Dexter is safe, and it’s time for someone to ask the obvious:
“What the hell just happened here? Was this news or a distraction from news?”
Dexter, in case you were out enjoying Alaska over the weekend instead of surfing the internet, is a dog, a puppy to be exact. A mongrel puppy to be even more specific and a cute one.
He was stolen and recovered. Only it wasn’t him; it was a her. She was returned to the Anchorage animal shelter. And then it was him, and the feel-good story of the weekend was complete.
The dognapper remains on the loose. The Anchorage Police Department says “the investigation continues,” though the story now seems destined to fade away as most such stories do. Realistically, how much time should APD spend trying to catch the criminal who stole property – that’s what dogs are in the state of Alaska – worth a couple hundred dollars at most?
Many bicycles, not to mention firearms, stolen in the city have a far greater value, and police rarely bother to look. They tell you to file a police report and inform you they’re sorry, but they really don’t have the staff available to investigate minor crimes.
But the Dexter napping? Ah, the Dexter napping was something else.
The details of this story remain murky even now, some days later. What is known is that someone decided to snatch Dexter from a car in the parking lot of the Eagle River Wal-Mart in the early hours of Friday morning.
This became the hot news for the weekend after the Anchorage Police Department posted this missive on Nixle, the official media website for local law enforcement:
“On 11/17/17 at 12:34 a.m., Dispatch received a report of a stolen puppy from a vehicle parked at the Wal-Mart (18600 Eagle River Road) parking lot in Eagle River.
“The preliminary investigation found that the victim parked their 2008 blue Toyota Scion in the parking lot and walked into the Wal-Mart. The victim was inside the store for less than 10 minutes when he came out and found his 3-month-old puppy stolen. The suspect smashed the driver’s side window, grabbed the puppy and fled in a small SUV.
“The suspect vehicle is described as a dark green small SUV with a tire on the back. The suspect is described as an adult white female wearing a light color jacket and a white hat.
“The puppy (see attached photo) is described as a black Labrador/Rottweiler mix who goes by the name of Dexter.”
“An adult white female wearing a light-color jacket and a white hat…?”
Can you say “Cruella de Vil”?
On the chase
The mainstream media, steered as it often is by government, was quick to jump on the Dexter story.
No sooner had APD Nixled than the competition began to see who could get the report online first. There was precious little substantive reporting involved. Simple facts, like who owned the dog, went largely unreported.
There was mainly a lot of hype. KTVA’s Scott Gross went to Eagle River to report from outside of the Wal-Mart. He interviewed two people who knew nothing about the crime and then concluded, “there a lot of people on high alert tonight.”
“The response has been large,” APD spokesman MJ Thim told Gross. “We’ve had a lot of shares on our Facebook page of the Nixle itself.”
So here is the best-case scenario:
The Anchorage Police Department is home to a bunch of dog lovers. They decided Dexter was in danger, and they might be able to save him with the canine version of an Amber Alert on social media.
Enter Thim to explain the situation in simple terms:
“Pets are like kids to a lot of people,” he told the Alaska Star in Eagle River.
There is no doubt about this. My dogs are like members of the family, and I hope your dogs are too. But should APD really be treating them like children?
Maybe they should. Maybe we’d all like a Rambler Alert when our dog runs off and we can’t find him/her.
Still, the legal reality is that dogs are property. We might all feel differently about that as regards our pets, and the state might have gone so far as decide that “companion animals” deserve special treatment in divorce disputes, but that doesn’t change the law.
When Anchorage resident Dave Brailey’s Labrador retriever was shot dead in his yard in April of last year, APD investigated, decided they couldn’t make a solid case against a neighbor who said he felt threatened by the dog, and did nothing. The investigation focused on whether neighbor Jason Mellerstig had violated a city law making it illegal to discharge a firearm in the city unless there are extenuating circumstances.
Mellerstig, in the Brailey case, claimed self-defense, and that was the end of it. Dogs are property. That’s the way it is.
In Dexter’s case, the cost of the damage to the car in the smash-and-grab might have exceeded the value of the stolen property, but APD decided to dial up a muni-wide manhunt.
Oops. Puppy hunt.
All of which raises interesting questions about how any of the dozens of financially minor cases APD handles every day get boosted to the status of “news.”
Thim said in a Friday interview that there was no concerted effort to make anything special of the Dexter story. In explaining this, he sounded a lot like a reporter explaining a normal news decision.
And Thim was an everyday news reporter once. He knows the justification for this sort of story is as hard to explain as it is easy. Dexter’s disappearance was of no community importance. There is no hint of a dognapping ring at work in the Anchorage-Eagle River area.
Dexter’s disappearance was of importance only to his owner and maybe some of the owner’s friends and families. But in the world of journalistic whys and why nots, the Dexter story is easily explained in four words:
People will read this.
People love animal stories. Lots of people can identify with puppy theft. Some of them, strange as we humans are, can possibly feel more emotion for a stolen puppy than a child wounded in a drive-by shooting.
No doubt any competent reporter scrolling through the “police blotter” looking for “news” back in the day would have latched onto the Dexter-napping and asked police a few questions about what happened.
But we’re not back in the day when newspapers and TV/radio stations were vibrant, and a “cop reporter” went by the “cop shop” (be it the local police or Alaska State Troopers here in Alaska), read through a whole lot of basic reports filed daily by law enforcement officers in the field, and decided what, if anything, was interesting or relevant for that day’s “news.”
Now we are in a new, wired world where the people being reported upon have a lot more control over what gets reported.
Part of Thim’s job, he admitted, is to draw eyeballs to Nixle. You might consider it the social media of some parts of government.
“Nixle,” Nixle says, “keeps you up-to-date with relevant information from your local public safety departments & schools.”
Nixle is like the old “Police Blotter” some newspapers used to publish, and some small newspapers still do. Only it isn’t. Nixle is selective. It takes all of the police activity of the day and trims it down to the “relevant information” somebody in the police department thinks you need.
The theft of Dexter got pushed onto Nixle, and from there into the echo-chamber the mainstream media has become, because Thim decided Dexter was “relevant.”
One can hardly fault Thim. His mind was working like that of a good reporter:
“People will read this. Let’s run with it.”
The problem is that Thim isn’t a reporter anymore. He is a government employee and in that role he plays a part in steering what the news does and, possibly more importantly, doesn’t cover.
Reporters chasing Dexter, no matter how superficial their coverage, are spending time there they would otherwise spend on other stories. It is one thing when Thim as a reporter decides to grab a Dexter story and chase it for his news organization; it is another when Thim the government press coordinator sends all the media chasing Dexter.
None of which is meant as a criticism of Thim. He’s just a guy trying to do the job he was trained to do. He has a degree in broadcast journalism.
The problem comes in that he’s not really doing journalism anymore. He’s in this big blender of online information that combines fake news, propaganda (which may or may not be fake news) advocacy, public relations, journalism, and God-only-knows what else.
Follow the leader
In another time, the efforts of a local police department to steer the news toward an attention-grabbing story about almost nothing might not have been worth a passing thought. But in today’s world, with information moving online, who dictates what is “news” is worth a little consideration.
APD wants you to read Nixle. It is their version of the horse’s mouth. They would prefer people get information there rather than from the mainstream media or someplace like Facebook’s “Scanner Joe.”
The latter “group has more than 46,000 members — more people than are signed up for the Anchorage Police Department’s Nixle public safety alerts,” Michelle Theriault Boots reported in the Anchorage Daily News.
“The group is growing fast. According to (Tisha) Victory, more than 4,000 people have joined in the past two months, which she thinks is due to increased fears over crime. Every day, between 40 and 100 new posts hit the page….”
The headline on Boots’ ADN story?
“Alaskans are deluged with social media posts on crime. What’s it doing to us?”
The answer to the question: “Facebook is the information Wild West,” Thim told Boots.
He’s right, and government is the opposite. Government is control.
Democracy survives in an uncomfortable place somewhere between the two. It might be why democracy as a form of social organization isn’t all that common. It didn’t even show up until late in human history. The Greeks experimented with the idea about 500 B.C., but the experiment lasted only a couple hundred years before a long disappearance.
Democracy didn’t surface again until about 1300 in the forest districts of Switzerland, according to the world history site HistoryWorld.net. It’s been on a rocky road ever since with democracies being regularly born and regularly killed.
The successful ones have survived in large part thanks to a free and open press, or what we now just call “the media.” Not necessarily a good media or even an honest one. Not necessarily a fair media or a friendly one, but always as independent one.
‘The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter,” observed Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of The Declaration of Independence, one of country’s revolutionary Founding Fathers, the third President of the United States, and a guy more than a little abused by the media of his day.
Ministry of Truth
Sending the mainstream media off chasing its tail in pursuit of Dexter the kidnapped puppy is not in and of itself any threat to democracy. It would be silly to even suggest that.
But there are troubling aspects to government entities in a capitalist society trying to move the “news” onto platforms they control. If you can get all of your crime news at Nixle, why would you need the ADN or KTUU.com or any other local news entity?
If Nixle, with its government-endorsed accuracy, can lure large numbers of people away from Scanner Joe, how long will Scanner Joe survive?
“Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows,” the late author George Orwell wrote in “1984,” the classic novel about governmental control.
Orwell was pitching for logic as the basis of good government. But as he outlined in “1984” governments don’t always like logic. Logic can sometimes get in the way of what the people in power want. Sometimes they might decide that two plus two equals five is good for the citizenry.
It was “a frightening book written for frightening times,” Alexander Nazaryan opined in The New Yorker last year. “Sinclair Lewis published the novel as Adolf Hitler was making Germany great again, violating the Treaty of Versailles by establishing the Wehrmacht. Benito Mussolini invaded Ethiopia. Things at home weren’t much better: a race riot in Harlem, dust storms in the Midwest.”
One of the key characters in this book is Doremus Jessup, who Lewis describes as the “editor of the Fort Beulah Daily Informer, locally considered ‘a pretty smart fella but kind of a cynic.'” Jessup opposes a presidential candidate with a totalitarian bent and eventually ends up in prison after the man is elected.
“‘It Can’t Happen Here’ is an argument for journalism as a basic pillar of democracy,” Nazaryan writes. “The curious pronoun in Lewis’s title, lacking an antecedent, may well refer to the rise of fascism in the United States. But a less literal reading of the title suggests that “it” is something more subtle: a collective apathy, born of ignorance, and a populace that can no longer make the kind of judgments that participatory democracy requires.”
Such judgements, it is worth noting, are pretty easily dulled. We are all susceptible to apathy, to hearing what we want to hear, to selecting our media for giving us what we want to believe, to taking the word of government because, well, as Americans we are at a point in time when we believe in government more than we believe in the media.
And what does Dexter have to do with this?
Maybe nothing, and then again maybe more than any of us realize. If APD can make Nixle the main source for police news, if the Alaska Department of Fish and Game can make the Alaska Fish and Wildlife News the main source for hunting and fishing news, and if various other and sundry arms of government can make their websites the place for their news, why would anyone need the media?
Especially the media that wants to charge money for the privilege of reading?
And wouldn’t it in some ways be better if we got the news exactly the way government entities want it printed and not confused by some reporter asking a bunch of darn fool questions?
Not that there are a lot of reporters asking questions these days, although KTUU’s Sean Maguire did manage to track down Dexter’s owner.
His name is Noah Ralph. He is a 19-year-year-old Chugiak resident.