I have a new post today on Forbes.com: Grand Opening of Horse Slaughter Plants Foiled Again. You can read it here.
The topic may seem obscure, but it’s probably my most important writing to date: exposing false reporting by the Associated Press in 16 different articles (as of this writing) that have, for a year and a half, made their way into every mainstream media organization in the U.S., misleading the public on critical facts about horse slaughter just as two and possibly three plants get closer to opening in America’s heartland.
I started tracking these errors across the media landscape in June, 2012 as they started appearing in a variety of mainstream news sites. As of yesterday, I picked up these same recurring errors in two new AP stories that have appeared on all the networks, in The Christian Science Monitor, Bloomberg, Huffington Post, Reuters, and countless online news sites. I’ve also picked up false reports in The New York Times, on NPR, and other news organizations that have a high standard of accuracy. The AP’s stamp was on all of them.
I approached the AP back in June of 2012, then again in April, and steadily from May onward, inquiring about errors I found and seeking correction.
The first person I spoke to was the AP reporter who has become the voice for Valley Meat for the American Press—Jeri Clausing. I called her again 10 months later.
Ms. Clausing did not take kindly to my inquiries. On my second call, during which I politely inquired as to her source for figures on horse overpopulation that I knew to be incorrect, she wouldn’t let me get a word in. She kept repeating, “you’re a horse advocate, you’re a horse advocate” despite my having offered my credentials as a journalist who had published extensively on Forbes.com and the Huffington Post (I have since been published in Newsweek), on the topic of horse slaughter.
Upon my strong objection to being spoken to in such a rude manner, Ms. Clausing responded: “You sound like a fucking bitch.”
So I reached out to Ms. Clausing’s news editor, Linda Ashton. I explained my concerns and she requested I write up my credentials and the errors I found in Ms. Clausing’s articles, along with links proving what was wrong and why.
I did so. I spent a month poring over seven articles:
- Jun. 6, 2012: Proposed Horse Slaughterhouse Polarizes Industry http://bigstory.ap.org/article/proposed-horse-slaughterhouse-polarizes-industry
- Aug. 1, 2012: Horse Owners Support NM Horse Slaughterhouse http://bigstory.ap.org/article/horse-owners-support-nm-horse-slaughterhouse
- Dec. 20, 2012: Meat Company Sues Feds Over Horse Slaughterhouse http://bigstory.ap.org/article/meat-company-sues-feds-over-horse-slaughterhouse
- Mar. 1, 2013: New Mexico Company: Feds May Allow Horse Slaughter
- Mar. 22, 2013: Horse Shooting Highlights Slaughter Debate http://bigstory.ap.org/article/horse-shooting-underscores-slaughter-debate
- Apr. 23, 2013: Lawyer: Inspectors Clear NM Slaughterhouse http://bigstory.ap.org/article/nm-slaughterhouse-ground-zero-horse-debate
- Apr. 30, 2013: NM Horse Slaughter Plant to Open Soon http://bigstory.ap.org/article/ag-secretary-nm-horse-slaughter-plant-should-open
As part of that, I reread each of the articles referenced above, researched Ms. Clausing’s sources in greater depth and reread materials referenced numerous times within her storyline (specifically, the June 2011 GAO Report).
What I found confirms my impression of bias throughout the seven articles favoring proponents of Valley Meat and their point of view, along with related errors.
Table I shows proponents enjoying a 69.4% share of voice compared to just 12.7% for opponents in the AP’s coverage. The figures were determined by doing word counts for groupings of similar text (talking points, reference materials, editorial commentary, photo captions, etc.). Neutral text (such as legislation and quotes from people without a discernible point of view), accounts for the difference between the two column totals (on the right) and the total word count (on the left).
Table II shows proponents and opponents represented in roughly equal numbers with regard to the individuals, organizations and constituencies (ranchers, horse rescues, public officials, livestock associations, etc.) named in the text. Where they diverge is the total number of mentions and talking time they get.
- Eight individual proponents get mentioned 46 times (5.75 mentions per individual).
- Six individual opponents get mentioned 18 times (3 mentions per individual).
- The same holds true for organizations and constituents named in the text. If they’re proponents, they get more frequent mentions and longer quotes.
There were five recurring errors I highlighted in my letter to Ms. Ashton. The most egregious appeared in six of the seven articles I reviewed. It stated the following:
“A June 2011 report from the federal Government Accountability Office shows cases of horse abuse and abandonment on a steady rise since Congress effectively banned horse slaughter by cutting funding for USDA inspection programs in 2006.”
This quote gives credence to Ms. Clausing’s frequent mentions of “abused,” “abandoned” “neglected,” “starved” and “unwanted” horses (24 mentions in her first article alone) despite a GAO acknowledgement that “national data is lacking.” This admission appears on page two of the 2011 report and is briefly mentioned in Ms. Clausing’s first article, but is otherwise absent, along with any discussion about the lack of national and almost complete lack of state data.
A worse problem, however is her getting the events wrong that shut down the slaughter plants and when that occurred. This is the main topic of my Forbes.com article today.
In any event, Ms. Ashton repeated that the AP’s reporting was both factual and balanced, and started knocking my professional credentials to request a correction. She said, “I’ve looked at your articles, and I think they’re biased.”
Let me address that. It’s a valid point.
I don’t quote Rick de los Santos in my articles, though I do mention him in one. I have interviewed him, though, back in March when that video of his employee, Tim Sappington, came out shooting a horse in the head while swearing at animal rights activists.
The interview with Mr. De Los Santos was long and uneventful—so much so he gave me his cellphone number and asked me not to share it. The next day, however, his attorney, A. Blair Dunn, sent me the following note:
“You are receiving this correspondence because you communicated to a person associated with Valley Meat Company, LLC a degratory, defamatory or threatening statement or aided in deciminating the information necessary to conspire to do the same. As legal counsel for for Valley Meat Company this email shoud serve as notice I do not represent Tim Sappington, nor is he associated with Valley Meat Company in any capacity.
Because of the statements you have made it is my reccomendation that you retain your own legal counsel. At this time any communications you made that threaten or harass any person associated with Valley Meat Company will be referred to the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security for investigation and prosecution under the Animal Enterprise Terroism Act (SEE BELOW). Neither Valley Meat nor the Law Office of A. Blair Dunn will tolerate threatening or defamatory statements and will contemplate civil action against any individuals or groups that persist in that type of activity.
Thank you for your consideration.”
Mr. Dunn’s spelling errors and threats notwithstanding, I reached out to Mr. De Los Santos a second time, and got more harassing notes from Mr. Dunn.
I also reached out to several other individuals in Ms. Clausing’s articles to get quotes. None called me back. That’s not a result of bias on my part; it’s a result of bias on theirs. They don’t mind speaking to Ms. Clausing because she seems to take everything they say at face value. That’s not my orientation.
But back, again, to my correspondence with Ms. Ashton. Having gotten nowhere with my request for corrections, I decided to take my concerns up the chain at the AP.
I next wrote to the AP’s corrections line. I called, too. When I finally got someone on the phone, they wouldn’t direct me to an actual editor and told me to email them again. When I told them I’d done that already, they hung up on me. So I emailed them again. Again, no one got back to me.
So I contacted a very attentive editor named Stephanie Siek. She asked me to do a write up on what I found and vowed to send it on to the appropriate editor at the AP. Several weeks later, I was in correspondence with Traci Carl, whose title is West Editor. She oversees 13 different regions for the AP, including Albuquerque, Ms. Clausing’s base.
Ms. Carl’s response to my inquiry was pretty much what I expected:
“Stephanie Siek brought your concerns to my attention, as I oversee news for 13 Western states, including New Mexico. The Associated Press takes all potential errors seriously, and I’ve reviewed our stories and the facts called into question. At this time, I don’t see a need for a corrective. As you state, and as we reported, Congress cut the funding for inspection programs in 2006. And I reviewed the GAO report and found that it did cite a rise in horse abuse and abandonment, as stated in our article. Thanks again for your concern and interest.”
“Thank you for getting back to me about the errors in Ms. Clausing’s reporting.
The point being made isn’t when Congress cut funding (2006), as you suggest. It is about Ms. Clausing stating that the removal of funding effectively shut the plants down in 2006 when that didn’t happen until 2007 (they were kept in operation by fee-for-service inspections, which the court found illegal, shutting the plants down). The closure of plants and the stated correlation with an alleged rise in abuse and abandonment in 2006 are central features of all Ms. Clausing’s coverage. This correlation falls apart given the true date of closing.
In fact, that abuse and neglect went up for a year prior to the plants’ closing proves the two are not correlated. That abuse and neglect figures declined after the plants closed also proves that point.
The AP’s coverage makes the case that keeping horse slaughter plants open is a more humane option and uses the wrong date of closing to prove that point. Please explain why 14 articles and hundreds of spin-off articles based on a false date and a false correlation do not require correction.
I’ve been writing articles on this subject for two years. I’ve been writing letters on this to the AP since May seeking correction. May I please have the courtesy of speaking to you about what is admittedly a very complex topic in person.”
Ms. Carl’s next response was more promising:
“Again, thank you for your enthusiasm and interest in this story. We do want to get it right.
I have to admit that I’ve gone through the story and your emails several times, and I’m still struggling to understand the errors as reported by the AP. The concerns you raise seem like they should be directed at the GAO and their report.
Please let me know if I’m not understanding the situation. If you raise a specific error in our reporting, I will vet it and correct it for the record.”
So I wrote back with the following:
“Thanks for looking at this further and for your assurances that the AP wants to get this right. I appreciate your question about whether you understand this. The answer is no — it’s way more complicated than you or the AP reporter, Jeri Clausing (or most people) understand. So let me lay out what happened in detail, and what Ms. Clausing misstates in 15 different articles, specifically:
- That Congress defunded inspections in 2006
- that this effectively caused the plants to close in 2006
- that the GAO report showed a corresponding rise in horse abuse and abandonment”
To that, I appended a very long timeline (a feature of today’s Forbes.com post) detailing all the events that occurred between when Congress voted to defund horse slaughter inspections (in 2005) and when the plants actually shut down (on account of state bans in TX and IL) in 2007.
Clearly, I expected that this would prove my point. The AP had screwed up the dates as well as which events led to what outcome. What I got back from Ms. Carl showed otherwise:
“I’ve reviewed our coverage, and we are clear that the vote to cut funding came in 2005, and that Congress’ intention was to effectively ban horse slaughter with that vote. You are right that we don’t mention efforts by Illinois and Texas to get around that vote, but it doesn’t change Congress’ intent, which was at the heart of the horse slaughter debate. I don’t see a need for correction or clarification on that point.
As for the Colorado data, by your own reporting and facts below, cases did rise after funding was pulled in 2006, so I don’t see a need for a correction or clarification on that point. Again, thanks for your passion and interest in this topic.”
“I am a bit perplexed by your message.
Nowhere in any of the (now) 15 articles does Ms. Clausing state the vote to cut funding came in 2005. I have aggregated all the text for all 15 articles into one word doc and there is only one mention of “2005” in all of them, and it has nothing to do with Congress. Further, I only find three mentions of “intent” and none have to do with Congress.
What I find repeatedly—and have pointed out in all my correspondence to you—is Ms. Clausing saying Congress “effectively” banned slaughter in 2006. This is factually and demonstrably incorrect. Congress intent to defund it and Congress actually defunding it did not close the plants and it is the “effective” closing of them that Ms. Clausing is correlating with a “consistent increase and abuse and neglect”. This also did not happen, either, as the data shows abuse going up while plants were still open and going down after they closed.
Again, it was state laws that closed the plants in 2007, a full year after Ms. Clausing said they closed. I don’t know how I can be any more clear in proving this point to you.
Can you please address these specific errors? Thank you!”
The answer to that was: silence. I sent an email asking who I could talk to since she wasn’t willing to take it further. She said: “I’m the person you should talk to at AP, and I believe I’ve addressed your questions.”
The AP, as of today, has now put out 17 articles, 16 of which carry the error I described above. The other article has different problems with it. The entire series is riddled with them. Yet I chose the most easy-to-spot error— a false date—to prove the need for a correction.
How many meaningless corrections are made to news stories that are date-related (getting a birthdate wrong) while significant errors go uncorrected, simply because a news organization has sunk its credibility into some really unfactual coverage, and doesn’t want to come clean?
It’s easy to talk about wanting to get things right. But 17 articles riddled with errors that go uncorrected isn’t “getting things right.” It’s covering your ass.
This is having a profound impact on how the public is responding to what could soon be plants opening in New Mexico and possibly Missouri and Iowa. Essentially, the majority of Americans are against horse slaughter, but there are still people making up their minds about whether or not this is a good or bad idea. And a lot of false information from the AP and other generally credible news sources doesn’t help them do that. The news keeps changing: the plants are opening; the plants aren’t opening; restaurants are gearing up to serve horse meat. The news cycle feeds off the crazy factor—none of it with a basis in reality.
If this matters to you, here’s what you do:
- Write to the Associated Press and every news source that’s picked up the AP’s coverage. Tell them your concerns. Give them a link to my Forbes article and ask them for a correction.
- Keep asking. Then, start demanding.
I’ve done my part. I’ve put the story out there. It’s your turn, now to raise hell. But be polite. If anyone speaks to an editor the way that AP reporter spoke to me, your concern will go nowhere.
There’s power in your words and most importantly, provable facts. Use them!