Dearborn Mayor forgot the ‘Streisand effect’ when he tried to kill story on Henry Ford’s anti-semitism

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click to enlarge Dearborn Mayor forgot the ‘Streisand effect’ when he tried to kill story on Henry Ford’s anti-semitism
James R. Martin /

A century ago, Dearborn native and Ford Motor Company founder Henry Ford purchased The Dearborn Independent, a weekly paper distributed by Ford dealerships nationwide — which he then used from 1919 to 1927 to amplify his own anti-semitic views.

Then, two weeks ago, Dearborn-based reporter Bill McGraw sought to publish the suburb’s first in-depth probe of the anti-semitic views of its hometown hero in a city-funded quarterly magazine, The Dearborn Historian. Taking another look at Ford’s controversial legacy made sense, given the recent rise of Neo Nazis and the alt-right.

“Today, a century after Ford purchased The Dearborn Independent and 72 years after his death, his legacy of hate is stronger than ever — it flourishes on the websites and forums of white nationalists, racists and others who hate Jews,” McGraw wrote.

The special report went on to outline Ford’s history of anti-semitism, including that Adolf Hitler once cited Ford as his “inspiration,” and went on to detail the Ford family's reconciliation with the patriarch’s hateful views.

The story was set to be published last month. But then Dearborn Mayor John O’Reilly made the decision to bar the special report from distribution — and fired McGraw.

What followed is a modern testament to the power of the internet — and the “Streisand effect,” or the psychological phenomenon in which an attempt to censor information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information even more.

It's named after singer and actress Barbra Streisand, who tried to sue the California Coastal Records Project in 2003 for photographing her cliffside Malibu mansion and invading her privacy. Of course, the more Streisand tried to suppress the information, the more she guaranteed that the internet would find a way to spread it.

Apparently, O’Reilly never heard of that.

The city’s historical commission disagreed with his decision, and quickly passed a unanimous, non-binding resolution that called for the magazine to be distributed to its small readership of 230 subscribers.

Enter the Streisand effect. Deadline Detroit, the site McGraw co-founded in 2012, was quick to act, picking up McGraw’s original story for publication. The story about the story then became the story, with local outlets picking up the Mayor’s attempt at censorship, and national outlets quick to follow.

“It is just really important to emphasize that history is looking at the whole picture,” the historical commission’s chairman Jonathon Stanton told The New York Times when they came to town. “If we’re only talking about the parts that make us proud, then what we’re doing isn’t really history.”

The Anti-Defamation League, which pressured Ford to close the anti-semitic Dearborn Independent in 1927, penned a letter to the editor of the NYT yesterday calling for the distribution of McGraw’s special report.

O’Reilly defended his decision to pull the report, saying, “It was thought that by presenting information from 100 years ago that included hateful messages — without a compelling reason directly linked to events in Dearborn today — this edition of The Historian could become a distraction from our continuing messages of inclusion and respect.”

Still, this all could have been avoided, perhaps if O’Reilly was just a bit more online.

“We begged them ... we literally begged the curator of the museum, ‘Don’t mess with this because it will blow up in your face,’” McGraw told CJR. “We literally were almost on our knees. We knew what would happen, but he didn’t get it. The (people) who spent their lives in journalism knew.”

Will Feuer is an editorial intern for Metro Times.

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