This is a story about the death of a dog, a horrible tragedy for those who loved the dog dearly.
But more than that, it is a story about the decay of journalism, a tragedy for us all.
Journalism is a business that for a short, bright time in America history was devoted to separating reality from rumor, or at least trying to do that not always easy task.
Rumor is the smoke of truth. Beneath or behind it, there is always something – a spark, a flame, or all too often the charred remnants of someone playing with matches in an effort to start a fire for whatever reason.
Maybe to virtually burn someone’s business or scorch someone’s reputation. Sometimes just to get a good story to sell.
Enter the poor, dead dog. His name was Scooby-Doo and his death on a busy Anchorage street last week came wrapped in a heart-wrenching story.
“Deaf boy’s service dog killed in Anchorage hit-and-run,” the Alaska Dispatch News headlined on Sept. 30 above a story that started this way:
“Anchorage police are seeking a driver whose pickup struck and killed a young boy’s service dog in East Anchorage on Thursday, then left the scene.”
The Dispatch News later changed the story substantially, although the version now on the adn.com website makes no note of that. You can still read the start of the original version here: http://us.geosnews.com/p/us/ak/deaf-boy-s-service-dog-killed-in-east-anchorage-hit-and-run_6948635
There were immediate problems with the tale spun by ADN reporter Chris Klint, most notably conflicting information about one all-important detail of Scooby’s death on Boniface Parkway. Klint’s story said first that the dog was on a leash when hit, but then quoted a police spokeswoman saying “it appeared to (a) witness that the dog had gotten away from the boy, ran out into the road, and was struck.”
Other reporters who began the chase of Kint’s story paid little attention to this small, but potentially important detail. Mallory Peebles at KTUU.com quickly followed Klint to claim that while on a “routine walk with JJ (Anderson) on Thursday, Scooby Doo was killed by a driver in a black truck on Boniface Parkway. The driver struck Scooby, dragged him and then drove away.”
Where this information came from was not stated, but it pretty clearly traced back to a “Scanner Joe” Facebook post linked in Klint’s story. In that post, from which Klint quoted, Alaska Pretrial Services director Dennis Johnson, who works with JJ’s mother Valerie, created a totally unverified account of what happened to Scooby.
It included a line the ADN quoted:
“After you sped away like a coward, that boy laid in the road holding his dog as he died in his arms.”
HYPE, HYPE, HYPE
There were no witnesses to support any of those claims. Cindy Jicinsky who stopped to help JJ just after the collision said another man was dragging Scooby’s body out of the road when she arrived. The dog appeared to have died on impact.
Nobody reported seeing JJ holding the dog, let alone having it die in his arms. Jicinksy said she stopped because JJ was on the side of the road clearly distraught. She said she later read Johnson’s account and thought it sounded like make-believe.
“I think it’s a sad situation,” she added.
The driver of the truck that hit Scooby said on Wednesday that the dog came out of the woods along Boniface, and he ran into it at about 45 mph. He wasn’t exactly sure what he hit at first, he said, and looked into his rear view mirror to see a dog dead in the street.
He saw no people in the area.
Shaken and upset, he confessed to driving for several blocks before pulling off the busy street into a Holiday gas station to call Anchorage Animal Control and ask them what he should do about the dead animal. The agency confirmed that call.
It’s worth noting here, too, that his truck isn’t black, a particularly problematic detail given that Peebles reported this:
“JJ did witness the horrible crime, but he didn’t have much of a description other than that it’s a black truck.”
If the first statement were true, JJ would have known the color of the truck.
But more on that later because this isn’t really about what happened, but about what the media reported happened, and these two things bear little similarity.
The story of JJ and the death of Scooby had plenty of holes in it from the beginning. They warranted some real reporting, but it was easier to run with the juicy narrative first set down by Johnson.
This is what journalism has become. A whole generation of reporters has been trained to cover the news by rewriting press releases. The press releases set the narrative. The reporters follow.
Public relations long ago stole the news show. And now the worst of the precedent set by the PR people seems to have crept into journalism at a much more dangerous level. Journalists have gone from following the narrative set by PR people, who feel duty bound to at least stick to some facts, to following the narrative set by Facebook posters, who could sometimes care less about facts.
HERE WE GO
Over at KTVA.com, Sierra Starks grabbed a screenshot of Johnson’s Facebook post to run with her story:
“To the POS (piece of shit) who was speeding down Boniface at 11:30a today,” the post began, before making the claim, unsubstantiated by any witness, that the truck barely missed JJ before “hitting his dog ‘Scooby’ and dragging the boy as the leash was around his wrist.”
Stark picked up where the screen shot ended, quoting Johnson saying that “Thank God the leash broke when you sped up to flee. He will heal from his physical wounds but probably not the emotional ones!!!!”
There is no evidence any of that happened. And Peebles, amazingly, used the claim of a broken leash in the same story that suggested Scooby’s collar broke. But the whole Scooby story is full of conflicting details.
There is so much so wrong with the story on so many levels it would make an old-school journalist’s head explode. Were Walter Cronkite or Edward R. Murrow, the giants of broadcast journalism, still alive, the shoddiness and plain old lack of healthy skepticism displayed here could kill them.
A story that started off as being about a “service dog” for a deaf young man became a story about a service dog-in-training for a deaf young man. But if you read closely, it wasn’t even that. Scooby was a dog in training to become a service dog-in-training for, well, maybe it wasn’t deafness, it was seizures.
“When [Scooby] was 6 months old, he detected a seizure for my son and brought him out of it really quick,” Starks quoted JJ’s mother saying. Some dogs can detect seizures, and they can be trained to help people who suffer from seizures.
But dogs don’t treat seizures. “They are an alarm system” to warn of an impending seizure, as the Epilepsy Foundation notes. Dogs can’t bring people out of seizures anymore than people can bring people out of seizures. As the Epilepsy Society notes, what you do when someone has a seizure is monitor the situation until the seizure runs its course.
Dogs can be trained to lie next to someone to prevent them from smashing into anything that could harm them, but Scooby, sadly, had not been so trained. Scooby, even more sadly, had obviously not been trained to stay with JJ.
THE OTHER VICTIM
Scooby ran away from JJ as rambunctious young Labrador retrievers sometimes do. Scooby ran into a street busy with traffic. Scooby ran into a truck driven by 23-year-old Daniel Calderon, a graduate of Anchorage’s East High School.
It was a sad and tragic end in the way all dog deaths are sad and tragic. It was nothing more.
Everything else appears to have been a media concoction. Whether reporters got help from others is irrelevant. The job of journalists, or at least what was once their job, is to separate the facts from the fiction and set the record straight.
That doesn’t happen anymore.
Calderon was pretty quickly identified as the driver of the truck that hit Scooby. The information was not hard for Anchorage Police to find because as noted above Calderon called Animal Control within minutes of hitting Scooby to ask what to do.
This was known to the media on Monday. Calderon was identified on Tuesday. By Wednesday afternoon, he still hadn’t been contacted by anyone in the old Alaska media for his side of the story. He had an idea of why.
“People want the story where they can have somebody being the victim and somebody else being the murder,” he said. “That’s just what society wants. It’s just the way most media and humanity do it today. It’s just sad.”
Every good story needs a villain. Calderon was cast as the villain.
When it turned out he might not be – APD put out a media statement saying he would not be charged – most media only seemed to want to get away from the Scooby story as quick as possible.
KTVA posted the APD statement verbatim as an “update.” KTUU did nothing. The ADN did a short story which noted that Calderon did report Scooby dead. The story also had him going northbound on Boniface (he was going southbound), and pulling into a Holiday station at the intersection of that street and Debarr to the north when he actually pulled into a Holiday to the south at Boniface and Northern Lights.
The addition of more errors seemed just about perfect.
So what actually happened?
AN ORDINARY ACCIDENT
Here is Calderon’s account, which seems the most creditable of any given all other evidence available:
He had just turned off Debarr Road in the Merrill Field area of Anchorage and was headed southbound on Boniface doing about 45 mph. The road ahead was clear. He looked down to adjust the heater in his struck.
He looked up, and there was poor Scooby.
“Before I even saw him, I was right on top of him,” Calderon said.
The truck hit Scooby with a thud. Calderon hit the brake, slowed and looked in the rearview mirror. He saw the dog unmoving in the street with something “pink” hanging out of its side. JJ was nowhere be seen.
“I was kind of in shock,” Calderon said. “I don’t kill animals. I felt horrible about it. I didn’t want to leave the animal there.”
He isn’t sure exactly why he kept driving to the Holiday station, but he did. He stopped there and called authorities. He admits he was pretty rattled.
“I didn’t really see the dog at all,” he said. “I looked up and I impacted the dog. I didn’t really know what I hit for sure. I was looking in the mirror (after). I was looking to see what happened. I felt like shit about it.”
He was, he added, confident from the force of the impact and what he saw in the rearview mirror that the dog died on impact, and that, he said, made him feel a little better. He wouldn’t have wanted to see a dog suffer.
After calling Animal Control to report the accident, Calderon called his boss at an insulating company to tell him about it.
“He was pretty upset,” boss Gabriel Anaya said Wednesday. “He said he’d hit a loose dog.”
Calderon said he asked animal control to apologize to Scooby’s owner or owners for him. Whether that happened or not is unknown. Police talked to Calderon over the weekend and told him he wouldn’t face charges because he properly reported the accident.
Friends about the same time informed him he was a wanted man. The media was still reporting a hunt was underway to find the killer who ran over Scooby, and a gofundme page for the Andersons had popped up claiming Calderon almost ran JJ over before “hitting his dog ‘Scooby’ and dragging the boy down Boniface and 22nd Street in Anchorage , Alaska. The leash was around his wrist. Thank God the leash broke when the person sped up to flee.”
There is no evidence the leash broke. Jicinsky, who tended to JJ after the accident, said she never even saw a leash.
The gofundme page is still up. It still makes the same claims. It has raised $950.
And the Scooby story is still out there with Calderon’s name now attached. Will any news organization try to fix this mess? Don’t count on it.
Who’d want to debunk a heart-wrenching story about a service dog run down by a reckless driver?