Air Force Times’ Robert Dorr Advocates for Weinstein’s MRFF

There is a mantra many young officers and enlisted troops learn in their first few days of basic training:  “The Air Force Times is not your friend.”  It is not entirely meant as an adversarial statement; it is simply a recognition of the fact the commercial enterprise (despite its name) has nothing to do with the official Air Force, and its goal is to make money by selling papers.

That said, it is widely quoted when it raises controversial subjects (again, publicity affects the bottom line).  It has frequently covered issues of religion in the military — naturally, a controversial subject to a niche group of people.  When it has done so, it has rarely been friendly.  In a 2008 editorial, for example, the paper registered its support for the ACLU in its bid to end US Naval Academy mealtime prayers.  (Four years on, the prayers continue.)

Still, it was surprising to recently see Michael Weinstein’s MRFF, including his research assistant Chris Rodda, so excitedly — and repeatedly — promote the Air Force Times.  In one example, referring to an Air Force Times “article,” the MRFF cited the “esteemed author” who said

Weinstein is right to want religion and preaching kept out of the military workplace.

He deserves support from classmates and from all of us.

Why would an Air Force Times “editorial” so forcefully endorse a fringe political advocacy group?

It turns out, they didn’t.

Despite Weinstein’s characterization, they were actually citing Air Force Times opinion columnist Robert Dorr.  While the distinction may seem semantic, Dorr himself forcefully corrects people who try to call his work “articles” or say he works for the paper.  He reiterates — repeatedly — that he is not a journalist, and he only writes an “opinion column.”

Dorr’s AFT columns may bear that out.  A couple of his columns read like Chris Rodda’s blog posts, citing innuendo as truth and declining to provide specifics or evidence to support his claims.  For example, Dorr once quoted Weinstein claiming

a squadron commander invited members of the unit to attend a Bible study session at a private home. No one would be “required” to attend, the commander insisted, but it would be “a really good family event”…

In an obvious nod to his status as an opinion columnist — and not a journalist — Dorr fact-checked the event’s occurrence:

Another source confirmed the event and told me Bible study sponsored by a commander is “not unusual.”

…but Dorr didn’t verify Weinstein’s characterization of the event, including his implication it constituted “illegal” activity.  Like Rodda, Dorr apparently chose to leave the scandalous accusations as assumed truths.

For his part, Dorr’s politics leave little to the imagination.  In August 2007, he wrote “Keep the faith (to oneself),” in which he advocated throwing out US troops who have the gall to integrate their faith into all aspects of their lives…even their work [emphasis added]:

We need to rebuild a solid wall between worship and work. And we need to muster out any officer who can’t keep religion and duty in their separate places.

In the face of religious “scandals” in the US military, some have expressed concern the pendulum could swing too far and create an environment hostile toward religious freedom.  (USAFA cadets and faculty, who have borne much of the brunt of wild accusations of religious impropriety, have cited this as a concern in their climate surveys.)  By contrast, Dorr explicitly desires that very thing, saying [emphasis added]:

An anti-religion push [in the military] is exactly what I’m strongly in favor of…

Like MRFF conspiracy theorist Rick Baker, Dorr fears a

relentless takeover of the military by extremist religious zealots.

…though, like Rodda, he never gives any indication why anyone should find such a conspiracy realistic.  Finally, as noted above, Dorr has not only endorsed Weinstein’s cause, he uses his column to advocate that others should do the same.

In some regards, this is perfectly acceptable.  After all, Dorr is an opinion columnist, nothing more.  Of course, as Weinstein’s organization clearly demonstrated, that is a distinction lost on many people.  Despite the nuance insisted upon by Dorr, it (incorrectly) seemed clear enough to Chris Rodda and the MRFF’s PR arm that the Air Force Times had published an editorial article defending their cause.  Still, as long as the Air Force Times is OK with their columnist taking on the activist mantle, as they may well be, there isn’t technically an issue with Dorr’s undisclosed ideological alignment with Weinstein.

On the other hand, there are potential ethical issues for Dorr when he chooses to write paid columns endorsing an activist organization for a commercial publication — while that same organization, in an apparent quid pro quo, turns around and promotes Dorr’s personal work — an arrangement neither Dorr nor Weinstein disclose.

Shortly after Weinstein began excitedly citing “esteemed author” Dorr’s editorial…er, column…the MRFF also began promoting an 18-month-old book written by Dorr.  The military history book is unrelated to Weinstein’s “charitable” group’s goals.  Tellingly, rather than referring people to a general third party commercial website, Weinstein referred his supporters directly to Dorr’s personal contact information.

So Weinstein gets two friendly columns of free publicity and advocacy published in a major media publication in a period of weeks, and the author of that column then gets endorsement and promotion of his personal commercial interests.  Convenient.

Contacted for comment, Dorr claims his conduct is “transparent.”  He bristles when people suggest he is motivated by commercial interests or his ego, yet he readily admits he tries to get everyone he meets to promote his books — apparently even the controversial subjects of his columns.  To be fair, he even solicited exactly that kind of publicity here — while also requesting an interview to offer a different “point of view.”

Despite his claim of transparency, however, Dorr has not, to this point, disclosed that he asked the MRFF to promote his books, nor that they did so after he wrote his columns endorsing their agenda.  While it may be obvious to the casual observer there is a potential ethical issue, Dorr seemed happily oblivious when asked — that is, both oblivious, and offended.  Dorr characterized the questions to him about his relationship with Weinstein as “especially virulent hate mail” from a “coward[].”

Ironically, the last time those words were used in response to a simple (and politely worded) question about motives, they came from Michael Weinstein.  It seems Weinstein and Dorr share not only ideology, but also a fragile and sensitive ego.

In his years of activism, Michael Weinstein has been quick to paint himself and his “group” as a David facing the institutional Goliaths of Christendom and the US military.  Being viewed as the underdog is a desirable fundraising position, after all.  Of course, the truth is that Weinstein has had powerful and connected allies — ranging from erstwhile journalists like Pam Zubeck to the man crafting the US Air Force’s response to Weinstein’s accusations, its top Judge Advocate, now retired LtGen Jack Rives.

Bob Dorr simply joins that list of public personalities who share Weinstein’s agenda, though Dorr appears to be one of the few who (publicly) receives a little something in return.