Friday, March 20, 2009

The son of an EEEVIL cattle baron shoots poor, defenseless dog

As you get to know me, you'll probably discover a few of my pet peeves. One is shoddy, biased journalism, which I believe is one reason people are abandoning large general-circulation newspapers in droves.

The latest exhibit is a story in today's Sacramento Bee about a rancher who shot a dog in El Dorado County. The local sheriff's department determined that the shooting was justified; it's legal for ranchers to shoot animals who are threatening their livestock.

But the lead sentence gave a telling clue of what the article was going to be like.

On his 23rd birthday, Greg Sutter held his best friend in his arms and watched him die.

Along with the story ran a submitted photo with the caption, "Greg Sutter with his best friend, Buddy." How heart-tugging can you get?

The article went on to pointedly note that the shooter was the "son of cattle baron Dan Russell". A cattle baron. Oooooh.

It seems the young man and his dog were walking on a rural hillside trail when the dog was shot. The shooter told authorities the dog was chasing his colt and wouldn't stop even after he called out, although the dog's owner disputes the rancher's story.

In the midst of talking to the dog owner, the dog owner's father, the dog owner's brother and two nearby dog-owning residents, the Bee got around to telling us that "efforts" to reach the rancher "were unsuccessful". What efforts? Did they call him? Did they go out to his ranch? Did they call his cattle baron father? Did someone go upstairs to the Bee's cafeteria at lunchtime and announce, "If anyone here is named Dan Russell, please raise your hand"?

One interesting tidbit comes in the 15th paragraph.

Sutter did not witness the shooting itself, according to the deputy's report [ ... ]

So he wasn't close enough to his dog to see him get shot, but he's sure the dog wasn't chasing a colt?

Look, maybe the rancher did overreact. And I have no general animosity toward the Bee, which hired me out of college as a news and sports correspondent 20 years ago.

But they had three reporters on this story -- a main writer, another writer and a researcher. They couldn't find anybody from the cattle baron family to talk to? They couldn't find anybody from the livestock industry or from UC-Davis to give some insight into dogs' behavior around other animals, or the importance of keeping a close eye on your dogs in the woods?

Heck, they could find somebody like "lowjake", who commented at the bottom of the story:

I grew up in the country and we had our beloved dog killed very like this, except that "Cinder" escaped and did what dogs naturally do, namely "run" cattle, horses, colts, etc. and he was shot. We were carelessly in the wrong, our dog was doing what would have killed the rancher's animals. We didn't pay for the birthing, feeding of, caring for, etc. this man's animals, but our dog was trying to kill his animals. Dogs, especially repeat visitors, get tuned unto "running" bovines, etc. We didn't see it even though it happened close by. The suburbanites are clearly in the wrong and too ignorant and careless of their responsibilities toward others to admit it.

Nope, apparently not. But they did have quotes from the dog owner calling it "straight up murder" and saying "I want this guy prosecuted."

Unfortunately, I've witnessed this kind of mentality at general-circ newspapers with my own eyes, not at the Bee but in other newsrooms. When you see someone go into a story with a preconceived point of view, it isn't hard to imagine the story you'll get. It's not new in journalism, and it probably isn't going away. It's just disappointing to see it apparently happening with more and more frequency at once-great newspapers like the Bee.

[Note: The views expressed in this post are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Capital Press as a whole.]

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