Let’s Just Call It A War

» January 31st, 2014

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 blankly 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 self-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 form animals who did more than stare blankly into space. And that those seeds are toxic.




26 Responses to Let’s Just Call It A War

  1. Goosebumps. It was that damn good. I couldn’t agree with you more and I will be taking this on with my Socially Just Dining column. My tact thus far has been to never talk about a business’s claim to “humane” farming. The only reference I have made was to equate vegan dining with humane behavior. I am definetly going to take this on while I still can. The Columbus Free Press needs money to keep the only alternative source of news in the capital city in print.

  2. Hi James, it seems you have a typo in your quoting Frosch. You wrote “stared blackly out at the crowd,” whereas it seems Frosch wrote, “stared blankly out at the crowd.” (Please feel free to delete my comment after you read it. I only meant it as a note for you.)

  3. mynamefluffy says:

    The title of the NYT piece (“A Harder Outlook for Today’s Cowboy”) and the tone make clear that it is a sympathy piece for animal killers. The closing line of the piece where someone is quoted “Ranching, farming, they are the arteries of our society, and I want my daughter to know that, too.” made me very sad. It is NOT the “arteries” of society, and a legacy of abuse and murder of sentient beings and ruining the land does not need to be passed on to anyone.

    A brief perusal through Mr. Frosch’s archives shows a clear bias towards the big corp polluters, Big energy and Big Ag. So I guess we have to bear that in mind as we read any of his writings. It is unfortunate though that this kind of slanted “journalism” is passed off as objective.

    And as we have discussed before on this site, it is imperative for the exploiters to find any way possible to objectify their desired “resource” so as not to allow anyone to believe that other beings are capable of feelings or pain or that the environment can actually be damaged by human activity.

    And as far as poverty and animals go, if the animal killers would switch to raising plant based food, the financial drain on all of us (as we are all responsible for environmental protection and clean up) would drop and we’d all be better off, especially the animals who would not be getting murdered. ~Linda

  4. María Vigo McMacken says:

    Awesome write. I share your passion to defend the animals, the urgency to do whatever is in our disposition to change to present paradigm. Not eating them is not enough. Today I shall start by sharing your column in social media. Letters to NYTimes get lost in nowhere land, at least mine do. Thankful for your commitment and writing talent.

  5. Laura says:

    Thank you again for a great piece. They love to paint any adult as childishly emotional for using appropriate language in speaking about animal issues. They often pretend to patiently indulge poor little goodhearted but emotion-driven, misled (by whom?), and therefore less intelligent ones. “Aww,” they mutter with a smirky little grin, and possibly a goose-bump inducing, patronizing pat on the shoulder, which they uneasily remove with a slight frown when they feel the bristle, tee hee, I hate them so. The ridicule & condescension are a great way for them to dismiss their massive guilt, they think. But as we all well know, including “them”… they could not be more wrong. So, their collective dismissal or hatred of vegans continues to bury their crimes in PS (human excrement). I’m not talking about “regular” non-vegans who just have chosen ignorance for the time being, but about the actual abusers, those who profit from it, defend it, and who fight against veganism, especially using dishonest scare tactics. We all know them when we see them. They often talk of “delicious” carcass parts and secretions. But nothing will be more delicious than justice. The waiting is the hardest part.

  6. Kelly says:

    Thank you for your article, we need more people speaking up against humanewashing and for animal liberation!

  7. Caroline RH says:

    I agree completely — in fact, most of these people have only seen a cow on TV. Despite the best efforts of agribusiness to breed breathing statues on the hoof. Cows are observant and funny. we had a new baby foal born at my barn (baby horse), and she went outside for the first time in the pasture. Baby Lily was running around, kicking up her heels and, on the other side of the fence. 10 big Black Angus cows were lined up right at the fence — enjoying watching the new baby dance in the pasture!! COWS ARE GREAT – and should not be EATEN!!

  8. Elaine Brown says:

    Yes, all truth. But solutions and methods of change need to be created. I have close friends and they see the long rows of crates of pigs laying in their excrement but do not equate it with the ham in the bean soup they are cooking.

    This has to start at a level of discourse among those with influence. Yes, I think we must persuade the media to see what is so easily ignored. Pain and suffering must be exposed whether the “blank” staring cow or the Korean dog being dropped into boiling water at the glee of fathers and children.

    How we teach the media that sentience can be found in all creatures is the prime question? And I do not mean to insinuate we should not do our parts at all levels of discourse

  9. Ellen K says:

    “…we need to push back. Hard.”
    Looking for recommendations from you, James, and other wise veterans on most effective tactics with media.
    Letters to the editor?
    Public comments on each article where possible? (I often do this, on theory that authors, editors as well as readers will take note, and they’re effectively published, whereas letters to eds rarely are)
    Personal letters addressed to the writers?
    All or none of the above?
    Something else?

    And if you have to pick just one succinct and compelling article/website/resource to link to, to encourage media to think about and include animal perspective, what’s your favorite? (too much choice and/or too long a piece, and people glaze over or don’t absorb, or don’t look/read at all)

    • James says:

      I would actually put more effort into writing well-reasoned and supported letters to editors without the intention of having them published. That is, write as a private concerned citizen the paper’s managing editor or standards editor. If they don’t respond, follow up. I have a friend who does this and has seen tangible progress in the way a major news outlet covers a particular animal issue. In a way, getting a letter published is counter-productive: a) you give the paper an excuse to say that they are giving animals a voice; and b) that letter exonerated them from making real changes in their reporting.

      • Ellen K says:

        Thank you for helpful insight.
        I’ve also written many times to programming directors of NPR and my local WBUR after particular stories, and hope that will have some effect.

  10. Caroline RH says:

    You know how all the media runs these CUTE ANIMAL spots and videos? I think we need to set up animal spokespeople, maybe celebs, who can speak for these animals, be their voice, and get extra PR for themselves – has to be a win-win… I can speak for the Beagles and Horses

    • Mountain says:

      How can you speak for animals?

      • James says:

        Using words.

        • Mountain says:

          I grew up poor. I saw plenty of people on the news claiming to speak for the poor. I read plenty of people in newspapers claiming to speak for the poor. They may have sincerely believed in what they were doing, but I can promise you they weren’t speaking for us.

          • mynamefluffy says:

            One important difference is that poor people can communicate with others using spoken and written language that everyone who speaks that language can understand. They can correct the record or take a counterpoint to the ones trying to speak for them who may be misinformed.

            NH animals have no such ability. They speak to us but not in ways most humans can understand, and the exploiters certainly don’t even WANT to understand. NH animals depend on us humans who are fighting for their rights to communicate for them about their plight and abuse.


          • Mountain says:

            In theory, it’s true that poor people can speak for themselves, but in reality it is vanishingly rare. The stories I came across as a poor kid always quoted poverty advocates, not poor people themselves. And poor people really do speak a different language from that of the readers and writers of, say, The New York Times. Whether it’s the “ebonics” of the inner-city poor or the “hillbilly” of the rural poor, poor people speak a language that the “elite” are much more inclined to mock than to listen to. One reason, among many, that reporters quote advocates rather than actual poor people is that advocates speak proper English.

            As for animals, I don’t know what to do. They can’t speak for themselves, but animal advocates really don’t speak for them either, no matter how they try. A responsible journalist may just try to interpret animals as little as possible. As for this particular article, the reporter should simply have noted the heifers staring, without describing it as “blankly.” The stare may actually have been blank, or fearful, or bewildered, but the reporter likely had no way of knowing.

          • mynamefluffy says:

            Sad that the poor are being spoken for so much by “advocates” rather than for themselves. But f they were not disadvantaged, they might have had better education, which might offer better communication channels. And I agree with you that highly educated individuals, even if not intentionally, often snub or condescend to the ones they are trying to serve. Like they know better because they learned about poverty in school. Meanwhile, these people are living it. And as for the NH animals, I think we just keep trying even though it is not an ideal arrangement – at least until we are better able to crack the code of interspecies communication and language. ~Linda

  11. Elaine Brown says:

    James, I agree. I have written letters to the Editor, and with others, we often got our point of view aired. However, few of us wrote to the staff. I think part of the reason is because they do not maintain public email addresses. So if that is the case in a newsplace, paper or internet, we should write letters to the Editor asking for addresses at which to make comment to the Managing Editor, et al.

  12. Mountain says:

    A war, you say.

    Will this war be like:
    a) The War on Poverty
    b) The War on Cancer
    c) The War on Drugs
    d) The War on Terror

    If you don’t wish to model your war on these wars (all miserable failures, doomed from the start), which war would you seek to emulate?

    In what ways will your war on media coverage of animals actually help animals?

    Finally, do we have any reason think the cow* wasn’t staring blankly? If I were removed from my home and brought into some bovine ceremony, important and meaningful to cows but meaningless to me, I might stare blankly, too.

    *Of course, it wasn’t a single cow described as staring blankly. It was “a set of prized heifers.”

  13. I confess, even as I sit here as a vegan military veteran (USAF Desert Storm Era) I refrain from ever referring to what I do in this effort in terms of war/fighting or violence. I speak about this as always, empowerment for a global vegan shift. Vegans are a peace, love, empathy and social justice movement for all earthlings. While humanity is in general, behaving in ways antithetical to its ego-centric perspective of “humane” symbiosis, I’m loath to think of what we are doing to change that with the posture of “war”. Mountain makes a good point with that. I don’t like our peace movement using “fighting”
    words, even though it is a common method of rallying the troops- er, I mean, masses ;-)

  14. Caroline RH says:

    One of the things I find MOST upsetting is how China took over Tibet and destroyed its temples and art and people. Because the peaceful Buddhists would not fight them until it was too late. I’m vegetarian and very peaceful, but there are some things that are worth fighting for — and humane treatment of all creatures that we share the earth with — and the earth itself – ARE worth fighting a battle for….

  15. That is a nice analogy, Caroline. At no time have I suggested that we allow what we stand for to go undefended or be conquered through pacifism. (%#&@ that!).

    Several of us vegan military veterans are actively engaged in making very assertive strides towards global vegan empowerment. That is not the same as a war or a battle, though those who seek to maintain the status quo may view it that way, and evidently, so do many vegans.

    I will also clarify that in this colorful world we share, there are grey exceptions to what I’m suggesting, where actual battles will be waged with guns, knives and any means necessary.

    Change does often result in conflict which can feel war-like. And even in some instances of this movement, it becomes truly war-like when forced to defend species extinction from mafia-warlords in the depths of the African Congo with a militarily trained defense. Sociopaths are another exception. While I’d love to think that it could be done with a conversation and significantly less bloodshed, Batman is a fictional character and bringing ones fists to a gun-fight is as proven as the Tibetan evidence you’ve offered.

    Vegans can certainly be warriors when they must. On the supposedly civilized home-front, should it not remain a very civilized, unequivocal, unrelenting, compelling and unstoppable expansion of consciousness regarding compassion, empathy, justice, liberty, love for all earthlings?

    As a movement, we need to organize and it is happening everyday. I know what my plans are. We are reaching a critical mass on this and I’m optimistic to see a global vegan shift in my lifetime.

    I’m glad there are people like you with us striving to bring it. :-)

  16. A guns and knives required exception example: Damien Mander.

    There was a really good discussion on this exception on another of James’ posts. It all boils down to what is legal and what is not in each situation. Those of us engaged in this endeavor know that what is legal does not equal what is just. Injustice is currently enshrined in the laws we are forced to operate under. Which is why the laws of the land must be addressed, and it isn’t the HSUS that is going to lead that, at least, not with their present tact.

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