Reply by Peter Jennings. ABC. Concerning email on the "Call of the Wild Project" on the Idaho wolf controversy. 9-10-2002. With commentary by Ralph Maughan
To Whom it Does Concern,
I apologize for the rather formal salutation, but I do want to reply to
everyone who objected in some form to our broadcast, "The Call of the Wild,"
which was the first in our series, "In Search of America."
I notice that virtually all of the letters and e-mails come from people who
in one way or another describe themselves as associated with or identified
with " the wolf community." And some of you clearly heard about the program
but did not see it...
There appears to be strong sentiment that we should have gone into greater
detail about wolf reintroduction. With all due respect, that was never our
intention. Permit me to quote at some length what I said at the beginning of
the broadcast: "The role of the government has always been an issue in the
lives of free and independent people. In the beginning there were those
opposed to adopting the constitution because they thought it made the
federal government too powerful. They added a Bill of Rights to protect
individuals. This balancing act is still going on. Our story tonight unfolds
in the vast and beautiful countryside of the American West."
In short, this was a story about the power of government, of how a central
discussion to the Founding Fathers has played out in contemporary life. The
history of the wolf in the West, from eradication to reintroduction,
illustrates the evolving power of the federal government.
We were criticized for not stressing that there was support for
reintroduction in Idaho. This may be true, but it is also true that the body
politic of the state, responding to the wishes of the livestock industry,
was nearly unanimous in opposing reintroduction. And, in no way was the
federal government responding to the wishes of the people of Idaho when it
used the Endangered Species Act to conceive of the wolf reintroduction
I say again, our story was about government and the tension between the
State and federal levels. Some of you have written that we have a bias
against the exercise of federal power. That is simply not the case. We were
reporting on a reality of American life, that the federal government has the
upper hand in the balance of power with the states. Wolves would not be back
in the American West were this not true. We make no value judgment in this
Finally, it was stated by some that our broadcast "only fanned the flames of
discontent and tension." I agree that journalism does that sometimes, but I
do think that in this case the concern is greatly overstated.
Our experience in Idaho suggests to us that with the exception of some
extreme views on both sides of the issue, a compromise that reflects the
moderates on both sides is taking shape. Interestingly, as many of you know,
the Founders strived to create a system of government that much valued
I thank you for your time - and for your interest.
My views. Jennings is perhaps correct when he says the "body politic" of the state was opposed to wolf reintroduction, if he really means the political elite of the state, and then only if he means after the 1994 election. When the reintroduction was authorized in 1994, the State of Idaho was ready to co-manage the wolves with the federal government.
The November 1994 election changed the political leadership of the state, but hardly the opinion of the Idaho public about wolves, one way or the other.
Jennings writes, "There appears to be strong sentiment that we should have gone into greater detail about wolf reintroduction. With all due respect, that was never our intention."
If he had gone into the details of reintroduction, he would have found that Idaho elected officials sent quite different messages before and after the Nov. 1994 elections, when the reintroduction project was well underway. Jennings would have also found that two series of public meetings about wolves were held across Idaho in the years just prior to reintroduction, where the public could speak, and they did speak in favor of wolves. He would have found polling data showing the Idaho public divided, not almost unanimous against wolves.
Jennings' crew told us they wanted a balanced program. As far I as can tell, they merely used Idaho wolf supporters for the names of the most rascally ranchers. They interviewed them and discarded the interviews which didn't fit the way they wanted to frame the story -- the central government and national opinion versus the state.
Idaho has gained a bad reputation in recent years as a haven for anti-government extremists. My guess is, they thought they could come to Idaho and easily get some of that to fit into their frame. When they didn't really find it, they folded, snipped, and tore at the political picture until it did fit their frame.
Media framing is a concept that is increasingly researched by students of political communication.
The facts often don't speak for themselves, so the media puts the facts into a frame they think fits. Unfortunately, the frame can also distort the facts, especially when it simplifies too much. Television is especially prone to this because while it is an emotionally compelling medium, TV is very slow transmitting information. The number of words spoken on camera and told by the narrator in "Call of the Wild," would fill just one front page story in a newspaper. How many newspapers stories could you read in an hour? Jennings probably didn't want to report on the rural versus urban clash in Idaho because it not only didn't fit his frame, but 1-hour was too short for any deviation from the script.
Now to generalize. . .
Western environmentalists have to be careful dealing with major national media, especially network television.
While rural interests continue with "there's a "War on the West" rhetoric, my experience dating back 20 years is that non-Westerners come west time and time again, only to pass by every Westerner they see until they find a stereotype they learned as children watching TV Westerns themselves.
Rural interests have the war backward. In the real war on the West, one of enemy divisions has been the Eastern mass media who insist that the West must be a rural place with cowboy hats. This is not just wrong, the stereotype helps keep we Westerners poor and subservient to political elites who rule us by their manipulation of a mythological past -- politicians like Montana governor Judy Martz and Idaho US Senator Larry Craig.
. . . Ralph Maughan