Rabbit Advocacy Animal Matters


Letís just call it a war

January 31, 2014 James McWilliams

The media fails animals. All the time. Tragically. Part of this failure boils down to the fact that it can. And part of the fact that it can reflects the reality that animals cannot speak for themselves, at least not in the press. You cannot, for example, call up an animal to ask his perspective on what it's like to be owned for the purposes of commodification.

And so what the media does, as Dan Frosch of the New York Times recently did, is project onto animals stereotypical assessments that ignore the most basic tenets of animal ethology. To wit, as a kind of toss off remark, Frosch writes that a cow up for auction "stared blackly out at the crowd."

For anyone who knows the first thing about cows, this is almost too much to take. "Blankly," of course, implies without emotion or thought. It implies that the cow didn't know what was up, that she's just a clueless fat beast that we needn't feel bad about killing and eating. But does anyone--I don't know, say, an editor--ask Frosch to provide a source for the implication that the cow was clueless?

Of course not--that cow is just an animal and, as our blinders ensure it, the cow does appear to exhibit a "blank" stare. So we let it go and take another sip of coffee. And, really, what kind of average reader would think to question the portrayal? Thus the sled-serving stereotype is further normalized.

The common acceptance by the media of this kind of projection is why we need to wage a war on how animals are covered in the press. There is, after all, zero evidence that there's anything blank about the cow's stare. To the contrary, that stare harbors a world of emotion, a universe of doubt and fear. Frosch could have, should have, in the future must, call someone who has a clue about cows to ask what's going on behind that stare.

Until he does, we need to push back. Hard. A brilliant example of how this push back might work appeared the other day at The Dodo. Not to pick too much on the Times (although its reporting is chronically insensitive to the animals it covers), but after Stephanie Strom wrote a deeply misinformed article on the rise of humanely raised pork, she was taken to the woodshed in a very productive way by none other than a pig farmer, a man named Bob Comis. You can find Strom's piece and Comis' response here. It's worth reading in its entirety, both to appreciate how dreadfully wrong Strom got the story, her sclerotic reason for getting it wrong, and the measured tone of Comis' response.

I suppose if we went back into journalistic history we could trace a line of enlightenment in the way reporters wrote about minorities, the poor, and the disabled. Before How the Other Half Lives was published, for example, reporters described the tenement dwelling masses as dirty and lazy. Few questioned this portrayal because (and this is the insidious aspect to today's animal coverage) it conformed to a set of unquestioned assumptions. People basically didn't know to question the stereotype.

Today, of course, the media covers the impoverished with considerable sensitivity to the hard reality and perspective of poverty. We must start working to ensure that a similar transition happens with the way animals are covered. (And, please, if you are about to yell at me for equating the economically disadvantaged with animals, just stop it.)

This war is urgent. Right now, Chipotle is undertaking a campaign to promote "humane" farming through tactics taken right out of the Big Tobacco playbook. There will be more on this issue to come. But for now note that through "native advertising" the company is working under the "Farmed and Dangerous" slogan to establish a broad cultural pretext to support Chipotle's rise to fast food dominance. When a company spends millions on advertising and never mentions its name you should be very scared.

This rise cannot be covered by the media without a consistent reference to the suffering experienced by the millions of animals that fuel the company's rise into rarified wealth through both ideological seeding and burritos stuffed with animal flesh. We need to let the world know that this flesh came from animals who did more than stare blankly into space. And that those seeds are toxic.