A Call to Revolution

On the Range

Daily newspapers across America are dying and the nation’s sportsmen, especially hunters, should be concerned. Very concerned.

 Early this year the venerable Rocky Mountain News and the overtly liberal Seattle Post-Intelligencer shut their doors. Media megaliths like the Chicago Sun-Times, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, and even the storied New York Times are said to be in serious trouble.

So what, you might think, who cares if left wing, big city rags like the Post-Intelligencer and the New York Times go under, they’ve hardly been fair to sportsmen, farmers, ranchers, or anyone with traditional values?

The threat to outdoorsmen is not the passing of big city newspapers but the growing trend of electronic journalism and what it may mean to mainstream media as a whole, and the mid-market and semi-rural papers in particular. Most smaller market newspapers still reflect their community’s values. This usually means they have an "Outdoors" page with a full-time staff, even if it’s a single editor. There one can find fishing forecasts, hunting information, hard news relating to fish and game regulations and feature stories on trophy fish and big game animals. Where else, besides the Outdoors page, can you see a newspaper photograph of a young hunter with his or her first deer? While many object to any photograph of a dead animal, the image of a beaming youngster and a harvested animal is an important one. Certainly, in an age of gang violence, drug abuse and sexual promiscuity, there are worse images involving our youth.

Outside of the Outdoors page, newspapers and magazines are often adversarial toward sportsmen. Newsweek, for one example, did a hit piece on hunting this year that contained many factual errors including misidentifying an eland as a kudu. Poor reporting concerning all aspects of rural lifestyles has been around for a long time. Twenty years ago I participated in the Montana Centennial Cattle Drive in the dual roles of horse wrangler and journalist. This massive celebration, involving thousands of cattle, horses, and riders and a couple hundred covered wagons, drew worldwide attention. While performing my wrangling duties I didn’t wear my press credentials and one morning I was approached by a writer from People magazine. Rather than interview me objectively, the reporter baited me with slanted questions concerning the wild horse controversy. When I suggested there was an overpopulation of feral horses in the country, she informed me I was the one to blame. "It’s my fault?" I asked.

"Yes, you ranchers," she said haughtily. "Because you killed off all the wolves." Her bias revealed a currently popular philosophy: Nature is in perfect balance when Man is not a part of it. This paradigm crept into our culture during the turbulent Sixties and early Seventies. My generation.

I became a cub reporter in 1970 when newsmen still used portable typewriters, continuous paper in boxed reams and glue pots. My city editor, a naval aviator in WWII, was known as The Dean of Montana Sportswriters. Our publisher was a former managing editor of The Denver Post who had gone from private to captain in WWII on a battlefield commission and promotion. They were old school newsmen. For them journalism meant reporting the facts and telling the truth.

After three years in that newsroom I quit to travel, attend college briefly, and get married. In 1975 I walked into a newspaper office in Oregon and inquired about getting a job. "A lot has changed since you left your newsroom," the editor explained to me. "Because of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (the Washington Post reporters who exposed Watergate and wrote the book All the President’s Men) journalism schools are flooded with radicals who think journalism is the way to change the system." Hippies, in other words, became newsmen to change culture. We still reap this bitter fruit and the main casualty has been objectivity. Too often journalists do not discover, verify and report the facts as much as they slant stories with personal or supposed public opinion.

As bad as this has become in the world of newsprint and ink, I shudder to think what will happen if newspapers die and on-line journalism becomes the main venue. This is particularly troublesome because of the preponderance of personal blogs on the Internet.

Our son, Jess, is a realtor in the Seattle area and like many of his generation he has a personal blog. He often posts his observations made in Seattle’s famous coffee shops. This past March he commented on seeing two people reading a newspaper. "I don’t think I’ve seen two people reading a newspaper in years," he wrote. He went on to say that most people he knew read their news on-line and if they weren’t reading the paper electronically they were reading a blog. "Bloggers are becoming the paper and papers are becoming blogs," he observed.

If Jess is correct this is a scary development. Will the lines between amateur opinion and professional reporting become so blurred as to not exist? Will "facts" written on personal blogs shape the science that governs hunting and fishing regulations and general environmental philosophy?

The public often has wrong ideas, like wolves only killing sick and injured prey and never having attacked a human being. Wrong on both counts. Or the contention that sport hunting is a threat to wildlife populations in Africa. The truth is the opposite. Sport hunting is Africa’s best hope for sustaining its wildlife.

The cause de jour is the ubiquitous sage grouse. Many reports claim this big, slow-flying bird is bordering on extinction because of agriculture. While overgrazing and dry land farming can impact sage grouse it’s hardly the only factor. A few years ago I met a wildlife expert who’d been brought to our area to conduct a sage grouse survey. "I’m going to tell you the truth," he told me. "Everyone says lack of habitat is to blame for the decrease in sage grouse numbers. There’s lots of habitat around here. There are just too dang many coyotes."

That’s odd, no one ever wants to blame the coyote.

Another major factor in the decline of sage grouse is years of severe drought, but the one cause least discussed is the growing number of golden eagles flying the prairie skies. Sage grouse are easy pickings for eagles but raptors seldom get any blame. They are, after all, more popular and glamorous than even the coyote.

A good journalist would root out all factors of the sage grouse question and not simply stop at the first convenient possibility, but the Web is not likely to produce that type of professional scrutiny unless young people who know what a tree stand is take a stand and participate in issues using the technology that has left so many of us in the dust. America needs a new revolution: a revolution of common sense and accountability. Without it, the heritage of the hunt will be a historical artifact, something quaint and dimly remembered from a supposedly unenlightened past.

Distortion and misinformation can only be combated with truth presented rationally with a strong underpinning of factual and verified information. To carry this fight forward will require sacrifice. But it is a fight worth sacrificing for.