How much disclosure does the media owe its readers? Two New York Times articles illuminate the complexity of this timely question: "Hidden Interests, Closer to Home," by Public Editor Margaret Sullivan (Sept. 20, 2014), and "As Wild Horses Overrun the West, Ranchers Fear Land Will Be Gobbled Up," by Times staff writer, Dave Philipps (Sept. 30, 2014).
Sullivan's and Philipps' articles bookend a discussion about think tanks exploiting op-ed pieces (or other articles) to advance policies in a way that obscures conflicts of interest. Sullivan's article clarifies the Times' position on this issue. She writes, "For [Times'] readers to evaluate ideas, they need to know where they're coming from - and who might be paying for them." A related corollary is that to evaluate ideas, readers also need access to accurate data and context.
But Philipps' story, which appeared ten days after Sullivan's essay, accomplishes neither of these objectives. In fact, it repeatedly violates them, despite Sullivan's presentation of them as essential to the Times' editorial mission.
The relevant policy under examination is the federal government's Wild Horses and Burros program. Philipps suggests that reducing costly roundups and slaughtering horses held in captivity would fix the problem by lowering the expense of long-term holding facilities, where close to 50,000 horses now languish.
There's just one problem: both Congress and the U.S. public oppose that "solution."
Rather than address the concerns of Congress, Philipps quotes a couple of self-interested Utah ranchers who predictably claim that an over-abundance of wild horses are eating their cattle out of house and home, threatening the horses' and ranchers' existence, and costing taxpayers a bundle. He adds the perspective of a sympathetic wildlife biologist and a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manager for support.
An overpopulation story-especially one exposing federal spending that goes against the public's interest as expressed through their elected officials-is essentially a numbers story. Philipps' story, however, doesn't provide a proper accounting.
The population numbers he uses- 48,000 wild horses roaming free compared to a maximum sustainable herd size (called Appropriate Management Level) of just 26,000-aren't reliable. These figures are BLM estimates. They are estimates, moreover, that the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) sharply criticized as inaccurate in a 398-page, 2013 report ("Using Science to Improve the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program: A Way Forward").
The BLM itself commissioned the NAS report, but Philipps, in failing to mention the study, neglects the NAS finding that BLM roundups increase horse populations (p. 5-6) ; that the BLM underutilizes fertility control (p. 303); and that conducting "business as usual" is unproductive (p. 14).
These omissions are only the tip of an iceberg of confusion. Philipps did not provide Times readers with the relevant context. For example, readers should have known that of the 155 million acres of western rangeland that the BLM oversees for public grazing, 83 percent has no wild horses on it at all-just privately owned cattle and sheep. The remaining 17 percent is designated as wild horse habitat, but horses share it, yet again, with privately owned livestock, which are allocated 77 percent of the forage there, according to Zachary Reichold, BLM senior wild horse and burro specialist.
The BLM doesn't explicitly provide the number of privately owned livestock on public lands, but those numbers can be gleaned by visiting its Rangeland Administration System (RAS) database, where public grazing allotments are tracked. There you can learn that, in Utah's Beaver and Iron Counties-where the ranchers Phillips interviews blame the horses for compromising the rangeland's health-it would be a physical impossibility for horses to overrun the landscape. Notably, the RAS shows cattle and sheep there outnumbering wild horses by almost 11:1.
Nationally, cattle outnumber wild horses 50:1 on BLM-managed lands, contradicting the Times claims of wild horses "overrunning the West," "gobbling up land," "causing long-term damage," and fleecing taxpayers. It's true that public rangelands have deteriorated from overgrazing. But there's no evidence that wild horses are to blame.
But there is evidence that livestock are. Damage caused by private livestock grazing is confirmed by watchdog groups such as Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and Western Watersheds-and that's without even analyzing the immense cost to taxpayers of the federal grazing program. The issue is analyzed here.
Philipps also neglects to mention the massive gas development deal announced back in 2012 on 1.1 million acres of mixed federal, state and private land in Carbon and Sweetwater counties. This land is the Wyoming "checkerboard" from which the BLM has just finished removing 1,263 horses-a roundup that Philipps attended as a reporter.
The BLM states that the Wyoming roundup was carried out at the request of private land owners and had nothing to do with horses eating too much or being in danger of starvation. Who made that request has not been made clear. A FOIA request sent to the BLM back in April seeking that information has still not received a response (as of today).
In her September 20 article, Ms. Sullivan, The New York Times Public Editor, notes disclosure lapses in several recent Times op-ed pieces and articles, quoting a reader who complains: "the NYT may be unwittingly aiding and abetting the very manipulations of public opinion and government policies that it publicly deplores." This claim could easily be made about Dave Philipps' fact-challenged, selectively reported, and lopsided article.
Editor's note: Both Ms. Sullivan and Mr. Philipps were asked, via e-mail, to comment on the claims in this article. They never responded. The New York Times corrections desk did not respond to the editors' request for corrections either.