Tuesday, December 7, 2010

My Response to My Outdoor Media Question

I’ve had so many great comments on my questions about the responsibility in media I think it is time for me to comment.

I think it is a safe assumption that a significant percentage of the audience for outdoor programming is NOT the hunting intelligentsia, but on the same thought line I believe it is very dangerous to make the assumption that the viewing audience is somehow intellectually challenged or lacks the benefits of higher education. For nearly 40 years I have watched, studied and researched our body of literature, and watched this trend of our better writers (broadcasting included) struggle with the insistence that the majority of hunters, shooters, anglers, et al. lack the formal education, or are somehow hampered with the lack of intellectual capacity to understand complex issues affecting the outdoors, or are incapable of grasping the nuance of fine literature.

When we analyze the writings of many of the anti-hunting authors a recurring theme is that the hunting/fishing/shooting community is populated by men and women generally lacking a high school diploma. These writers encourage their readers to believe that hunters/anglers/shooters lack the ability to exhibit compassion for wildlife and cannot grasp the ethical analysis of hunting/angling and the environment. When these writers attack hunting and hunters, angling and anglers, for proof of their assertions, they frequently reference our own media! They focus on broadcast programming’s excessively poor language, outrageous high-five behavior and fishing shows that depict casual indifference to fish being returned to the water—none of which are factual representations of the outdoor community—but they persist in our media because we allow them to.

I think an excellent exercise is to actually conduct a comparison between the housing/education/income statistics (discounting the present economic distress) and the audience statistics of Sportsman Network. There is a very interesting corollary between the data and it suggests that if we examine the characteristics of home ownership and then plug those characteristics into the characteristics of the Sportsman Network’s audience we’ll arrive at a result that proves that the greater percentage of men and women participating in hunting/fishing/shooting are better educated, and by extension better read, and have a much better grasp of the issues (political and scientific) surrounding the environment than the general population.

My question is why, when we consider all of the available information, do publishers, programmers, producers, media buyers, personalities, and even our industry and media leadership, insist on playing to the lowest perceived audience denominator and not to an actual, common denominator that would put forward a better image of anglers and hunters? Is it money? Is it fear of a vocal minority within the audience? Or, is it insecurity within themselves and their own hierarchy? I believe it is a combination of these factors.

Our industry, most certainly our media, must come to grips with the fact that this is not the middle of the last century when the chasm between the pro and con was so wide the actions of the antis were largely perceived as the mumblings of a disgruntled minority. The Silver Springs monkeys, Peter Singer, Edward Abby, Cleveland Amory and a handful of other activists were instrumental in refocusing national attention on our relationship to animals, and ultimately on hunting. By 1990, and into this decade, as tools of the media began to radically change at an increasingly faster pace, it is interesting to note that the outdoor media’s adoption of these tools has been slower than the anti-movement and at the same time, as a defensive measure akin to circling the wagons, the leadership of the varied arms of the outdoor industry (manufacturing, sales, management and media) with support from many of the individuals within those arms, began to insist on a Golden Age, or perhaps more commonly expressed as “the Good ‘ole Days” of the outdoors as having been the ideal before the interference of environmentalist and animal rights activists, often blurring the line between the actual role of the hunting community in establishing awareness of the need for environmentalism and the emergence of the extremists. If we want a date for this claimed interference perhaps the earliest would be 1949 and the publication of Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac (A Sand County Almanac; with essays on conservation from Round River), but a later date that is often popularly cited as the opening of the environmentalist movement is Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (Silent Spring), published in 1962. But, if we take the long look at our nation’s history of hunting and fishing we are forced to admit that the claimed “Golden Age” never existed except for a short time in post-colonial America. Neither the populations of the species nor the availability to the hunt by the general population existed in a combined condition that provided the conditions asserted in the Golden Age mythology. This is not to say that hunting, and excellent hunting, did not exist because it did, but it was not universally available throughout the population.

Another interesting, and often ignored truth, is in the alleged numbers of species that were exterminated or nearly so, in westward migration. Outside of a few well publicized species (buffalo, pronghorn, passenger pigeon, etc.), if you have read the journals of the Lewis & Clark expedition and not the “cleaned up” versions found in most libraries, the stunning truth is the expedition very nearly starved to death for lack of game! At one point Clark (I believe, perhaps Lewis) shot a doe deer and before he could reach the animal his starving men fell on it, and in their frenzied desperation for food ripped the carcass to pieces and devoured it raw! Yet, as recently as an outdoor writers’ conference in Columbus, Missouri an exhibit of the L&C expedition completely glossed over the expedition’s trials.

Except for a few familiar species most wildlife was scarce. Some anti-hunting literature argues that the colonial and post-colonial writers’ gushing about the presence of wildlife is proof that hunting has destroyed wildlife populations. These writers ignore the fact that these colonial writers were promoting interest in colonizing by poor Europeans, or in the post-colonial period to entice the stalled westward migration to begin moving. Another important argument, and one that is seldom heard, is that the presence of even a small population of game would be beyond the experience of most of the colonists, and in their enthusiasm would exaggerate the amount of game—a condition that still exists among those of us who are outdoor writers! Another rarely citied argument is that as civilization pushed into the wilderness the wildlife pushed deeper into the forest. The most common argument by the anti-hunting community maintains that America’s wildlife was completely plundered by market hunting and prior to that the landscape was teeming with wildlife. This is an assertion that is not unique to North America. Africa, Europe, Asia, they were presented as having vast number of ALL species. It is simply not true. There were vast herds of specific species (American bison, African wildebeest, etc.) and it is true that these herds suffered from the ravages of market hunting, but it was largely a pre-refrigeration phenomenon that corresponded to the transformation of social structure to urban areas to support industrialization. As refrigerated rail cars opened the possibilities of moving domestic meats to distant markets, whether in Africa or North America, the need for market hunting largely collapsed, although vestiges of it remained as species specific, although even this ended, first in North America and later in Africa.

The mythos of the Golden Age or good ‘ole Days is that there was a period in early to mid 20th century America in which game was universally abundant, a hand-shake sealed all bargains, neighbor trusted neighbor, land was generally open to hunting, the public eagerly supported hunting and nearly everyone hunted, and was a gun owner. All of these are false. Today, in fact, we live in a period of the greatest amount of hunting opportunity this nation has enjoyed since the brief post-colonial period. There are trouble spots and most of us know where they are, but if you are at least older than 55, and hunted in the 1950s and sixties, chances are you remember a time when finding a place to hunt was problematic, but today there are PLOTS, CRP and other lands open that were previously closed. The amount of game is staggering. Old timers here tell me that in the alleged “good ole’ days” they never saw a deer, grouse or partridge and now all are abundant. The Golden Age was a state of mind. Between 1835, which is the birth of what is today’s outdoor writing, and July 2, 1961, American outdoor writing reached its zenith and was a major part of the literary canon, but by the end of the Vietnam War that position had collapsed under the weight of changes in the social landscape, and rather than face these changes and deal with them our entire industry circled the wagons, giving the writers of the anti-hunting, anti-gun and animal rights movements the room they needed to assault public opinion.

My point is that every time a writer decides NOT to write a think piece on environmental issues, or puts an outdoor short story in a file drawer believing no outdoor magazine will publish it, or decides to simplify a text because the editors maintain the readers can’t understand it, or they don’t want to read something “that” complex, or a TV personality mixes metaphors, confuses verb tenses, talks like he/she flunked seventh grade English—three times, and does a sophomoric high five dance around a newly killed animal, the future of fishing and hunting are each cast that much further in doubt. There is no substitute for good writing and there is no justification for poor programming. Ironically, when we go back in the history of outdoor literature we discover that only a handful of decades ago excellence was the standard, mediocrity was not abided, and outdoor literature appeared in literature text books.

Interesting, isn’t it?



Albert A Rasch said...

Holy smokes Galen. (I didn't say smokes when I thought it.) I have to reread this again, and of course link to it over at the Chronicles. It's 0444 hours here in Afghanistan, and to say that you have upturned any number of my previously held convictions would be an understatement. Like I said, I need to get to bed, sleep, and come back to this tomorrow and reread it and comment.

Great stuff though, great stuff!

Best Regards,
Albert A Rasch
Spoons: They're Not Just for Cereal!

NorCal Cazadora said...

The education issue is an interesting one to parse. Here are some of the ways you can view the data in the 2006 National Survey by USFWS (tables on pages 65-66):

- A smaller percentage of hunters (14%) dropped out of high school than the population as a whole (15%).

- A larger percentage of hunters (39%) completed high school as their highest level of education than the population as a whole (34%).

- A smaller percentage of hunters (47%) have any college education (from mere attendance to advanced degrees) than the population as a whole (50%).

So, we are less college-educated as a whole, but have fewer high school dropouts.

The breakdown by types of game hunted (big game, small game, migratory bird) is fascinating. The most college-educated are the migratory bird hunters (59%). Big game hunters (think endless whitetail TV) are the least college-educated (45%).

Now, in my personal experience, I've found that hunters overwhelmingly come from professions that don't focus on or require high-level verbal skills - lots of engineers, entrepreneurs, tradespeople. This does not make them uneducated or stupid, but because of a widespread tendency to judge people by how articulate they are, they could easily be perceived as uneducated.

Galen Geer said...

Albert, you get a chance to mull it over?
If you have a chance send me your email address. I've got some friends in Afghanistan you might want to contact.


Galen Geer said...

Hi Holly,
I put a response on the blog because your observations prompted me to do some more thinking.

Albert A Rasch said...


Forgive me for not commenting sooner. We've been in the middle of a move, and for a week I've managed on little sleep and endless nights of truck and transport movements. I'll have to give all of this some thought so I can continue the discussion. One thing that did strike me though, was the increase in available land, but how much of this is near the population centers of the east and west coast? Something to look at.

Email: theraschoutdoorchronicles(at)MSN(dot)com

Best Regards,
Albert “Afghanus” Rasch
Albert Rasch In Afghanistan: She had Beautiful Green Eyes…