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.
“‘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.
“‘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 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.