This article originally appeared on The Daily Pitchfork.
Today's post is by Wayne Hsiung, co-founder of Direct Action Everywhere (DxE). DxE acquired undercover footage of Petaluma Farms, a cage-free, organic, and Certified Humane farm sourcing eggs to Whole Foods. The New York Times covered the undercover investigation, but, as Hsiung explains, it did so inaccurately.
When deciding where to pitch our investigation, we faced a question: do we go with Big Media publications that have a history of defending Whole Foods, and extensive ties with the company? Or do we shoot for a smaller outlet that might be more sympathetic to our message? Our press advisors resoundingly recommended the former route, as the reach and prestige of a flagship outlet such as The New York Times would be a huge victory for our network - and for the message that we are trying to get out.
But there were a number of problems with the Times' coverage by Sabrina Tavernise and Stephanie Strom, which prominent food writer James McWilliams described as "deeply skewed," that deserve a response. Indeed, there was a basic failure of the journalistic process, including refusal to consider incriminating documents, blatant misquotes, and massive over-representation of industry perspectives, that should remind us that, while Big Media gives us an opening, it's up to us to deliver a truthful message.
The Times made, or amplified, flatly false factual statements, and used fabricated quotes to do so.
The industry's main contention is that the video is not representative of the general conditions in the farm - and by extension, other humane suppliers. Steve Mahrt, for example, claims in the article that only "three chickens" were found in distress. The Times quotes Marht on this approvingly, linking within the quote (something I have never seen before in over 20 years reading the Times) to a propaganda video (link now dead) from the farm showing fraudulently idyllic conditions.
Mr. Mahrt said the video produced by Direct Action Everywhere "isn't anywhere indicative of our operation - they had to go through 15 barns off and on over a year to find three chickens they could use to make their point in this video."
The Times then moves on to me for a response.
For his part, Mr. Hsiung said Direct Action Everywhere had found dozens of chickens in poor condition but had highlighted only a few in the video.
The reader is left to puzzle. If we found dozens of hens in poor condition, why did we highlight "only a few" in the video? Our work - and the challenge to Whole Foods - is immediately discredited. Contrary to the Times' reporting, the first few seconds of our video demonstrate dozens of hens in crowded, filthy conditions.
Of course, if you've seen our video, you're probably laughing. Indeed, this was the incredulous reaction of a (conservative, non-animal-loving) professor of law at the University of Chicago I shared the coverage with: The New York Times' focus on the issue was ridiculous given that far more than three animals are shown in the video's first 30 seconds. Moreover, we provided the Times with dozens of photos of sick and distressed animals, and documents from the farm itself proving that far more animals were dying every single day. (I suppose in the Times' world, a brutal death is not a "poor condition"?)
But here's the problem: the article didn't initially link to the video (or even provide a photo). Brian Burns and I badgered the Times all day, but it wasn't until almost a full day after the article was posted - and all the viewers had already passed through the site - that the link was finally included in the article.
That's right. In coverage of an investigatory video exposing animal cruelty, the Times refused to post the video of the investigation, but did post (embedded within a direct quote) the response video by a known industry shill.
What in heaven's name is going on?
It gets worse, though. Suppose the Times just felt the need to quote "both sides" and made an inadvertent error in failing to include the video initially. At least they gave us a chance to respond, right? And I got the chance to explain our video?
Wrong. Because the quote attributed to me - that we highlighted only a few hens in the video - was fabricated. Indeed, the Times sent me that exact statement, asking if it was accurate, and I rejected it. I wrote in response:
We personally witnessed hundreds of animals in extreme distress over the course of the investigation. (By implication, thousands more were similarly afflicted.) And all of the animals were suffering from the crowding and poor conditions inside the facility, even if they were not suffering from an immediate medical emergency.
The reporter wrote back "thanks wayne" as if to confirm the correction, but somehow the original misquote - saying that we highlighted "only a few" - ended up in the final article. Unbelievable.
Another line of reasoning used by industry to argue that our footage was not representative was that the footage was not from the "organic" barns. But as anyone who has a passing understanding of industry certification would know - and as we explained to the Times - organic has nothing to do with certified humane status, and no welfare requirements beyond giving animals "access" to the outdoors. Michael Pollan (who unlike the Times called our investigation a "black eye" for industry) has pointed out that "access" can be something as simple as a tiny window through which the animals never even pass. And in this case, the farm had a permanent exemption to even this trivial requirement because of the alleged threat of avian flu. In short, the organic designation has no relevance to any of the abusive conditions we found. We further pointed out to the Times that there was absolutely no external distinction drawn between organic and non-organic barns, and that we visited most of the barns on the facility - and drew footage from virtually all of our visits for the video. The Times failed to include any of this in their story.
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