A series of 18 AP news stories that repeated significant factual errors for a year and a half will not be corrected, according to AP West Editor, Traci Carl.
The articles, which Ms. Carl admits were not fact-checked, followed the attempts of a Roswell, NM, abattoir—Valley Meat—to slaughter horses based on the argument that it would diminish horse abuse and neglect. But there was a problem with that premise, which correlated data showing increasing horse abuse and neglect reported by the GAO (Government Accountability Office) with the closure of the last three domestic horse slaughter plants.
The AP reporter, Jeri Clausing, misreported the closing dates by a year, however, causing the correlation with the GAO data to turn on its head.
Instead of showing that horses suffered abuse and neglect when domestic plants closed, the GAO data instead showed the opposite: that abuse and neglect increased during years in which the plants remained open. But despite being informed of this and other errors, the AP kept repeating them, in most cases, simply cutting and pasting the same false statements—verbatim—into successive articles.
These spread virally across Bloomberg News and Reuters; ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox News; NPR; the Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, Huffington Post, Wall Street Journal and USA Today—and hundreds of other mainstream and smaller news providers. As of this date, only one of them—The Christian Science Monitor—has responded to requests to issue a public and formal correction.
The Political Consequences of False Reporting
The false claim that banning slaughter increases horse abuse and neglect was a godsend for Valley Meat and other plants looking to produce horse meat in the U.S. The cumulative audience for that message easily reached into the tens of millions, including lawmakers wrestling with whether to ban or welcome horse slaughter plants into their jurisdictions.
Last year, Oklahoma lawmakers argued erroneously but effectively in overturning a 50-year ban on horse slaughter that it would alleviate horse abuse.
On Friday, April 25, 2014, at 10:39 PM, after a great run publishing 23 articles and three photo galleries on horse slaughter, horse racing and wild horses on Forbes.com, the powers that be cut me loose.
Not quite sure why. A few people have suggested it may be on account of Steve Forbes keeping cattle on his New Jersey estate to reduce his property taxes. Others have mentioned Forbes partnership with FOX News.
Whatever prompted the decision, however, there was urgency behind it, coming the night before I was a featured speaker at the American Equine Summit, along with Victoria McCullough, Frank Biden and Senator Joe Abruzzo, and too many other national experts to mention. (See Victoria’s presentation here).
My topic for the summit: Disinformation in the Media. How’s that for irony? (you can view my presentation here).
I’d never gotten a word from Forbes editors that there were problems with any of my stories until Friday at 4:53 pm, when I was driving Jane Velez-Mitchell to the summit to be keynote speaker. (see Jane’s keynote speech here).
My editor, Jane Lee, who’s been very supportive and great, sent an email requesting some edits to a story—Federal Grazing Program in Bundy Dispute Rips Off Taxpayers, Wild Horses—that went live Friday afternoon.
This story got more views in a single day than any story I’ve written to date, BTW. Within a day, it reached 26,000 views and I’m told the link got more than 70,000 views on Cloud the Stallion’s Facebook page.
My article covered some of the same territory that Paul Krugman of The New York Times, Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow of MSNBC, and Jon Stewart addressed for millions of viewers. The only difference is that mine exposed why the grazing program was not only a bad deal for tax payers, but wild horses. Oh, and I got the boot while they got ratings!
For some reason, my story rattled Forbes’ corporate cage and hours later, without so much as a phone call, Forbes pulled the plug. These were the first edits I’d been asked to make in more than two years, I made them as requested in a timely manner and notified them that I had done so. The topic was hardly controversial.
Importantly, in my writing for Forbes.com on this subject, I’ve never been challenged on a single fact. I’m proud of that, given the complexities of the horse slaughter trade and wild horses issues. Readers, too, were enthusiastic, praising the series for its research and accuracy, as well as Forbes for running it.
Let me say, I am grateful for the opportunity, which allowed me to explore a difficult subject with Forbes’ credibility behind it, when other media didn’t fact check, got the details plain wrong, and refused to make corrections when their errors were called to their attention.
I’ll continue writing on this topic, aiming for a more mainstream news audience, to reach the kinds of readers who really care about their taxes being wasted by the Federal Government on wild horse roundups and a grazing program that damages public lands at the public’s expense. One would think this was right up Forbes’ alley—the story appeared in its “Taxes” section—but, apparently…no.
I thank all of you for following me on Forbes.com and ask you to read the article and comment, if you haven’t already done so. FYI, my account there is locked, so I cannot call out any comments as I usually would, or even reply to them as author. Forbes has even removed my ability to comment as a reader to other articles. How’s that for gratitude for the two and a half years of free content I provided them?
Maybe they thought I’d go all Cliven Bundy on them, but that’s not my style. Yes, the relationship with Forbes is over; no, I am not dropping this bone.
If you feel the desire to do something, please send a link of my Forbes article— http://www.forbes.com/sites/vickeryeckhoff/2014/04/25/federal-grazing-program-in-bundy-dispute-rips-off-taxpayers-wild-horses/ — to your Congressmen. Please also tweet the article, using the hashtag #BundyRanch and include this short link: http://onforb.es/1kcTdwD
You can also politely let Forbes editors know how you feel. The link to do that is email@example.com. (PS: They did not fire me as I am not an employee, just one of their many contributors.)
And please check Equine Advocates site to see all video presentations of the American Equine Summit, including my presentations from 2013 and 2014. The speakers were fantastic, and many of them have made huge personal sacrifices in speaking out, like Dr. Ray Kellosalmi, whose horses were poisoned after he went on TV exposing the horrors of the PMU industry supported by drug companies like Pfizer.
Compared to that, losing an unpaid writing gig is minor stuff.
“For more than a century and a half, men and women of The Associated Press have had the privilege of bringing truth to the world. They have gone to great lengths, overcome great obstacles – and, too often, made great and horrific sacrifices – to ensure that the news was reported quickly, accurately and honestly. Our efforts have been rewarded with trust: More people in more places get their news from the AP than from any other source.”
So reads the first paragraph of the AP’s “News Values & Principles” page. It goes on to state:
“In the 21st century, that news is transmitted in more ways than ever before – in print, on the air and on the Web, with words, images, graphics, sounds and video. But always and in all media, we insist on the highest standards of integrity and ethical behavior when we gather and deliver the news.
That means we abhor inaccuracies, carelessness, bias or distortions.
It means we will not knowingly introduce false information into material intended for publication or broadcast…”
Also heartening to read are the AP’s words on making corrections:
“Staffers must notify supervisory editors as soon as possible of errors or potential errors, whether in their work or that of a colleague. Every effort should be made to contact the staffer and his or her supervisor before a correction is moved.
When we’re wrong, we must say so as soon as possible. When we make a correction in the current cycle, we point out the error and its fix in the editor’s note. A correction must always be labeled a correction in the editor’s note. We do not use euphemisms such as “recasts,” “fixes,” “clarifies” or “changes” when correcting a factual error.
A corrective corrects a mistake from a previous cycle. The AP asks papers or broadcasters that used the erroneous information to use the corrective, too.
For corrections on live, online stories, we overwrite the previous version. We send separate corrective stories online as warranted.”
And woe to those who fail to apply the rules:
“The policies set forth in these pages are central to the AP’s mission; any failure to abide by them is subject to review, and could result in disciplinary action, ranging from admonishment to dismissal, depending on the gravity of the infraction.”
This is all a great set-up for the letter I sent this past week to 28 AP executives and editors asking them to correct errors appearing in 18 different articles—errors I started bringing to the AP’s attention back in May of 2013, and which I brought, over a period of months, to the attention of several editors, without a single correction being made and with some rather unfortunate name calling (on their part, not mine).
It’s co-signed by six national experts—people who know more about horse slaughter than anyone. Associated Press, meet Paula Bacon, John Holland, Susan Wagner. Meet Ginger Kathrens and Dr. Ann Marini. Meet James McWilliams.
Here’s the letter. Let’s hope it gets the kind of response it deserves.
January 3, 2014
Mr. Gary Pruitt
President and CEO
450 West 33rd Street,
New York, NY 10001
RE: Corrections Sought for Errors in 18 AP Articles on Valley Meat and Horse Slaughter in the U.S.
Dear Mr. Pruitt:
The U.S. public is currently facing a pressing food safety, environmental and humane issue: whether or not to allow the slaughter of horses on American soil or their continued export for slaughter in other countries. In order for constituents and their Congressional representatives to make informed choices regarding this matter, it is essential that information presented in the mainstream media be accurate.
Unfortunately, this has not been the case. I’m writing to you because of errors repeated in a series of AP articles that misreport pivotal facts about the closure of the last three horse slaughter plants on U.S. soil. These errors come at the very moment when several plants are on the verge of winning approval to slaughter horses once again in rural America. They are not random details. In fact, they have the power to directly shape the outcome of this contested process.
In eighteen separate articles on the Valley Meat Company in Roswell, New Mexico, the AP repeatedly misstates the facts on the following issues: the legislation that effectively shuttered the horse slaughter industry, the year that this took effect, and the impact that closed horse slaughter plants have had on horse welfare. (see Appendix I, p. 4-9)
Specifically, all the articles erroneously state that it was Congress’ defunding of horse meat inspections in 2006 that effectively shut down the last three operating plants. The articles then correlate this claim with GAO data showing a rise in horse abuse and neglect between 2005-2009. As I will detail below, both claims are not only wrong, they are mistakes that bear directly on a basic assumption shaping how Americans and their representatives think about this issue.
To begin with, while Congress did approve defunding horse slaughter inspections in 2005 (to take effect in 2006), the USDA and the three remaining horse slaughter plants (Dallas Crown and Beltex in TX, and Cavel in IL) arranged to self-fund their own inspections, allowing them to continue slaughtering horses until 2007 (over Congress’ objections).
In 2007, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a 1949 ban on slaughtering horses in TX (that had previously gone unenforced) applied, thus shutting down Dallas Crown and Beltex in March. Cavel shut down in September, as a result of an IL state ban. Congress’ defunding of slaughter inspections in subsequent agricultural appropriations bills thus kept new plants from opening until the defunding language got removed by three Congressmen in a November, 2011, conference committee session (after it had been approved for FY 2012). Congress’ defunding of inspections therefore never banned slaughter and never shut a single plant, contrary to what the AP has reported 18 times. More important, horse slaughter continued well after the AP reported that it had ceased. (see Appendix II, p. 10-12).
This detail is profoundly important: Using the correct date of closure (2007), the related claim—that horse abuse increased with closure—is immediately undermined. The data cited by the AP on rising abuse and neglect, in light of the correct time of plant closure, now correlates with abuse and neglect rising while the plants remained in operation and falling in the years after they shut.
That correlation shows the opposite of what the AP’s coverage has been asserting in articles published between June, 2012 and November 4, 2013. These false reports, however, have been picked up by every major news organization both in the U.S. and abroad. They have influenced the general public, lawmakers, and courts attempting to shape policy and effect legislation on horse slaughter. They have allowed proponents of horse slaughter to argue—seemingly with evidence—that it is more humane to slaughter them than to keep them alive. They have also completely failed to highlight one of the most important reasons to not slaughter horses at all: that is, food safety issues specific to banned drugs in the majority of U.S. horses that pose known and serious health risks for the public. These include the commonly administered painkiller and anti-inflammatory, phenylbutazone—a known human carcinogen—as well as 117 other drugs (Appendix III, p. 13-17).
Mr. Pruitt, you are receiving this letter because repeated and detailed attempts to correct these errors have been made going back many months to Reporter Jeri Clausing, News Editor Linda Ashton, the AP’s corrections department and West Editor Traci Carl. The information provided to them documenting the AP’s errors has gone ignored.
We, the undersigned, request immediate and formal correction for these errors and omissions in all eighteen AP articles—and subsequent articles—to set the record straight. This action would be consistent with the media’s duty to correct false reporting in the name of the public’s right to know the truth—about food safety risks, abuse and neglect and other impacts of concern to the majority of Americans. Your response to this request for correction is eagerly anticipated. Thank you!
Kathleen Carroll, Senior Vice President/Executive Editor
Mike Oreskes, Vice President/Senior Managing Editor
Andrew Oppmann, News Editor, Middle Tennessee State University
Paul Colford, Director, Media Relations
ASSOCIATED PRESS MEDIA EDITORS
Debra Adams Simmons, President, The Plain Dealer
Alan D. Miller, Vice President, The Columbus Dispatch
Teri Hayt, Secretary, The Repository
Laura Sellers-Earl, Journalism Studies Chair, EO Media Group
Dennis Anderson, Treasurer, Peoria Journal Star
Bill Church, Herald-Tribune Media Group
Michael Days, Philadelphia Daily News
Alan English, Shreveport Times
Kurt Franck, The Blade
Gary Graham, The Spokesman-Review
Joe Hight, The Gazette
Eric Ludgood, Fox 5 News, Atlanta
Aminda Marques Gonzalez, Miami Herald
Martin G. Reynolds, The Oakland Tribune
Monica R. Richardson, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Mark Baldwin, Rockford Register Star
Chris Cobler, Victoria Advocate
Angie Muhs, Portland Press Herald
Jim Simon The Seattle Times
David Arkin, GateHouse Media
Autumn Agar, The Twin Falls Times-News
Meg Downey, The Tennessean
Thomas Koetting, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Pivotal Errors Repeated Throughout 18 AP Articles on Valley Meat
On September 12, 2013, Stephanie Siek of the AP was provided with the following list of excerpts contained in 14 separate articles that repeat wrong dates for the last plant closings, misstate the events that closed them, misrepresent GAO data on horse abuse and neglect and falsely correlate the closings of plants to a decline in horse welfare.
These errors have since appeared in four more articles, resulting in a total of 18 repeating the same misinformation. They are listed below in reverse chronological order.
By JERI CLAUSING Nov. 4, 2013 10:19 PM EST
A vote to end that funding in 2006 had effectively banned horse slaughter until the money was restored in 2011.
The debate over a return to domestic horse slaughter has been an emotional one that centers on whether horses are livestock or companion animals and what is the most humane way to deal with the country’s horse overpopulation, particularly in the drought-stricken West. Supporters say it is better to slaughter unwanted horses in regulated domestic plants than to ship them thousands of miles to sometimes inhumane plants in Mexico.
By JERI CLAUSING Nov. 1, 2013 7:15 PM EDT
But De Los Santos was making plans to get to work, two years after converting his struggling cattle slaughterhouse to take advantage of a shift in Congress that lifted a ban on funding for inspections at horse slaughterhouses. A vote to end that funding in 2006 had effectively banned horse slaughter until the money was restored in 2011.
The debate over a return to domestic horse slaughter has been an emotional one that centers on whether horses are livestock or companion animals and what is the most humane way to deal with the country’s horse overpopulation, particularly in the drought-stricken West. Supporters say it is better to slaughter unwanted horses in regulated domestic plants than to ship them to sometimes inhumane plants in Mexico.
By JERI CLAUSING Oct. 8, 2013 4:03 PM EDT
Congress effectively banned horse slaughter by cutting funding for plant inspectors in 2006. The ban was lifted in 2011, and Valley Meat Co. has been battling ever since for permission to open its converted cattle slaughterhouse.
Supporters of a return to domestic horse slaughter argue that it is a more humane solution than shipping unhealthy and starving animals south of the border to facilities with unregulated and often cruel circumstances.
By JERI CLAUSING Aug. 16, 2013 3:26 PM EDT
Horses were slaughtered domestically for decades until Congress cut funding for inspections for horse plants in 2006. That funding was restored in late 2011.
Supporters of the domestic horse slaughter note that the practice is already occurring. They argue that horse slaughter in federally regulated facilities is better than having the animals starve or shipped to inhumane facilities in Mexico.
Horse abuse and abandonment cases have increased since the slaughtering of horses was banned in 2006, and many owners in the West and Great Plains were left with fewer options to care for or euthanize their animals, according to a 2011 report from the federal Government Accountability Office.
The company slaughtered cattle for more than two decades but decided to convert its operations to horse slaughter after Congress lifted its ban on inspections for horse plants in late 2011, effectively legalizing domestic horse slaughter after the last plants were shuttered in 2007. It fought the USDA for more than a year for its permit, only getting the necessary approval after suing the USDA to force it to conduct the inspections necessary to win a horse slaughtering permit.
Grant Schulte reported from Lincoln, Neb.
JUDGE ORDERS BOND POSTED IN HORSE SLAUGHTER CASE
By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN — Aug. 8, 2013 2:54 PM EDT
Supporters also say it is better to slaughter the horses in regulated and humane domestic facilities than to let them starve or be shipped to other countries for slaughter. They point to a 2011 report from the federal Government Accountability Office that 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.
By JERI CLAUSING — Aug. 2, 2013 8:02 PM EDT
FILE – This April 15, 2013 file photo shows Valley Meat Co., which has been sitting idle for more than a year, waiting for the Department of Agriculture to approve its plans to slaughter horses. A federal judge in Albuquerque is expected to decide Friday, Aug. 2, 2013 whether companies in New Mexico and Iowa can begin legally slaughtering horses, for the first time in the country since it was effectively banned in 2006. (AP Photo/Jeri Clausing, File)
The move stops what would have been the resumption of horse slaughter for the first time in seven years in the U.S.
Groups in federal court to block horse slaughter
By JERI CLAUSING—August 2, 2013 5:08 PM
FILE – This April 15, 2013 file photo shows Valley Meat Co., which has been sitting idle for more than a year, waiting for the Department of Agriculture to approve its plans to slaughter horses. A federal judge in Albuquerque is expected to decide Friday, Aug. 2, 2013 whether companies in New Mexico and Iowa can begin legally slaughtering horses, for the first time in the country since it was effectively banned in 2006. (AP Photo/Jeri Clausing, File)
Congress effectively banned horse slaughter in 2006. But the ban was lifted in 2011, renewing an emotional and divisive national debate over whether horses are livestock or domestic companions, and how best to deal with untold thousands of unwanted, abandoned and often starving horses.
Judge to decide whether companies may resume slaughtering horses after 2006 ban
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
FRIDAY, AUGUST 2, 2013, 9:02 AM
A federal judge in Albuquerque is expected to decide Friday whether companies in New Mexico and Iowa can begin legally slaughtering horses, for the first time in the country since it was effectively banned in 2006.
The groups sued the Department of Agriculture in June after it issued permits to the companies, which would be the first to legally slaughter horses in the country since Congress effectively banned the practice in 2006. The ban was lifted in 2011, renewing an emotional and divisive national debate over whether horses are livestock or domestic companions, and how best to deal with untold thousands of unwanted, abandoned and often starving horses.
Supporters of domestic slaughter point to a June 2011 report from the federal Government Accountability Office that 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.
They also cite USDA statistics compiled by the Equine Welfare Alliance that show the number of U.S. horses sent to other countries for slaughter has nearly tripled since domestic horse slaughter ceased, with many of shipped thousands of miles south of the border to unregulated and inhumane facilities. They say it is better to slaughter the horses in regulated and humane domestic facilities than to let them starve or be shipped to Mexico.
By JERI CLAUSING Jul. 22, 2013 10:17 PM EDT
The denial came the same day that Redford and Richardson joined the fray, announcing formation of an animal protection foundation whose first act was to seek to join a federal lawsuit filed by The Humane Society of the United States and other groups to block the planned Aug. 5 opening of Valley Meat and another recently approved horse slaughterhouse in Iowa. The plants would be the first horse slaughterhouses in the U.S. to operate in more than six years.
By JERI CLAUSING— Jun. 28, 2013 9:00 PM EDT
With the action, the Roswell, N.M., company becomes the first operation in the nation licensed to process horses into meat since Congress effectively banned the practice seven years ago.
The plant would become the first horse slaughterhouse to operate in the country since Congress banned the practice by eliminating funding for inspections at the plants. Congress reinstated the funding in 2011, but the USDA has been slow in granting permits, citing the need to re-establish an oversight program.
Proponents of a return to domestic horse slaughter point to a 2011 report from the federal Government Accountability Office that shows horse abuse and abandonment have been increasing since slaughter was banned in 2006, leaving fewer humane options for horse owners who can’t afford to care for or euthanize their animals.
They say it is better to slaughter the animals in humane, federally regulated facilities than have them abandoned to starve across the drought-stricken West or sold at auction houses that then ship them to inhumane facilities in Mexico.
The number of U.S. horses sent to other countries for slaughter has nearly tripled since 2006, the report says. Many humane groups agree that some of the worst abuse occurs in the slaughter pipeline. Many are pushing for a ban on domestic slaughter and a ban on shipping horses to Mexico and Canada.
Associated Press writer Mary Clare Jalonick in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.
By JERI CLAUSING — Jun. 6, 2013 5:51 AM EDT
The issue of whether the plant needs the federal permit was first raised by some of the groups opposed to congressional action in 2011 that restored USDA funding for horse slaughter inspections, essentially legalizing the practice that had been banned in 2006 when Congress cut the funding.
Proponents of a return to domestic horse slaughter point to a 2011 report from the federal Government Accountability Office that shows horse abuse and abandonment have been increasing since slaughter was banned in 2006. They say it is better to slaughter the animals in humane, federally regulated facilities than have them abandoned to starve across the drought-stricken West or shipped to inhumane facilities in Mexico.
The number of U.S. horses sent to other countries for slaughter has nearly tripled since 2006. And many humane groups agree that some of the worst abuse occurs in the slaughter pipeline. Many are pushing for a both a ban on domestic slaughter as well as a ban on shipping horses to Mexico and Canada.
NM HORSE SLAUGHTER PLANT TO OPEN SOON
By JERI CLAUSING — Apr. 30, 2013 3:09 PM EDT
The Obama Administration opposes horse slaughter. Its recent budget proposal eliminates funding for inspections of horse slaughter houses, which would effectively reinstate a ban on the practice. Congress eliminated that funding in 2006, which forced a shutdown of domestic slaughter facilities. But Congress reinstated the funding in 2011, prompting Valley Meat Co. and a handful of other businesses around the country to seek permission to open plants.
At issue is whether horses are livestock or pets, and how best to control the nation’s exploding equine population. Supporters of horse slaughter point to a 2011 report from the federal Government Accountability Office that shows horse abuse and abandonment have been increasing since 2006. They say it is better to slaughter the animals in humane, federally regulated facilities than have them abandoned to starve across the drought-stricken West or shipped to inhumane facilities south of the border.
The number of U.S. horses sent to other countries for slaughter has nearly tripled since 2006. And many humane groups agree that some of the worst abuse occurs in the slaughter pipeline.
LAWYER: INSPECTORS CLEAR NM HORSE SLAUGHTERHOUSE http://bigstory.ap.org/article/nm-slaughterhouse-ground-zero-horse-debate
By JERI CLAUSING— Apr. 23, 2013 4:09 PM EDT
And Tuesday, it moved one step closer to becoming the first plant in the country in more than six years to slaughter horses, with a successful inspection by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Still others are pushing for a return to domestic slaughter. Proponents include several Native American tribes, the American Quarter Horse Association, some livestock associations and even a few horse rescue groups that believe domestic slaughter would be more humane than shipping the animals elsewhere.
They point to a 2011 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office that found horse abuse and abandonment increasing since Congress effectively banned horse slaughter by cutting funding for federal inspection programs in 2006. Because rescue groups can’t take care of all of the horses in need, tens of thousands have been shipped to slaughterhouses in Mexico.
HORSE SHOOTING HIGHLIGHTS SLAUGHTER DEBATE http://bigstory.ap.org/article/horse-shooting-underscores-slaughter-debate
By JERI CLAUSING— Mar. 22, 2013 8:04 PM EDT
But others — including some horse rescuers, livestock associations and the American Quarter Horse Association — support the plans. They point to a 2011 report from the federal Government Accountability Office that shows horse abuse and abandonment have been increasing since Congress effectively banned horse slaughter by cutting funding for federal inspection programs in 2006. They say the ban on domestic slaughter has led to tens of thousands of horses being shipped to inhumane slaughterhouses in Mexico.
NEW MEXICO COMPANY: FEDS MAY ALLOW HORSE SLAUGHTER http://bigstory.ap.org/article/new-mexico-company-feds-may-allow-horse-slaughter
By JERI CLAUSING— Mar. 1, 2013 5:12 PM EST
Others, however, including some horse rescues, livestock associations and the American Quarter Horse Association, support a return to domestic horse slaughter. They point to a 2011 report from the federal Government Accountability Office that shows horse abuse and abandonment have been increasing since Congress effectively banned horse slaughter by cutting funding for USDA inspection programs in 2006.
MEAT COMPANY SUES FEDS OVER HORSE SLAUGHTERHOUSE http://bigstory.ap.org/article/meat-company-sues-feds-over-horse-slaughterhouse
By JERI CLAUSING— Dec. 20, 2012 3:59 PM EST
Some others, however, including some horse rescues, livestock associations and the American Quarter Horse Association, support a return to domestic horse slaughter. They point to a 2011 report from the federal Government Accountability Office that shows horse abuse and abandonment have been increasing since Congress effectively banned horse slaughter by cutting funding for USDA inspection programs in 2006.
Last year, 68,429 horses were shipped to that country and 64,652 to Canada, according to USDA statistics compiled by the Equine Welfare Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to ending horse slaughter. That compares to total exports of 37,884 of the animals in 2006.
PROPOSED HORSE SLAUGHTERHOUSE POLARIZES INDUSTRY
By JERI CLAUSING— Jun. 6, 2012 3:10 PM EDT
Supporters of horse slaughter point to a June 2011 report from the federal Government Accountability Office that 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.
In Colorado, the GAO report states, investigations for abuse and neglect increased more than 60 percent after horse slaughter was banned domestically, from 975 in 2005 to 1,588 in 2009. Although national data is lacking, the GAO report says California, Texas and Florida have also reported a rise in the number of abandoned horses since 2007.
The number of U.S. horses sent to other countries for slaughter has nearly tripled since domestic horse slaughter ceased. Last year, 68,429 horses were shipped to Mexico and 64,652 to Canada, according to USDA statistics compiled by the Equine Welfare Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to ending horse slaughter. That compares to total exports of 37,884 in 2006.
Timeline—How and When Slaughter Ended in the U.S.
On October 15, 2013, Traci Carl, West Editor for the AP, was provided with the following timeline to corroborate the actual dates of plant closings, as well as what happened in between Congress’ 2005 vote to defund horse slaughter inspectors and the actual court decisions that finally forced the doors of Beltex, Dallas Crown and Cavel shut two years later. This followed several previous emails attempting to explain what the AP had gotten wrong in its coverage.
Ms. Carl consistently expressed confusion over the issues being raised, but declined offers to discuss them by phone (instead of email). All requests for correction were refused.
Back on November 11, 2005, Congress added a defunding provision to the FY 2006 Agriculture Appropriations Bill prohibiting the use of federal funds to pay for salaries and expenses of personnel to inspect horses being slaughtered for human consumption (HR 2744).
This followed strong bipartisan floor votes of 269-158 in the House and 69-29 in the Senate, according to news sources. The provision effectively precluded the USDA from inspecting horse slaughter facilities as required by section 603 of the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) and section 903 of the Federal Agriculture Improvement Reform Act (FAIR). At this time, the USDA spent an estimated $5 million annually for oversight and inspection of three foreign-owned, U.S. based horse slaughter plants.
The inspections ban should have begun at the beginning of the fiscal year (October 1, 2005), but the budget conference committee (including Herb Kohl, Jack Kingston, Conrad Burns, and Larry Craig) delayed its implementation.
On November 23, 2005, horse slaughter plants in Texas and Illinois quietly petitioned the USDA and FSIS behind Congress’ back to pay for their own inspections, allowing them to continue slaughter operations despite a lack of federal funding, by paying USDA inspectors out of their own pockets.
On January 13, 2006, an article in the Washington Times explained, “Last year, Congress voted overwhelmingly to include an amendment in the agriculture appropriations bill that would, in the words of Sen. John Ensign, “end the slaughter of America’s horses for human consumption overseas.” Mr. Ensign was a co-sponsor of the bill, as was Sen. Robert Byrd, who said the amendment would “stop the slaughter of horses for human consumption.” In the House, amendment co-sponsor Rep. John Spratt said, “This amendment in simple terms will stop the slaughter for human consumption of horses. So, we learn with surprise that this amendment apparently “does not prevent horse slaughter at all,” according to Department of Agriculture General Counsel James Michael Kelly. All it does, Mr. Kelly wrote in a letter to Congress, is prohibit ‘expenditure of funds provided under the 2006 [appropriations] Act to pay the salaries and expenses of personnel to inspect the horses.’ In other words, the only purpose of the amendment is to cut a little grist from the federal budget.”
On February 7, 2006, the USDA’s fee-for-service arrangement was announced. As the Washington Times stated in its article, Town Seeks an End to Horse Slaughtering: “Since law has always required such inspections, it [Congress’ ban on funding inspections] seemed to put an end to a growing controversy. Passed by the House and the Senate, the Ensign amendment was considered by its sponsors as an absolute end of U.S. horse slaughter for human consumption. But a concerted campaign by Belgian-owned slaughterhouses soon uncovered a loophole in the congressional edict. Now, nearing the end of a six-month delay, the USDA has announced that the new order (no USDA-paid inspections) actually did not halt horse slaughter and that private companies could simply pick up the tab for inspection costs.”
On February 13, 2006, in the United States District Court, District of Columbia, six national humane groups representing over 9.5 million members and several individuals filed a complaint in federal court against Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns and Food Safety and Inspection Service Administrator Barbara Masters, challenging the USDA’s decision to create a fee-for-service inspection system that facilitates the continued transport and slaughter of tens of thousands of American horses for human consumption abroad each year. The lawsuit was unsuccessful.
On February 22, 2006, the HSUS filed for a preliminary injunction to prevent the inspections of horsemeat until a pending lawsuit against the USDA prohibiting the fee-for-service inspections could be settled. The Court dismissed two of the three claims filed in that lawsuit on grounds that the plaintiffs lacked standing.
Fee-for-service inspections commenced on March 10, 2006. On Tuesday, March 14, a federal judge ruled in favor of the USDA to allow fee-for-service inspections to horsemeat processing plants despite efforts of the HSUS and other animal welfare groups to prevent the inspections and thus close the plants.
On January 19, 2007, a panel of judges from the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled that slaughtering horses for meat was illegal in Texas. This decision tied up an earlier case dating back to August, 2003, when Texas Attorney General John Cornyn issued an opinion on a long-forgotten piece of legislation (Ag Code 149) that had gone unenforced since it had been passed in 1949. Specifically, Cornyn’s August, 2003 opinion stated that the law applied to both Dallas Crown and Beltex. The two Texas plants responded to an order by the Tarrant County Assistant District Attorney to shut down by filing a suit challenging the law. Their argument? That a ban would violate the Constitution’s commerce clause and federal meat inspection laws.
In 2006, a judge ruled in favor of the plants, but this decision was overturned by the New Orleans appellate court. Even though it upheld the Texas ban on slaughtering horses, however, the plants did not shut. They continued slaughtering horses. Within 14 days of the Fifth Circuit Court decision, Dallas Crown & Beltex asked for an enbanc by the Fifth Circuit.
In February, 2007, Dallas Crown and Beltex took their case up to the Supreme Court, which rejected their appeal. But the plants continued slaughtering horses.
On March 5, 2007, the entire Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed an earlier panel decision upholding the Texas state law (Ag Code 149) banning the sale of horsemeat for human consumption.
On March 23, 2007, the The Kaufman Herald, reported that Dallas Crown had finally sent its employees home. This left just Cavel, in DeKalb, IL, operating.
On March 29, 2007, U.S. Federal District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly of the Federal District Court in the District of Columbia effectively blocked the USDA from providing horsemeat inspections for a fee. She ruled that the USDA violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to conduct an environmental impact review of its decision to allow the continuation of horse slaughter. Technically,,America’s remaining slaughterhouse could no longer kill horses for human consumption.
On May 5, 2007, Cavel, The DeKalb Illinois slaughter plant, which had been forced to close for several weeks, won the latest round in a long battle over the processing of horses, scoring a win in the Federal Appeals Court in Washington that allowed the plant to re-open. The court issued a stay on an order banning USDA inspections.
On May 24, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich signed HB 1711 banning the slaughter of horses for human consumption, making it illegal for Cavel to continue operations. On May 25, the Belgian-owned company filed a lawsuit claiming the new law banning the slaughter of horses intended for human consumption was unconstitutional.
On June 1, 2007, U.S. District Court Judge Frederick Kapala granted a temporary restraining order preventing state and DeKalb County officials from enforcing the slaughter ban passed in Illinois while the suit was being considered.
Slaughter continued pending a restraining order set to expire after Jun 14. Hearings in the case were scheduled for June 12 and 14. On June 17, Kapala granted a 10-day extension to Cavel while he considered whether to make the order permanent. On June 28, an order keeping the last U.S. horse slaughter plant in DeKalb open was set to expire.
A Federal judge refused a request from Cavel to stay open. On July 5, an Illinois law banning horse slaughter was upheld in Federal Court. However, Cavel appealed stating that the ban on horse slaughter for human consumption was unconstitutional.
On July 18, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals granted a motion by Cavel International, allowing the plant to temporarily resume horse slaughter operations. The facility was allowed to operate while the appeal was pending.
On September 21, 2007, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in support of a lower court’s earlier decision on the constitutionality of a state law banning the practice of horse slaughter for human consumption. Cavel’s appeal was denied and its temporary injunction was revoked. Cavel became the last horse slaughter house in the U.S. to close.
Source: Forbes.com: “Grand Opening of Horse Slaughter Plants Foiled Again” by Vickery Eckhoff (http://www.forbes.com/sites/vickeryeckhoff/2013/11/06/grand-opening-of-horse-slaughter-plants-foiled-again/)
What’s In Your Horse Burger? Chemicals That Pose a Serious Health Risk
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!
The latest egregious example is the New York Daily News, which falsely reported that NYC carriage horses would go to slaughter if the carriage trade is shut down—which it certainly will be regardless of who is elected as the city’s next mayor in this Tuesday’s coming election.
You can read Forbes’ response (“NYC’s Mayor Bloomberg Doesn’t Know Manure About Carriage Horses”) here.
The original Daily News articles are a too-common example of media disinformation—this time, with an authoritatively misinformed Mayor Michael Bloomberg as the source. The Daily News picked it up and ran with it—citing numerous “experts,” four of whom were not even named, and none of whom had a clue about rehoming horses.
Sure, you can dig up an expert—but their words only count if they happen to be TRUE regarding the specific claim: in this case, NYC carriage horses and whether or not they’d go to slaughter.
As it turns out, the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, IS an expert on this topic, and reached out to its broad network of horse sanctuaries, assuring everyone that the horses would have homes if their owners couldn’t find them, themselves.
Some of you may know of my long battle with the Associated Press to correct documented and serious errors repeated in 15 different articles published by the Albuquerque AP news bureau about Valley Meat, a Roswell NM slaughter plant that wants to be the nation’s first to start slaughtering horses.
Correcting the news media is everyone’s concern, however—not just mine as a journalist.
I’m therefore inviting all of you who demand better researched, fact-checked and correct information about this issue, or the carriage horses, to write to the corrections departments of every media organization that gets the story wrong.
Write them and do this: demand they perform their duty. All of them have corrections departments. If they don’t correct, why are they there?
Mayor Bloomberg doesn’t know carriage horses, and he probably doesn’t care if he’s wrong. But I do, and you do.
Take the time to reach out to every media source—including the writer but especially the corrections department—demanding accuracy and accountability.
Be polite, be factual and be persistent—and don’t ever think they don’t hear you.
They do listen, even if they don’t act.
Twelve years ago, at 8:46 AM, I was walking down Church Street to my freelance job at Moody’s Investors Service, one block north of the World Trade Center, when the sound of a low-flying plane caught my attention.
It was over the West Side Highway when I noticed it, and I wondered “who’s buzzing the city at this hour?” Several seconds later, it was close enough for me to notice an American Airlines logo on the tail. Instinctively, I knew that a passenger plane did not belong in that air space.
I watched a few more seconds as it lined up with the World Trade Center. As it kept getting closer, I thought, now why doesn’t that pilot turn? And before I knew it, I was saying, “turn. Turn! TURN!!!”
The plane cocked its wings to the right and hit the building. There was a fireball, and then I saw papers blow out of the building into the air. I do not remember the sound.
I was yelling and the half dozen other people on the street were yelling “Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!”
I contemplated returning home, but thought, “no, it’s an accident,” so I kept walking to work.
By the time I got to Moody’s, eight blocks south, a crowd had gathered in the entrance at 99 Church. Now, I was staring up at the North tower. I’d never looked at it from that perspective before. In fact, the previous day, I’d enjoyed lunch outside in the plaza. It was my new favorite lunch spot: open and breezy. Clear blue skies. Warm. Perfect.
On September 11, I looked up to see people leaning out the windows high in the north tower. Within minutes, someone in the crowd screamed and I glimpsed stick figures falling. They were so small, just tumbling through the air. I considered for a moment that here I was safe on the ground, and yet I could see people leaning out the upper windows of the tower and they weren’t safe. I’m afraid of heights and could not imagine anyone staring out those windows, hanging out those windows, jumping. It was incomprehensible how close their terror was to my safe spot, there on the street.
We could see each other. I still can’t get over that.
I heard a woman next to me say that it was a terrorist attack, and I thought, no. Had to have been an accident. Almost instantaneously, a fireball blew out the side of the south tower. I’d seen the first plane hit from Church and Franklin, but the south tower now loomed directly overhead.
I recall seeing steel beams blow out of the side of the building like a spray of water. (I later learned that debris from the attack had landed on Moody’s roof, making a hole in it.) People screamed and ran. I drew back into the doorway of the building. I expected to see planes flying in next, dropping bombs. I waited a few moments until the crowd had dispersed and started walking. I never looked back.
Where was my sister, Karen? She worked at WTC, for U.S. Customs. Was she in one of those towers?
I headed uptown and people were in a daze. I saw shoes abandoned on the sidewalk, like a war zone. Further north, I saw a toddler walking and said to her mother, “put your baby in the stroller and get the hell out of here.”
She swore at me.
Sometime, further north, I tripped over a curb and fell. People kindly helped me up. I limped home, still not looking behind me. I kept calling my sister Karen’s cellphone. She did not answer.
I walked a jagged course uptown. Along Broadway, taxicabs were pulled over to the side of the street, radios broadcasting the news, people gathered around.
I reached my home on Tenth Street, I don’t recall the time, and called Karen again. Finally she picked up. She’d been working in one of the smaller towers and was safely home. It was only then that I turned on the news and saw the towers had fallen. I suddenly realized that they were falling as I walked home. I could have turned and watched, but I was unaware.
It was a monstrous, strange thought. I changed my shoes and walked the three blocks down to Washington Square. I walked to the south side of the park, and looked right down Laguardia Place, to where the towers were always visible and saw they were gone.
Only then, I cried.
August 18, 2013
The wild turkey walked down the slope behind our house this morning, right up to the kitchen windows, and peered in. I first noted him while lying in bed, staring out the back window of our camp on Tongue Mountain from the second floor, warm under an ancient wool blanket and wondering what I might glimpse in the woods at that hour. I was looking for signs of wildlife and the turkey appeared to be doing the same.
I’d been rewarded on the Fourth of July with a glimpse of my first bald eagle flying past our front porch overlooking Lake George. Bald eagles had built a nest in Deer Leap further north of our place on Tongue Mountain point, I’d been told years earlier. But I had yet to see one. I’d heard, too, of a return of bob cats and even mountain lions. I wanted to see those, as well as moose, of which there had been several sightings.
Strangely, I’d discovered that Tongue Mountain was a favorite of deer hunters, without ever once seeing a deer at camp. Raccoons fed off the corn cobs we tossed under the trees; chipmunks, squirrels, muskrats; crows, seagulls, swallows, and hummingbirds.
I’d seen my first bear cub in the fall—all critters you could see in the suburbs near New York City, where I live. But there was something different about seeing them here.
Here, there are no roads. There is occasional boat traffic. There are a few other camps like ours, but where our property ends, and it does not extend far, the land is forever wild.
I don’t know what my great grandfather had in mind when he bought this place and built our cottage in 1904. Photographs from that time show the mountain was nothing but stumps, the lake brown from run-off caused by over logging. Somehow, he envisioned an escape from the paint and varnish business. He’d founded the Brooklyn Paint and Varnish Company; traveled the West, collecting rugs and objects from Indian reservations and somehow found this property, bought it, and built the camp. He named it Tongue Eyrie.
The materials were hauled across the frozen lake in winter by a team of horses. The furnishings came from a Sears catalogue and his guests, judging by photos, were mostly chorus girls. He built a small cottage off to the side for his servants, Max and Emma. He brought over a piano, long since gone.
Two weeks ago, I swam the small bay next to our dock. I went to check out what looked to be a muskrat swimming in the water, but was really just a fallen tree sticking out of the water, and examined a large rock with six map turtles sunning themselves. I met three mergansers that had stopped by the island where my great-grandfather built a gazebo and, to access it, a small stone arched footbridge that had since fallen into the water and had been reformed by tree roots into a natural bridge between the island and the shore.
As I sat high on the rocks, I noticed two kayakers in the bay and asked them, when they were close to shore, to not disturb the turtles. They said they were only in the bay, picking up garbage blown or tossed overboard by boaters who anchor there on hot summer days. I invited them up for a visit. What I heard during our hour-long conversation cheered me.
They’d been camping on Lake George for decades, and traveled the U.S. as well. The waters of Lake George, they said, were unsurpassed in terms of clarity. You could see the rocks deep down, but in other noted lakes, you couldn’t see the bottom. There was too much sediment in the water, or invasive plant growth, or species like Zebra mussels.
They went on to tell me of watching a rattlesnake eating a chipmunk on a recent hike. The subject of rattlers always came up when discussing Tongue Mountain. The dens were down the mountain from our house and I’d seen maybe 15 in my life, mostly on the path to the house, in several woodpiles, and one under our gazebo (and long since removed by a local biologist), just feet from where I sunned on the rocks with guests and small children.
I’d since, though, stopped being afraid of them, as I had been of the many spiders that lived in our house. I knew they were doing their part; the spiders ate the mosquitos and other bugs. The snakes ate the mice.
My two visitors who arrived by kayak told me of a hiker that had recently been reported for shooting rattlers he found along the Tongue Mountain trail—using a revolver.
Isn’t the purpose of forever wild to walk softly, at most to carry a stick—and nothing but a stick? Frankly, I prefer a rattler than that alternative.
August 18, 2013
I wrote these lyrics a couple of years ago when I was channeling my inner dude. They desperately need to be set to music. Any brave guitar-pickers out there?
LET’S GET PERSONAL
My girlfriend left me for another guy, she said I’d waited too long. So I called up a friend with a wife and kids and asked him what went wrong. He said “make a long list of what you like—now don’t leave off a thing. You can get what you want if you know what you want and if won’t cost a goddam ring.”
So I put my list together, it took five minutes—it came straight from my heart. Don’t need a piece of paper to prove my intentions, to show we’ll never part. I know there’s a girl, who’s just my type, a girl who’s off the charts. Then I joined a dating service, it made me nervous, and this is how it starts:
“I want a drop dead, beautiful, purely indisputable, red head with double D’s. Doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink, doesn’t tell me what to think, and stands only five foot three. She’s sharp, prodigious, and not too religious, a babe with a PhD. She’s anti-marriage and baby carriage — now this is the girl for me.”
I got a few answers on the second day, but none of them were right. Some were nice, some were sassy, and only one seemed bright. so I picked up the phone and called her number and said, “Can I see you tonight?” She said maybe I could if I looked real good, and could help her solve her plight.
She wants a handsome, charming, super disarming, A-list movie star. He’s manly, intellectual — not a metrosexual — a man who will really go far. He’s talented, arty, knows how to party —he’ll let her drive his car. He’s smart, he’s happy, he dresses snappy, and knows how to play guitar.
I said, “I’m your man, I’ll see you at seven, say could you meet me downtown? My Benz is in the shop, hit a deer in the Hamptons and the engine completely shut down.” She said “I’ll come over, fix you a meal, let’s cut right to the chase. If you’re a movie star with a talent for guitar then I’ll meet you at your place.”
Well she wasn’t pretty, she wasn’t busty and she didn’t have red hair. She smelled like smoke, I thought it was a joke, and she said “Honey, au contraire.” She said “You’re not handsome, your tie’s too wide, But you’re strangely debonair. I’ll overlook the car, and even the guitar,” and on the spot we became a pair.
I told her: “You wanted handsome and I’m not handsome” and she said, “honey yes, I know. And you wanted busty and pretty and small” and I said, “Indubitably so.” “We’re not made for each other but we found each other, so please, hon, don’t lose your nerve. You might not get what you ask God for but you get what you deserve.”
I knew my Uncle Bennett by small mementos: the photo of him in uniform in the library of our summer cottage; letters my mom received when his plane was shot down; my grandmother’s poetry when he died; his purple heart; a fraternity mug from Williams college, which he attended before enlisting.
I also knew him from a photo album that showed him, horsing around as a teenager in summer, swimming in the lake and his tombstone in the local cemetery, on which my grandparents had inscribed a few lines from a Robert Louis Stevenson poem:
Here he lies where he longed to be, home is the sailor, home from the sea and the hunter home from the hill.
My dad said Bennett was the co-pilot of a plane with 16 guys on it shot down over Marcus Island on May 9, 1945, just before the end of World War II.
My grandparents found out on their anniversary. Everyone on the plane died and no one was found. The plane was seen going down and is now likely disintegrated on the ocean floor. It was so long ago. I wasn’t born then.
Nina, my older sister, dug up that his squadron was called the Reluctant Dragons and that he flew a Liberator. Here is a photo she found, too.
I like to think of the reluctant dragon that was my uncle and not the one who got lost at sea and became a phantom to me and my four sisters. But the latter is sharper in that way that absences have.
My mother never spoke about Bennett to me. I don’t know why. I’d like to replace my memory of him with something living, not just a photo or small objects and lines of verse. But I don’t know how.