Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Libeling "The Hobbit" - A Former AP Reporter's Take

I don't pursue stories about movies or celebrities, because it's too close to my personal interests and quite frankly would be a conflict of interest for me to cover.

But this week when a story broke about animals being mistreated on the film set of "The Hobbit," I raised an eyebrow and put my coffee cup down on the table, a little stunned.

The first part of the problem was that the source for the information was the animal rights group PETA. The second part of the problem was that the news organization that broke the story was where I used to work in the mid- to late-'90s: The Associated Press.

Understand this.

When I was with the Associated Press covering politics in the statehouse of Pennsylvania, these folks would sometimes drop in for a visit. We'd take their press releases with straight faces, but the minute they were gone, the paper was crumpled into a ball and used for hoop shooting practice with the nearest trash can.

I tell you this, because it took a lot for us to take PETA seriously.  In fact, I once was sent out on an investigation to discover whether horses that were being auctioned were being mistreated. The editor sat on my story for a full four months and didn't run it. I went on vacation, and while I was gone, a state legislator held a committee hearing on the issue. So another reporter took my work, added updated information, slapped her byline on my copy and made it her story.

This is how we treated the stories that PETA brought to us. They were afterthoughts. We did not give them credence, and we held at arm's length every ounce of information and disdainfully looked at it with the greatest amount of skepticism you can imagine. Think of a 5-year-old Shirley Temple in a pink tutu holding a dead rat by the tail. There ya go.

And here this week ... is a story going world-wide, with an Associated Press byline no less ... about PETA allegations and a film I have anticipated for months.

I'm on the fence about this whole thing. Knowing what I know about how we tiptoed around PETA as if it was a biological weapon placed on a Manhattan subway, for AP to run this story gave it instant credibility with me.

And then I read what filmmaker Peter Jackson put out on Facebook ... and I read the accounts of the owners of the animals in question, who emphatically stated that in no way were their pets mistreated. Add to this the weighing in of some of the film actors on Twitter about this, and my doubt reached new heights.

I see a few problems with the AP account. They buried the Jackson response to the allegations deep in the copy. They also quoted people who had been fired and who had chosen to speak up on the cusp of the film opening and who had an obvious axe to grind. They didn't interview the owners of the animals, either.

As a fellow journalist who worked for AP for 4 1/2 years, my initial reaction is always to go to the defense of the journalist who reported the story. I know what it's like to be the "eyes on the ground," to interview those with the concerns, to ferret out the liars and those with secret agendas, to thoroughly question and provoke with questions in order to ascertain the truth. I know how to push buttons and read body language, anger and evasiveness. And I know that when I worked for AP, we never would have run that story if we thought there was any doubt to its veracity.

But that was then.

I have seen a cavalier attitude that has been brought about by the Internet and bloggers and people who fashion themselves as "journalists" because they put pen to paper but have no training or experience other than spouting their opinions for a wide audience.

I can't vouch anymore for the strength of the journalistic integrity of an organization like the AP like I once could. And having read the statements from the Jackson camp, I am chagrined at what seems to be a rush to be the first with the story rather than a careful vetting of the facts.

Maybe there's more to this than meets the eye, and the AP hasn't yet written it. But their silence on story followup is deafening and speaks for itself.

Either way, this is a disturbing type of story: It either shines a light on mistreatment of animals during one of the most highly anticipated films of the year ... or it shines a light on egregious reporting that borders on libel.

We have entered a new era of journalism.




1 comment:

  1. I personally believe there to be a great deal of validity in the animal ethics debate, but PETA are terrible. They are unscientific, cherry-picking, anecdotal, scandal-mongering ideologs. In my view they, and some other groups, are doing the animal rights movement a disservice by peddling their often outright false claims.

    Great post!