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The New York Times Listens to Some Readers — But Not All

October 13, 2015

Vickery Eckhoff

An open letter sent to New York Times public editor, Margaret Sullivan (

Less than a year ago,  I examined 19 reader complaint letters sent to The New York Times regarding errors in the article “As Wild Horses Overrun The West, Ranchers Fear The Land Will Be Gobbled Up” (Sept. 30, 2014). I also collected the editors’ corresponding responses. No corrections were made.

Public Editors JournalWhat I learned from this exercise is that your statement that “Times leaders are listening to their readers” (from your October 7, 2015 article, “Readers Will Rule, Says The Times, So Don’t Be Shy), doesn’t extend to readers who happen to be wild horse advocates, wild horse groups and anyone critical of The Times’ wild horse coverage (including, in this case, three PhD’s and two academics, one of whom published two New York Times op-ed pieces, five books and is a columnist on food and agriculture for Pacific Standard).

The reader complaints that I examined looked at various flaws in the Times article, but converged almost unanimously on a single point: the lack of data supporting both headline and storyline of “wild horses overrunning the West.”

The Times writer (David Philipps) cited rising wild horse population estimates from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) website; but he did not provide any corresponding livestock population stats. (The BLM doesn’t share these, even when asked; but they can be calculated from grazing receipts and AUMs listed in the BLM’s online section on “livestock grazing”, as well as through the agency’s rangeland administration database).

Phillips instead took the ranchers’ word that land was being “gobbled up” by wild horses.

One might ask how a reporter can determine that wild horses are overrunning and out eating cattle without knowing how many of each and, at the very least, providing photographic proof. Phillips’ article offered neither.

The complaining letter writers rightly pointed out that cattle do in fact outnumber wild horses by a significant margin, not just in protected wild horse habitat, but on millions of acres of public rangelands that are leased to private livestock producers and sought by energy and mining companies (but which have zero wild horses on them).

The problem arose, though, when they couldn’t cite sourced figures to back that up. Had they done this, The Times would have been hard pressed to stick with the story’s premise of “wild horse overpopulation” causing extensive rangeland damage.

For the record, 2014 BLM grazing receipts put the ratio of cattle “livestock units” to wild horses out West at roughly 17:1 (this translates to a ratio double that number since a livestock unit, as defined by the BLM, consists of a cow and a calf).

AUMs (a metric used by the BLM to indicate how much privately owned “livestock units” eat on public lands in a month’s time) can also be converted into a ratio of cattle/livestock units to horses. On land managed for grazing by the BLM and the US Forest Service, it’s 23:1 — again, a lowball figure given that a single animal unit = a cow and a calf (or five sheep).

By siding with ranchers and ignoring the subject of livestock totals, The Times turned a deaf ear to evidence provided by readers that would have undermined the headline “wild horses overrunning the west”and the story that followed it.

Advocates do the kind of research that reporters do not have time for. They read studies, go to BLM meetings, do FOIA requests, observe roundups, write letters and articles, start petitions, visit their elected representatives and follow new developments — day in and day out. But they are given short shrift in the media’s “he said/he said/he said/she said” telling of the wild horse story. Yes, they need to be cross-checked, as any source does — ranchers, included.

My experience, having followed social media groups on the wild horse issue, as well as writing more than two dozen articles on wild horses, public-lands grazing, and the horse slaughter trade in the US media*, is that the advocates’ knowledge of this issue is an asset to the public that journalists would be wise to embrace. (*Forbes, Newsweek, AlterNet, Salon, Huffington Post)

“I hear about improving commenting, about intrusive or confusing advertising, about the importance of journalistic fairness, accuracy and straightforward truth-seeking above all, and about the public-service mission to hold powerful people and institutions accountable. (And not necessarily in that order; in fact, probably the opposite.)”

— The New York Times Public Editor, October 7, 2015

The Times, for its part, heard from 19 different voices on the “she said” side, all pointing to a serious flaw in its wild horse reporting — and turned its back.

If The Times wants readers to “not be shy” about speaking up, heeding their expertise — and making necessary corrections — is a good place to start.


Vickery Eckhoff
Executive Editor, The Daily Pitchfork



Post a comment
  1. Barbara Grimaldi #
    October 13, 2015

    Thank you, Vickery. Born in NYC, I have read the NYTimes every day for 50 years or more. I know it is not perfect and have seen this slant in many of its animal-related articles during the past 20 years. I will add my letter to yours and encourage my colleagues to do so as well. Please keep me on your email list. Thank you.

    Barbara Grimaldi


  2. October 13, 2015

    I swear, the media is out to silence truth. Vickery tells it again. Thank you.

  3. Lisa LeBlanc #
    October 13, 2015

    It was right around this time in 2011 that the NY Times posted an article by a ‘reporter’ named Phil Taylor that portrayed wild equine advocates as emotionally stunted pony lovers out of touch with the REAL issues…and proceeded to place ranchers on this same pedestal.
    Gee, how things have stayed the same.
    This isn’t shameless self-promotion, but I wrote a rebuttal to the Times in hopes they might consider another point of view. I don’t think it ever saw the light of day.
    Published instead on ‘Straight From the Horse’s Heart’, October 2011, it illustrates that little besides the numbers has changed, and citizen scientists and experienced observers still are viewed as have nothing valuable to add:

  4. paulatoddking #
    October 13, 2015

    Thank you Vickery for another well informed article. Not only does the media skew information in favor of livestock, they are also fail to fairly publicize what is happening to our wild horses.

  5. LNorman #
    October 13, 2015

    I was one of those readers who rebuked Phillip’s fiction piece in the Times last year. I no longer trust the NY Times in truth telling and realize it has become a propaganda tool for special interests like so many other American media outlets. Shame on the media for forgetting your purpose and integral duty in a functioning democracy.

  6. Barbara Wood #
    October 13, 2015

    I have never had much faith in the NYT. Thank you, Vickery.
    Although it is admirable to publish the truth after the fact, it is much more honorable and convincing when you get it right the first time. Many readers don’t hang around for followups, and wrong information is dispersed as truth. It makes one wonder what other issues have had similar treatment.

  7. October 13, 2015

    As for the millions of invasive, non-native livestock that overgraze our public lands, their true population is likely understated because BLM does not keep count of the cattle. Instead, permittees are allowed to self-report how many livestock they put out on their respective allotments and for how long. Form 4130-5 “Actual Grazing Use Report” is that one-page document which, BLM estimates, can be completed in just 15 minutes. BLM takes the permittees at their word, using Form 4130-5 as the basis on which to bill the ranchers, who then pay their below-market-rate fees … after-the-fact … eventually … maybe … or maybe not. (See Bundy, Cliven.) According to Taxpayers for Common Sense, the direct and indirect costs of the Federal Grazing Program may result in the loss of as much as a billion dollars each year to the American people while wealth-fare ranchers get rich.

    There are several falsehoods perpetrated by BLM in regard to wild horses. First, the meme of a population-explosion. This error arose because BLM equates a 20% birth-rate with a 20% population growth-rate. However, to be a valid population-estimate, both the birth-rate and the death-rate must be considered. An independent study of BLM’s roundup-records did find a nearly 20% annual birth-rate in wild-horse herds. However, that same study also found that 50% of foals perish in their first year. Further, it is estimated that about 5% of adult wild horses also perish every year due to illness, injury, or predation. Given the high foal mortality-rate and the expected adult death-rate, a population could not double in four years as BLM claims. Indeed, another independent study of two herds that are minimally managed as the Act intended found growth-rates of just 4% and 8%, respectively, even in the absence of roundups, fertility-control, and predators. Thus, the best management option is “hands-off.”

    BLM’s mustang-population “data” is a fraud. Reviews of BLM’s year-to-year population-estimates for various herds disclosed reproductively-implausible birth-rates let alone population growth-rates. Just recently in Nevada, for instance, BLM claimed that the Fish Creek herd had grown 80% in one year. In Wyoming, BLM declared that the Red Desert herds’ population had increased 260% in the last four years. In Oregon, BLM would have us believe that the famous Kiger herd grew from 21 horses to 156 horses also in just four years — an increase of 643%. Stealthily inserting bogus birth-rates and growth-rates into the data is just one of the ways in which BLM creates the false impression of a population-explosion. Another ruse is restricting maximum herd-size below minimum-viable herd-size. Then, whenever a herd exceeds the arbitrary management level, BLM screams “excess!” and declares an immediate need for mass-removals and sterilizations.

    The Times would do well to investigate BLM, a corrupt agency that talks sweetly but acts treacherously.

  8. October 16, 2015

    New York Times, prepare to be haunted and cursed by angry spirits!!
    May you forever be put to shame for your pandering to the ruthless special interest elite and attempts to silence the vast majority who seek the truth!!!
    We, The People, shall NEVER conform to your
    worthless propaganda and tabloid sleaze!!!

  9. Susan Peterson #
    October 17, 2015

    Thank you, Vickery, for the truth and your relentless pursuit of it!

  10. October 19, 2015

    Maybe an episode on 20/20, 60 minutes, etc. on this whole issue would help those who can not speak for themselves.

  11. MS #
    October 25, 2015

    Thank you, thank you, Vickery — I’m a NY-er and enjoy the NYT BUT, I must state, I’m very disappointed in the NYT’s handling of this issue — now we need to spread your response to that article throughout so the world can know the truth about our horses and their land — the land that slowly over the years, is being taken from them. Please, keep at it! We must be relentless in getting the truth out there at every turn. If we don’t speak up, readers and listeners will continue to receive lies and disinformation. Our horses’ lives are at stake. Once again, Vickery, thank you.

  12. October 25, 2015

    Thank you, thank you, Vickery — I’m a NY-er and enjoy the NYT BUT, I must state, I’m very disappointed in the NYT’s handling of this issue — now we need to spread your response to that article throughout so the world can know the truth about our horses and their land — the land that slowly over the years, is being taken from them. Please, keep at it! We must be relentless in getting the truth out there at every turn. If we don’t speak up, readers and listeners will continue to receive lies and disinformation. Our horses’ lives are at stake. Once again, Vickery, thank you.

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