News Media Wallows in Wrong-Headed Nostalgia for Ringling Bros.

I wasn’t planning on writing another post about the demise of Ringling Bros., which had its final circus performance over the weekend. Let them go quietly, was my way of thinking. Unfortunately, but predictably, it wasn’t the news media’s way of thinking.

In journalism school, one of the first things you’re taught is the importance of seeking out and getting both sides of any news story. It seems that when it comes to certain issues, this principle remains academic with most of the mainstream news media, particularly with stories involving animals.

Media bias is usually manifested less in what is reported than in what is not reported. I believe this is why there’s increasing public distrust of, and disdain for, the news media.

The past few days it’s been hard to miss the wistful headlines and television reports. “Tears on Last Night for Greatest Show on Earth!” the Tribune proclaimed. One report on NBC Nightly News really raised my hackles. Not to single out NBC, but that was the broadcast I happened to catch.

It’s one thing to milk the “end of a venerated American institution” thing to satisfy what you think your viewers want to hear. It’s another to be so shamelessly one-sided in reporting that you let interview subjects direct the narrative. The NBC report did just this. It declared (erroneously) “while Ringling lost in the court of public opinion, it won in court,” adding (correctly) that the ASPCA and other animal protection groups were ordered to pay millions in attorneys’ fees to Ringling owner Feld Entertainment over a dismissed elephant-abuse lawsuit.

The report then featured an interview with a Ringling ringmaster who blamed “animal rights propaganda” for destroying Ringling and claimed that a federal judge had called the lawsuit “frivolous and vexatious.”

A circus ringmaster is not a legal expert, but most viewers will take his words as fact.

The NBC segment included no response from ASPCA, the Humane Society, or anyone else familiar with the lawsuit for another point of view. It couldn’t have been more slanted if it had been produced by Feld itself. The message was clear in its willfully ignorant simplicity:  Animal-rights extremists are to blame for taking the beloved circus away from your children!

Here’s what the report didn’t—but should have—said:  The lawsuit brought by ASPCA and other organizations, which was dismissed by the D.C. federal court, was never heard on the merits. Put another way, no court, anywhere in America, has ever concluded that Ringling Bros. never abused its circus animals or never violated animal welfare laws, because no judge or jury ever got to actually hear or see evidence of abuse.

The suit never made it past the “standing” stage of litigation because Feld’s big-money lawyers made sure of that. For those unfamiliar with legalese, this means the court ruled that the named plaintiff in the case, a former Ringling elephant trainer, had no right to even bring the case before the court. Unfortunately, advocacy groups by themselves cannot bring suit under the Endangered Species Act; there must be an individual plaintiff who has experienced some personal harm.

The court found the plaintiff flawed for various reasons, but the actual elephant abuse witnessed by this trainer was very real. In fact, NBC News could have shown a portion of one of the hundreds of undercover videos of circus animal abuse. A simple YouTube search will turn them up. Or they could have tried to interview former circus workers who could attest to it. But they had decided what their narrative was going to be and that didn’t fit it.

Here’s another thing the NBC report should have mentioned:  Many municipalities around the country have enacted bans on the use of bullhooks on circus elephants or banned wild animal acts entirely. This was also a huge factor in Feld’s decision that the business model was no longer viable. A measure to ban circus elephants in Illinois recently passed unanimously in the state senate and is before the house.

Finally, as I wrote about in an earlier post, nowhere was there any suggestion of how Ringling did itself in by failing to have the foresight to plan for the inevitable, among other bad business decisions.

In other words Ringling has no one but itself to blame for its downfall, but you wouldn’t know that from the media coverage. The fact is that it was past time for Ringling Bros. to call it quits. The cruelty involved in exotic animal acts can no longer be denied. The animal circus is a 19th-century anachronism.

I guess NBC News takes us for idiots. I suppose I could write them another angry email, but what good would it do? As the news media often does, they decided what their conclusion was going to be before reporting and manipulated their reporting to fit the conclusion. Which is the exact opposite of what journalism school trains you to do. It can’t be explained away by tight deadlines or editing for time or other modern journalistic pressures. It’s not sloppy, it’s not lazy, it’s just flat-out, brazenly biased coverage.

What it is not is responsible journalism.

This is why documentaries like “Blackfish” and “The Cove” have to be made. Because the mainstream media will never, ever report these things. Whether there’s some kind of corporate conflict involved, who knows. But God bless the filmmakers who expose them and the people who kept the heat on Ringling for so many years. As for me, I won’t miss protesting their show outside the United Center on frigid November nights.

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