By: Tony Case
Say animal rights group hoodwinked the press and public
with a devious letters-to-the-editor campaign sp.
EDITORS AND CATTLEMEN have a beef with an animal rights group they say hoodwinked the press and the public with a devious letters-to-the-editor campaign.
The Bethesda, Md.-based Farm Animal Reform Movement (FARM) has, in recent months, put out its anti-meat message via correspondence ? most of it signed with bogus names and addresses ? that appeared in at least 60 newspapers.
The National Cattlemen’s Association (NCA) of Englewood, Colo., raised a stink after it caught wind of the scheme, accusing FARM’s representatives of posing as concerned neighborhood folk when, in fact, they were “radical activists.”
The group retaliated with its own newspaper mailing, urging editors to better verify the authorship of letters that “use scare tactics and emphasize emotion over science and logic when dealing with technical subjects.”
FARM boasted in a newsletter about the publicity it received, courtesy of some of the nation’s most esteemed newspapers.
The 12,000-member group, which counts the likes of entertainers Casey Kasem, Melissa Gilbert and Hayley Mills among its advisers, estimated that it reached as many as 5 million readers, “raising substantially public awareness of the destructive impact of animal agriculture.”
FARM cites U.S. government statistics and medical research findings to support the contention that eating meat is inhumane, unhealthy, even deadly. NCA, the American Society of Animal Science, and Maryland’s agriculture secretary have refuted many of the organization’s arguments.
FARM widely distributes literature and supports such public demonstrations as the Great American Meatout and World Farm Animals Day, but it called its letter-writing effort “the most cost-effective and generally available vehicle of presenting our message to millions. Most of us will never have any other opportunity to address this large an audience.”
The papers involved maintained they didn’t realize they were being used to disseminate the propaganda of a national organization. Several informed their readers in print they had been duped and apologized.
The Akron Beacon Journal admitted it had run, not one, but two of FARM’s letters.
“Because two people who don’t live in the Akron area have deceived us, we unwittingly allowed them to deceive you through letters of theirs that we published,” wrote associate editor David B. Cooper. “They are part of an animal organization with a political agenda that has played similar tricks on other newspapers.”
The Beacon Journal these days scrutinizes its mail much more carefully, Cooper related in an interview.
The editor believes FARM’s tactics may have damaged its cause, commenting that today he views the group’s claims “with a large grain of salt.”
Syracuse Herald-Journal editorial writer Kevin Hyland agreed, observing that the activists “hurt what they’re saying tremendously. I’m extremely more skeptical now of any animal rights letters.”
Kathy Bremner, letters editor of the Seattle Times, called the letters page “one of the few places where unconventional and nonmainstream ideas have a forum.”
She wondered why FARM, whose message she didn’t consider especially radical, resorted to such an approach.
In its mea culpa to readers, the Times noted the letter it ran linking obesity to meat consumption was seen in newspapers as far away as the East Coast.
There was one important difference ? while the content was the same, the authors varied from city to city.
The Seattle letter, penned by Tom Oliver, also appeared in the New York Times, which attributed the correspondence to Melvin Marks.
The Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Examiner, Columbus Dispatch and a dozen other papers printed letters by Marks ? and, in each instance, he was identified as a local.
Meanwhile, Oliver’s missive was published from Orlando to Omaha, and Melissa M. Snider’s correspondence was used by the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Philadelphia Inquirer and Phoenix Gazette.
New York Times deputy editorial page editor Phillip M. Bofey said he wasn’t aware the paper had been fooled.
The Marks letter, he related, was subject to the same checking process as any other incoming mail. Someone at the Times called the telephone number included on the correspondence, and a woman at the other end confirmed Marks lived at the address listed.
“If we have been deceived, I’m annoyed and I regret that it happened,” Bofey said. “If people are willing to outright lie to you on the phone, chances are you’ll be duped on occasion.”
Many letters were signed by FARM’s president, Alex Hershaft.
When contacted at his Bethesda office, Hershaft insisted his organization hadn’t deliberately deceived anyone.
FARM sent its membership a spate of sample letters that were intended only as guides, he explained. Individual members were supposed to rewrite the letters and sign their own names before mailing them to editors.
“We’re making sure in the future this doesn’t happen, because it’s been a little embarrassing,” Hershaft said. “We’re asking people to please put their names on them.”
NCA, which represents 230,000 cattle raisers nationally, contended it had nothing against FARM stating its case ? what it objected to was the spread of misinformation through dishonest means.
“Here they are,” NCA communications director Jamie Kaestner said of the ranchers, “trying to be part of the community, and they’re getting slammed by somebody pretending to be part of the community. If someone locally wants to start an open dialogue, fine, but this is obviously something that is not community-driven.”
Hershaft maintained NCA and its members were worried about the bottom line rather than the well-being of the populace.
The cattlemen were miffed over FARM’s successful letter campaign “because their financial interests are at heart,” he said. “We have the public’s health interests at heart.”