The narrative

A brown/grizzly bear sleeping it off after gorging on caribou/NPS photo

A lesson in how news is spun

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game made a huge mistake in the wake of the aerial execution of nearly 100 brown/grizzly bears and a handful of wolves in Southwest Alaska this spring.

And the mistake – at least if viewed from the perspective of a self-protective government agency – wasn’t in killing all those bears. The mistake was in failing to own the result and immediately publicize the success.

We live in a world today where the machinery of public relations – PR as it is often called – is the tail that wags the media dog.

What the state agency should have done as soon as it finished shooting all those bears was send out a media release saying something like this:

“Mulchanta Caribou Herd Gets New Lease on Life

“Officials with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game have completed the removal of 94 brown/grizzly bears, five black bears and five wolves from the calving grounds of the Mulchatna caribou herd.

“It is hoped that this predator control program will begin the rebuilding of what was once a herd of 200,000 animals roaming an area the size of Rhode Island.

“That herd is now down to 12,000 animals and though haunted by a disease and health issues faces, the herd faces only one problem about which managers can do anything: calf survival.

“The herd’s reproductive capability is literally being eaten away every spring by predators. Our studies show that going into the winter more than 90 percent of caribou cows are pregnant with calves, but more than 60 percent of the calves born in the spring are dead by fall.

“And then even more female caribou, the animals vitally needed to rebuild the herd, are lost to predators over winter.

“‘The Alaska Board of Game wasn’t happy about having to resort to a predator control program to aid the caribou here,” said Alaska Commissioner of Fish and Game Doug Vincent-Lang, “but the Board felt it had no choice but to resort to predator control to free the herd from the predator pit in which it is now trapped in the interest of helping the people of the Bristol Bay region, who depend on these caribou for their very subsistence.

Cultural survival

“‘Because of the status of the herd,  villagers have for three years now been prohibited from hunting caribou, which imposes not only a nutritional toll on them but a cultural one as well.

“‘For thousands of years, caribou hunting has been a way of life in this region. This is not urban America. The people here do not have access to climate-controlled supermarkets where they can shop for fresh fruits and vegetables, meat and fish at economical prices.

“‘They are in large part dependent on the land to provide, and this was the only way we could see to help them.'”

Residents of the area had earlier appeared before the Board of Game to endorse the program. They said they did not like the idea of aerial predator hunts, but recognized there are no other good options for trying to help the herd rebuild.

“‘We are glad to see a state agency trying to do something to help us for a change,’ said an elder from the village of Ekwok, a primarily Yupik community of 111 people along the Nushugak River. ‘We have plenty of bears here already.

“‘A hundred gone will not be missed, but we miss the caribou. And we appreciate the state for donating meat from the bears. We can always use fresh meat.’

“Ekwok,  the Southwest Region School District notes on its webpage, is a community in a struggle to survive in an area with almost no modern economy.

“‘A few residents trap,’ the district says, ‘(But) the entire population depends on subsistence activities for various food sources. Salmon, pike, moose, caribou, duck and berries are harvested.

“‘Summer gardens are also popular because families do not leave the village to fish for subsistence purposes. Most residents are not interested in participating in a cash economy. Only six residents hold commercial fishing permits in Ekwok. The village corporation owns a fishing lodge two miles downriver.’

Living in poverty

“All of those businesses are highly seasonal and provide only a meager amount of money for the village. Twenty percent of the villagers are reported as unemployed, but the school district says that doesn’t count the 55 percent of the adult population that has simply given up looking for work.

“Nearly a third of those in Ekwok are living below the poverty level. The median household income is $16,250.

“‘We know it will be easy for environmental activists living comfortably in Los Angeles, New York City, Anchorage or elsewhere to criticize this predator control program as unnecessary, wasteful,  or an unwarranted attack on what have become iconic symbols of the wilderness because most other states have driven their populations of large predators to extinction or onto the endangered species list,’ Lang said.

“‘We have not. Alaska still has plenty of wolves and brown/grizzly bears, and if any other states would like to help us in situations like this where we find we must remove some, we would be more than happy to cooperate in their capturing wolves and bears for transplant elsewhere.

“‘I, personally, would love to see the brown/grizzly bear restored in the state of California, which still sports an image of that bear on its flag. 

“‘The Golden State contains almost 48 million acres of public land within which are found 26 units of the  National Park Service, seven national monuments, 18 national forests, 149 wilderness areas, four national recreation areas, four national historic sites, four national historic trails and one national conservation area.

“‘There is no reason the brown/grizzly bear populations that existed in these areas shouldn’t be restored, and we’d be happy to help California in order to reduce the number of these bears killed in our predator control programs.

“‘We do recognize that capture and relocation projects are extremely expensive, but California is the richest state in the nation and could certainly afford to fund such an operation.'”


Where Fish and Game failed, and failed badly, was in ignoring the need to get a media communique like this out there before any environmental group had a chance to weigh in on the subject as if the state was trying to hide the kill.

Why? Because in the world we live in today, the news is about defining the narrative, and the PR operatives define the narrative.

Half the people working as journalists in the newsrooms of America now couldn’t tell a caribou from an elk, and the other half are convinced that anything said by a well-meaning interest group (or one considered to be so) is God’s own truth.

Have no doubt about this. It works this way:

When “Salmon State,” which purports to be working “to keep wild salmon swimming up the rivers they’ve returned to for thousands of years,” tells a reporter that the Southeast Alaska Chinook salmon troll fishery is hunky-dory, the reporter quotes the organization’s mouthpiece saying a judge’s decision to close the fishery came as “an abuse of the Endangered Species Act by out-of-touch, ideological, serial litigants.”

And never you mind that the state of Alaska’s own fishery research shows that 96 to 97 percent of the Chinook caught in the Southest troll fishery are bound for the streams of their birth in British Columbia, Canada, or the Pacific Northwest, where almost every watershed is in need of more “wild salmon swimming up the rivers they’ve returned to for thousands of years.”

That reality could get twisted this badly is because, well, in Alaska at least, “Salmon State” is a holy organization even if the Washington-state-based Wild Fish Conservancy, which is trying to save Pacific Northwest salmon now on the endangered species list, might have reason to believe Salmon State is little more than a front for the Alaska commercial fishing industry. 

The Wild Fish Conservancy, unfortunately, now finds itself in the same predicament in the 49th state as the Department of Fish and Game got itself into fumbling its handling of the Southwest Alaska bear shoot.

Both failed to actively shape the narrative and now they’re paying the price by being painted as the “bad guys” in stories where there are in reality no “bad guys.”

This isn’t Star Wars with Luke Skywalker on one side and Darth Vader on the other – even if that is that intellectual level at which your average American journalist functions these days.

These are stories involving gray issues, not black-and-white ones. Fish and Game’s Mulchatna scheme might not work. The odds against it working might even be higher than the odds in favor of the scheme working.

But after years of monster salmon runs to the rivers of Bristol Bay, Southwest Alaska is crawling with brown/grizzly bears and removing 100 of them from the calving grounds of the Mulchatna herd isn’t going to hurt the population of bears in the region.

Hell, the biggest problem this predator control program might face is the repopulation of the Mulchatna by migrating brown/grizzly bears by this time next year.

And though the Southeast troll fishery has for decades preyed largely on other people’s fish, which is a legitimate issue for Canada and the Pacific Northwest, the Alaska fishermen are entitled to at least some of that catch, it can be argued, as payment for the salmon growing fat feeding on Alaska pastures where they compete with Alaska-spawned salmon for food.

But forget all this complexity because this is not how journalism works anymore. Journalism has become a regurgitative business.  The PR machines feed the news to the mainstream, and the mainstream regurgitates it.

“The picture many of us have of journalists is Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in ‘All The President’s Men,’ or the journalists in ‘Spotlight,’ ‘She Said,’ and ‘The Post.’ They are dogged seekers of the truth, determined to overcome any obstacle in their way of discovering it and reporting it to the world,” as Michael Shellenger put it back in May.

But that ain’t the media of today.

Shellenberger,  an author and himself a former cog in the PR machine wasn’t writing about the PR manipulation of the media per se, but about what some have come to call a Censorship Industrial Complex trying to stifle free speech.

The thing is that those censorship efforts are sort of all tied up in the PR machinations as well. Witness the mainstream media’s “fact-finding” campaign aimed at convincing Americans that nothing on social media, or nothing on social media aside from Tweets from the mainstream media can be trusted, and the only thing that can be trusted is the mainstream.

You know, like when the New York Times assured everyone Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was in possession of weapons of mass destruction, or declared “red salmon, a summertime pleasure that feeds residents through the winter, has failed to show up this season in most rivers” in Alaska when “most” of the significant red (sockeye) rivers in the state are in Southwest Alaska where sockeyes have for years now been returning in numbers never before seen.

The Bay last year saw a record return of 79 million sockeye. That topped the record return of 66.2 million in 2021, which topped the record return of 62.3 million in 2018. 

The years 2020 and 2019 with returns of only 58.2 million and 56.5 million, respectively, almost appear like off years against this backdrop, but the returns in those were twice the size of the average run of 27.5 million from  1990 to 2010.

And yes, a lot of what is reported on social media, is crap. But so is a lot of what is reported in the mainstream, too, because the PR puppet masters have become experts at pulling the strings that make a lot of journalists dance like nice, little puppets.

And this is how the game is now played. This is the new “real” journalism.”

PR stole the show. It stole it years ago, and those who haven’t figured this out – whether in government or in business – need to catch up.

23 replies »

  1. Craig, I’m glad you’re still writing and you are, as always, insightful. I remain someone who considers you a friend. Having said that, you really need an editor. Boomeranging from red salmon returns to Saddam Hussein and back is a head scratcher. Fewer words, tighter focus makes for more impactful articles.

    • Thanks, Ernie. And I agree that working without a net has it’s advantage, and its disadvantages.

      Adding the WMD narrative to the list of narratives illustrating how the news gets spun might have been a narrative too far. But were I editing, I’d also be suggesting boomerang is a bad analogy.

      Boomerangs are known for coming back around to where they began. Spitballing might have been a better word choice.

      I see the ION LRT got up and running to favorable reviews. Congratulations. I can remember when Alaska used to have big ideas in that vein.

  2. ‘We are glad to see a state agency trying to do something to help us for a change,’ said an elder from the village of Ekwok

    Wow. It’s amazing the lack of understanding some people have. The only reason most of these small villages are still there and not ghost towns is because multiple state agencies fund their lifestyle. Sure the income is low but the subsidies are high.

    • LOL, Steve-O. It’s not a subsistence lifestyle anymore. It’s a subsidized lifestyle.

  3. Putting a different PR spin on thrs program won’t help the Alaskan public understand that this effort wasn’t supported by the field biologists who know most about it. They told the BOG last year that most likely predation wasn’t a factor in the herd’s decline. They thought poor nutrition was. Killing bears and wolves won’t grow more lichens for the caribou to eat regardless of how you wordsmith it. Most likely there needs to be FEWER caribou for several decades to allow range conditions to recover and even then it may not because of shrub invasion exacerbated by climate change. The BOG plays the only note it knows which is to kill large carnivores regardless of any science showing that will help.

    • I’d generally agree with that assessment with one caveat, an emphasis on the word “likely.” We know very little about caribou range assessment. This is an awfully large range. And then there are those unavoidable human prejudices that enter the picture. Some bios still believe all predation is compensatory; a few, in ADF&G and at least, now also seem to believe all predation is additive.

      I’ve come to believe we often don’t know and are speculate with either conclusion. And Gordon Haber and I once got into this discussion where he went all Gordy on me and insisted humans should never managed predator populations because the predators know better than we do how to manage their own ecosystems. Right.

      And as to shrub invasion, I’d argue we’ve seen as much or more of that in the Nelchina Basin than in Western Alaska, but with no resultant crash in the Nelchina herd. On the other hand, ADF&G never let the Nelchina herd get out of control the way it did the Mulchatna herd. Two hundred thousand caribou on that range was clealry too many by a minimum of 100,000. They should have had aerial caribou hunts. There are always the starving who can use meat.

      Lastly, there is one issue here that probably doesn’t get the attention it deserves: illegal harvest. Everybody knows it exists, but nobody really wants to talk about it although a KYUK reporter out in Bethel did mention it in November 2021:

      “Last month, on the USFWS flight to view the caribou herds, there were both types of predation visible: wolf kills where blood spots were surrounded by paw prints, and human kills where remains were surrounded by snowmachine tracks.”

      • They have a small allowance for tags on mulchatna under federal . Oddly they never max out. Human predators? You bet . The primary variable? Unlikely due to the extreme crash speed. Is it keeping population suppressed? Unknown .
        I did hear about some weird disease in the herd .
        Is there any truth to that ?

      • Back in the late 1970s, I was working on a road job connecting Mountain Village and St. Mary’s on the Lower Yukon. One day, I was at the St. Mary’s airport when a flight arrived from Unalakleet. One of the passengers mentioned to a local airport worker that they had seen a herd of about 30 “Reindeer” along the Andresky River. The worker got explicit directions as to their location. He and his friend actually walked off their jobs at midday. I knew him and asked if they weren’t concerned about their jobs. They just laughed.

        The next day, I made a point of looking him up. I asked him if they got any. He replied, “We got all”. I said, “What?”. He then replied that they killed 32 “Reindeer”. I asked what they did with them. He said they bought back 2 apiece and left the rest. I asked him if they gutted them, and he looked at me as if I was from outer space. He then said if anybody wants meat they know where to find it.

        I lived in the area from 1978 through 1980. During that time, I saw one moose and it was later killed out of season. Lots of food existed for a potential moose population at the time. I mentioned if they left the moose alone there would eventually be plenty so they could have moose meat for potlatches and meals the year round. They said, “If we don’t shoot it someone from another village will”.

        Out of curiosity, a few years ago, I looked up the moose season on the Lower Yukon. Now 45 years later, moose are so plentiful that the taking of two moose is allowed. Three weeks ago, I saw a man in line at the post office with a St. Mary’s jacket. I asked him if the one lane road was still holding up. He said it has been upgraded to two lanes recently and is in great shape. I then mentioned how there were no moose when I lived there and now there are plenty. He said they wander around town all the time. Once in a while, things improve over time.

      • “Illegal harvests”. Very true. But media and BOG can’t state the obvious or they will be deemed racist. Easier to blame bears than people. Use fake political science “wildlife studies” to avoid social media carnage.

  4. “……….Alaska still has plenty of wolves and brown/grizzly bears, and if any other states would like to help us in situations like this where we find we must remove some, we would be more than happy to cooperate in their capturing wolves and bears for transplant elsewhere…….”
    And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is how you stew a liberal in his own juices. That is a brilliant……..and evil……way to shut a state of liberals up: send them several tons of hungry brown bears.

    • Reggie: Nice to see somebody got the main point. But I do have to disagree with your use of the term “liberal.” There are some conservatives in the “animal rights” corner believing the animals should have the same “rights” as homo sapiens to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” but most of them are those “progressives,” who are among the most illiberal people I know.

      They’re tolerance for the views of others doesn’t seem to have changed much since they helped deliver the country Prohibition in 1920. Many of them seem of a personality type that has taken the religious fervor of an earlier time and replaced it with a new political fervor.

  5. You wrote: “And never you mind that the state of Alaska’s own fishery research shows that 96 to 97 percent of the Chinook caught in the Southest troll fishery are bound for the streams of their birth in British Columbia, Canada, or the Pacific Northwest, where almost every watershed is in need of more “wild salmon swimming up the rivers they’ve returned to for thousands of years.”” I believe that while the majority of the Kings caught in the SE troll fishery originate in Canada and the lower 48 most of them are hatchery bred, not from “the streams of their birth”.

  6. The Alaska Board of Game was not “happy” about adopting predator control regulations to benefit hunters who eat caribou? Did the Commissioner of the Department of Fish & Game really say that? If so he, and the citizens board, need a lesson in what the law is in Alaska regrading development of natural resources, Alaska State Constitution, Article 8 Natural Resource. The Board of Game should have been “happy” that the Alaska Legislature provided them with the authority to help feed folks.

    Or as Medred suggests the Commissioner does need to go to PR school. Implementing state statutes doesn’t have anything to do with being happy. What a missed opportunity to promote save the world “eat locally”. Even the Preservationists have got to like that spin.

  7. Very good piece. Makes a lot of sense. Would it be cost effective to hire a PR spin master for actions of ADF&G and the Boards of Fish and Game?

    • Yep, you nailed it Marlin.
      But you can thank the Alaska state administration for caving in to the Anti-hunting NGOs who got their way demanding that non-professionals wildlife biologist doing the predator reduction would be having too much fun.

    • Currently and before DWC harvested bears. There was a two brown bear limit for both resident and non-resident.

      • Yes, but as you well know, the non-resident limit is pretty much meaningless unless you wave the guide requirement for non-residents. The costs of that guide requirement are economically prohibitive for money.

    • Marlin I completely agree.
      When i was growing up we ate more brown bear meat than anything. Many many days we ate bear .
      1-3 bears a year was common.
      Bear, salmon, potatoes and beans .
      That guy from ekwok was a whiner.
      The natives used to solve the predator problem by spring bear hunts .
      Relying on the state like he talks about- no pride .
      family bear hunts would have solved their bear problem in a couple years.
      Get off your butt exwok and go hunting bears.

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