New York Media’s Views of the West:
Click-Bait, Animal Activism, and Fake News Rampant in Reporting
by OpEd by Cat Urbigkit
December 28, 2016
Harper’s Magazine has a new feature article that is typical of recent New York-based media reporting on issues in the western United States. It’s the latest in agenda-driven perspectives of those lacking an intimate knowledge of the region they are writing about, and who don’t make an effort to provide an unbiased assessment of an issue. Here’s a review a few examples.
Harper’s Bounty Hunters
This one has the wonderful headline: Bounty Hunters: A Clandestine War on Wolves, by Jeremy Miller. Wait, what? Bounty hunting and wolves? Where is this? Utah. According to Harper’s, the article is about "How Utah has enabled hunting of gray wolves, a protected species, and sanctions mass-extermination of coyotes."
The article was written by Jeremy Miller, an "East Bay" writer who is also contributing editor to Colorado’s High Country News. When a wolf was shot by a hunter in Utah in 2014, Miller wrote in HCN, "While uncertainties abound, what seems clear is that this wolf’s death is collateral damage in Utah’s concerted push to exterminate coyotes."
‘Betcha didn’t know that Utah was pushing to "exterminate" coyotes. That coyotes can be hunted in the state, and that Utah offers a bounty on coyotes in certain areas where it hopes to increase its mule deer population, is proof that the state is trying to exterminate the species, according to Miller’s line of thinking. But later in the article, Miller also mentions that bounty programs may actually increase coyote populations, so his talking out both sides of his mouth indicates that the real problem is the fact that he finds wildlife killing repugnant.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigation of the wolf killing determined the incident was accidental. Miller noted that the identities of the two men involved in killing the wolf "escaped public scrutiny altogether. Until now, both men have remained anonymous." Miller published their names in the second sentence of the article.
Nearly a year after the wolf was killed, Miller joined Idaho wolf and anti-grazing activist Natalie Ertz in driving to the site where the wolf had been killed. "After we paid our respects" (including placing "a bouquet of freshly picked sage" on the snow), the duo then traveled to a town where a private organizer was hosting a coyote-killing contest where Miller and Ertz hoped to find the wolf killers, but were disappointed to learn the men were not in attendance.
Miller describes how he joined a Utah Division of Wildlife Resources biologist in touring the area where the wolf might have entered Utah en route to Arizona. He documents how they opened a gate to trespass across a private ranch without permission in their venture.
Miller alleges that the mistaken-identity killings of wolves without prosecution may be "the greatest threat to the survival of wolves." Miller's attempt to tie in what he obviously views as disgusting and unethical coyote-killing contests with posing much of a threat to wolf survival is a far stretch. But he does it anyway, with sentences such as this one: "But what of the sanctioned killing of coyotes in Utah and other states, an indiscriminate exercise that closely resembles the policies of mass extermination that resulted in the near extinction of wolves in the previous century?"
Besides, according to Miller, livestock producers should have nothing to fear from wolves. According to the article, "Emotions aside, there is little evidence to suggest that wolves pose a serious threat to the nation’s livestock. Of 3.9 million cattle deaths reported in 2010, only 220,000, or 6 percent, were attributable to predators. (Inclement weather caused twice as many deaths.) And of these 220,000, wolves accounted for a mere 4 percent. Domestic dogs killed more than twice as many cattle as wolves did."
Falling back on facts that lack context, Miller fails to note that only a small portion of our nation's livestock occur in areas inhabited by wolves, and that these wolves can have severe impacts in localized areas, and to individual ranches.To express empathy with impacted livestock owners, or even private property rights holders, seems beyond Miller’s capacity. Instead, he relies on exaggerations to create his conspiracy. Regardless of Miller’s perspective, the reality is that a Utah coyote derby does not equate his "clandestine war on wolves."
Harper’s Rogue Agency
Miller’s piece is not the first time that Harper’s has provided a slanted feature on a western wildlife issue. In March 2016, writer Christopher Ketcham penned "The Rogue Agency: A USDA program that tortures dogs and kills endangered species." The article was a look at USDA Wildlife Services, the animal damage control experts used by other wildlife agencies to control or kill predators killing livestock, and to keep birds from hitting planes at airports across the country.
Ketcham describes the article this way: "My latest piece in Harper’s is about the stupid, cruel, wanton waste of the USDA’s wildlife slaughter program called Wildlife Services. Read all about it here and weep." He doesn’t even try to sound like an unbiased journalist, and indeed Ketcham promotes activism. In a National Geographic interview after the piece was published, Ketcham was blunt: "The public needs to be outraged, needs to take action. That means creating a countervailing public interest to the dominant special interest of the livestock industry. If there’s any sort of trouble on public lands that affects ranchers in any minor way, that stockman calls his congressman, calls his county commissioner, calls his councilman. He gets in their office, gets in their face, and starts yelling. We need a countervailing representative like that for the public interest, for the wild."
USDA administrator Kevin Shay responded to Ketcham’s piece by pointing out that Ketcham "relied on grossly outdated and inaccurate accounts. He declined our offer to observe a depredation investigation, relying instead on one source’s description of work done two decades ago and on another’s thirty-five-year-old, uncorroborated account of an incident that would be prohibited today. Yet another of Ketcham’s sources retired sixteen years ago and spoke of a time when Wildlife Services spent 63 percent of its budget on agricultural protection, compared with only 27 percent today. The vast majority of our program’s budget is committed to protecting human health, property, and natural resources. This work is vital to protecting our nation’s farmers and ranchers, and it is supported by virtually every natural-resource and professional wildlife-management organization in the United States. "We will not apologize for putting people’s livelihoods and the interests of human safety on equal footing with the noble cause of animal conservation."
The hatchet job on Wildlife Services was just the most recent of Ketcham’s work for the magazine. In 2015, he wrote on his blog, "My latest in Harper’s was the cover of the February issue, a story about the plundering of the public lands of the American West by the livestock industry. The title of the Harper’s Magazine piece was "The Ruin of the West: How Republicans are plundering our public lands" – another assault on public lands livestock grazing, and once again using an anti-grazing activist as his primary source.
Ketcham spreads his vile message to other magazines as well. In its "The Earth Died Screaming Issue" in May 2015, VICE published another Ketcham piece. Ketcham wrote about his lawsuit "against the National Park Service in protest of the government’s brutal and stupid policy of slaughtering wild bison" as they exit Yellowstone National Park and enter Montana.
For those of you who know about the complexities of brucellosis transmission involving elk, bison, and cattle, don’t expect to find a nuanced (or even balanced) discussion of this issue, because what you’ll find is more of Ketcham’s rabid blathering as he explains why he joined the ACLU in suing the National Park Service: "The goal of the ACLU lawsuit was to see, smell, and hear, up close, bison corralled, beaten, whipped, raped, sorted, and moved onto the trucks that carry them to their death."
A 2012 Ketcham piece entitled "Wolves to the Slaughter" was followed by the tagline: "The reintroduction of the gray wolf to the Northern Rockies was an ecological success story — until money and politics got in the way." It explains what a benefit wolves are to the Yellowstone ecosystem, while adding "Ranching, by contrast, is considered one of the top causes of desertification, deforestation, and species extinction in the American West."
The Ketcham wolf piece noted that "the federal government last year scheduled wolves to be killed in huge numbers across the Northern Rockies." What he meant was wolves were removed from the list of federally protected species. Ketcham’s slant is impeccably transparent.
In a May 2014 piece for VICE, Ketcham was at it again, "How to kill a wolf – An undercover report from the Idaho Coyote and Wolf Derby" in which Ketcham and the Idaho Ertz siblings infiltrated a coyote derby, apparently because, Ketcham wrote, "I wondered whether the residents of Salmon were looking to kill wolves out of spite. They hated these creatures, and I wanted to understand why."
They had to pretend to be hunters, Ketcham wrote, because: "Many pro-wolf activists across the American West, especially those who have publicly opposed the ranching industry, have reported similar threats and acts of aggression — tires slashed, homes vandalized, windows busted out with bricks in the night."The coyote hunt organizers were so convinced of the Ketcham clan’s authenticity that they helpfully "suggested spots in the surrounding mountains where we could find wolves to shoot illegally."
Relying on the same type of information used by Miller, Ketcham noted: "The number of cattle and sheep lost to wolves and other predators each year is negligible. In 2010, just 0.23 percent of cattle in the US died from ‘carnivore depredations’ (as wolf attacks on livestock are officially categorized)." Once again, no mention that wolf depredations do not occur at the national-herd level, but at the local herd/flock level.
Ketcham describes what people love about wolves: "They’re monogamous, loyal, mate for life, and carefully raise their young in strong family units, with an alpha male and female at the top of the pack. It could be said that what we love about wolves is their similarities with humans."
But cattle are despicable, according to Ketcham, "In fact, cows mess up just about everything in the ecosystems of the arid West."
Of course, no wolves were killed during the two-day coyote derby, and a grand total of 21 coyotes were killed. Contempt for those who would kill predators, or graze livestock on federal land, drips throughout Ketcham’s writings – a hallmark of sorts.
What writers Miller and Ketcham have in common is they use the same sources – sources known for their anti-grazing activism, including Brian and Natalie Ertz of Idaho, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Western Watersheds Project. This is agenda-driven reporting, with little – if any – effort to put forth a balanced view.
Harper’s Magazine and VICE aren’t alone in publishing such agenda-driven reporting, but they do provide some of the most inflated examples. On January 19, 2015, the New York Times did what I call a hatchet job on the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in publishing Michael Moss’s piece "U.S. Research Lab Lets Livestock Suffer in Quest for Profit: Animal Welfare at Risk in Experiments for Meat Industry." The piece painted a picture of animal abuse at the Nebraska center, and for those unfamiliar with the center or food animal production, it prompted revulsion and cries to close this cruel place. But for those of us involved in animal production, the piece was hard to follow because it was based on false premises.Painting a dramatic picture, Moss explained how the center worked to develop "easy care" sheep, with: "The center added a daring twist: pasture lambing, an attempt to take domesticated sheep, which are dependent on human help, and create a breed that can survive on its own. Ranchers commonly shelter ewes giving birth in special barns, which cost money to build, maintain and staff. So the center began sending pregnant sheep out to open pastures in hopes of identifying those that would nurture their babies despite severe weather and predators." In his take on the situation, Moss makes what we call range lambing – a method of livestock production practiced throughout the world for thousands of years – appear to be some type of new and cruel practice. Moss apparently doesn’t know that worldwide, most sheep don't live in barns and give birth in buildings. Since Moss was oblivious to this fact, I discounted the remainder of his allegations as the work of an ill-informed reporter.
Earlier this month, the USDA Office of Inspector General released its report of the allegations in the Moss piece, in which the OIG evaluated 33 specific statements in the Moss article to determine their accuracy. Only seven statements were materially accurate – 26 were inaccurate, lacked sufficient context, or were uncorroborated. The OIG report "did not note evidence indicating a systematic problem with animal welfare at USMARC." Moss and the New York Times refused to be interviewed as part of the investigation.
Reject Fake News
The lesson here is that readers seeking the real story need to reject such click-bait, activist-driven reporting as detailed here, and the fake news such pieces contain. Much like the OIG report on the claims in the New York Times article, the examples provided in this review were inaccurate, lacked sufficient context, and were uncorroborated.
In contrast, if you’d like to read a journalistic piece that provides a more balanced examination of a controversial issue, check out the fantastic piece written by Adam Nicolson and published in The Economist 1843 Magazine regarding wolves in Europe, linked below.