The Hunger Project (THP), describes itself as “a strategic organization and global movement committed to the sustainable end of world hunger.” But it seems the group has added some interesting new strategies to its list of commitments lately.
THP has apparently decided to pursue a strategy of intimidation and threats to purge critical and/or historical information about it from the Internet.
What it seems THP doesn’t want the public to readily know is that it was initially launched by a controversial seminar guru named Werner Erhard (once known as John Paul “Jack” Rosenberg) through his organization called “est” (Erhard Seminars Training).
Much of THP’s touted “framework of thinking,” worldview, working vocabulary and philosophy appears to come from the mind of the much-criticized Erhard and his “est” mindset. Not to mention the fact that staffers at THP historically often came from est, including current THP President Joan Holmes.
It seems that staffers at THP headquarters in Manhattan examined Google results and they didn’t like what they found.
Certain reports on the Internet traced the historical roots of THP, analyzed its “estian” connections and/or influence and shared a less than laudatory view of THP with fellow netizens.
Since the departure of Werner Erhard from THP’s board in 1990 and his subsequent sale of est to brother Harry Rosenberg and a group of employees in 1991, it seems that Erhard’s intellectual progeny want to disassociate from their controversial creator.
In fact, Est changed its name to Landmark Education, though it still features essentially the same so-called “technology” or seminar curriculum established by its founder, which includes the introductory course known as the Forum.
And THP, which is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization in the U.S., has evolved from its early beginnings to a burgeoning nonprofit organization that claims “40,000 volunteers” working “in partnership with 120 staff in 22 countries.”
But don’t expect any acknowledgement about Werner Erhard or est’s historic contribution to appear at THP’s website. Nothing whatsoever is there about this.
Now back to that Internet campaign.
Hunger Project attacks former volunteer
THP started sounding off early last year. Their first target was former THP volunteer Carol Giambalvo who had written a critique of the group in 1987 titled “The Hunger Project Inside Out” and posted it on her website.
“It has come to my attention that you are continuing to publish a web page about The Hunger Project based on your experience as a volunteer more than 20 years ago…remove the web page…and eliminate any other references to The Hunger Project in your professional materials,” THP Vice President John Coonrod wrote Giambalvo in a letter dated February 5, 2003.
But she didn’t do it.
“[THP] says the article is outdated and the usual rap about them not being affiliated with Landmark or Werner Erhard. Funny, I have had some inquiries lately where the person who is involved with Landmark is also involved with THP,” Giambalvo later commented.
She then posted Coonrod’s letter at the end of her report to offer readers an alternative viewpoint.
However, giving THP the last word didn’t satisfy the organization.
In April Giambalvo was shocked when AOL pulled the plug on her entire website.
“AOL determined that a complaint from THP was more important than their customers and they actually cut me off from service without notice yesterday,” she said on April 3, 2003.
Eventually AOL allowed Giambalvo’s site to return online, but only after she agreed to purge the offending THP report. AOL purportedly said she’d be “permanently shut out” if she did not delete the disputed material.
“Wonderful freedom of speech we have here in America…but not America On Line,” she lamented.
THP’s “strategic” effort had paid off by squelching the report somewhat.
Attacking Christian Century articles
But there were two pesky previously published articles about THP that had appeared in Christian Century magazine during the 1970s that now drew the group’s ire and attention. Both were posted on the database at the Ross Institute (RI).
The offending articles were titled, “The Hunger Project and Est: Close Ties” and “The Hunger Project: You Can’t Eat Words.” The author was respected educator Dr. David Hoekema.
Hoekema had harsh words for THP. He described their program as “empty talk” and opined “If we want to work toward a solution to the problems of world hunger, we would do better to invest our time and money in relief programs [and] organizations engaged not just in talk, but in carefully chosen action.”
The first apparent shot in THP’s “strategic” effort to purge these articles from the Internet came in the Fall of 2003.
RI was contacted by the Executive Editor of Christian Century, who requested that “all Christian Century material” be removed, which only included the two Hoekema articles.
In October both articles were converted to news summaries within “fair use” standards.
Then came the next shot.
Carol Giambalvo’s pen pal John Coonrod surfaced. “I am writing to request your retraction of two articles published on your website,” he wrote in late October.
Coonrod tacitly acknowledged that “one of [THP’s] founders was Werner Erhard, the creator of the est training&But that Mr. Erhard severed any association with the Hunger Project back in 1990.” He concluded, “I request that you remove [the articles] from your site.”
But they were not removed; though a response was sent requesting that Mr. Coonrod be very specific about what allegedly “erroneous statements” were contained within the news summaries that quoted Hoekema and if any retraction had ever been run by the Christian Century.
After this exchange there was another, but Coonrod did not provide specifics and no published retraction was ever cited.
In November the THP VP wrote again offering details with much more clarity. He disagreed with “three central assertions” made historically by Hoekema. “(a) that [THP] does not take direct action to end hunger, (b) that [THP} is a scheme for divesting funds into private hands, and (c) that [THP] uses its resources to promote the agendas of private organizations.”
Mr. Coonrod then went on to attack specific statements that were once made by David Hoekema. But it should be understood that the scholar simply raised issues and asked serious questions, which offered a historical snapshot (1979) of THP’s early beginnings and the controversy that surrounded it.
“I repeat my request that you remove these articles and all references to our organization from your website,” Coonrod concluded. Echoing the demands he had previously made to Carol Giambalvo.
But the articles were not removed.
Threats of “litigation”
Now comes the attorneys.
“We are writing on behalf of our client The Hunger Project regarding the defamatory statements made in your…articles. Unless the articles are immediately removed from your website, we have been authorized by our client to take any steps necessary to protect its rights, including litigation,” wrote an attorney from a Manhattan firm.
The four page legal letter went on to rehash the grievances of THP and concluded, “Please notify us promptly with written assurances of the steps you are taking to comply with these demands on or before April 15, 2004” or “[we will] take any steps necessary to protect [THP’s] rights including commencing litigation.”
The net result is that the two news summaries were replaced with rewritten reports.
One is “The Hunger Project: A Historical Background,” which includes David Hoekema’s observations and opinions expressed in 1979. It also contains additional facts from other noted publications. This information was largely derived from Carol Giambalvo’s previously mentioned 1987 report. And also included is an updated section subtitled “The Hunger Project Today.”
The second news summary was replaced with this report titled “The Hunger Project attempts to purge criticism and history from the Internet.” And any pertinent quotations by David Hoekema contained in the news summary it replaced, were transferred to “The Hunger Project: A Historical Background” and duly noted.
Interestingly, such “strategic” efforts to suppress and/or purge information on the Internet have historically been undertaken by the Church of Scientology, which has often been called a “cult.”
However, The Hunger Project is not a “cult,” but rather “a strategic organization and global movement committed to the sustainable end of world hunger.”