science watchdog group. Now a visiting researcher at Michigan State University, he says the statement in question might be more controversial for Yecke than her other statements because it "would tie her directly to advocacy of intelligent design." But in his view, Yecke's other words and actions already made her an advocate.

Elsberry recently updated his blog, the Austringer, with a written explanation from Yecke. But he said he wouldn't remove the offending statement unless he could examine the "advance publicity" referenced by the newspaper.

It's unclear what the "advance publicity" was. Union Eagle editor Chris Schafer said he thinks it was a press release, but neither he nor the reporter who wrote the story still have it. Yecke said any press release from her office would not have included such a statement.

Schafer said the story is "fair and accurate." He said Yecke never contacted the paper for a retraction. "If there was a problem, why weren't we doing this the day after the story ran?" he said.

Yecke said she never saw the story. "They're such a little paper," she said. "I didn't even know about it."

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Yecke also said her decision to hire reputationdefender had nothing to do with her bid for commissioner.

Most of the company's clients are average Joe's, and they're more likely to be hunting for compromising photos instead of misleading quotes.

But Yecke said when she heard about it from her sister a few weeks ago, she thought, "This is long overdue."

"When you're a public figure, you have to try to manage fact from fiction," she said.

Yecke faces stiff competition to be commissioner, with likely candidates including state Rep. Joe Pickens, R-Palatka, who chairs the House Education Council, and Jim Warford, whom Yecke replaced as chancellor. Both Pickens and Warford said they had never heard of reputationdefender and had not given any thought to scouring their Internet identities.

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or 727 893-8873.

Fast Facts:

About reputationdefender

-The company works by contacting the offending Web sites to request that they remove the material.

-Cost: For $10 to $16 per month, you'll get a monthly report that lists what's out there about you.

-It costs $29.95 for each item you want the company to eliminate. For information, go to www.reputationdefender.com.