Media Follies
Blue Dog PressMay 17th, 2001
By Michael I. Niman

It’s going to be tough keeping the Media Follies rolling for the next few months.  Two weeks ago marked the end of TV Turnoff Week – a weeklong international exercise supported by the US Surgeon General, The American Academy of Pediatrics, and others.  The point is to celebrate TV-Free life while pointing out the dangers of TV addiction.  Last year I turned my set off for TV Turnoff week, saying goodbye to Mulder, Skully and Ted Koppel, and kept it off until late November, never missing the stinking vampire.

Being TV Free, however, makes it difficult to be a media critic.  Though I must admit, I never really watched much to begin with.  Usually, I’d just turn the set on at 11 and catch the “news,” which lasts all of about three minutes before breaking down into a mélange of pet stories and Video News Releases for new drugs or tires.  I’d laugh myself silly, take a few notes, and turn it off.  Being a media critic really isn’t that difficult given the quality of Buffalo broadcast media.

Last night it was WKBW TV's Susan Banks reporting on the horrors of horse butchering.  It seems horses are slaughtered for export, with those nasty Japanese providing the fastest growing market for the other red meat.  No doubt this is nasty stuff. 

Banks reported on how poorly the animals were treated, how they were forced to ride in crowded cattle cars, how they were kept in crowded cattle pens, auctioned off like cattle and finally slaughtered and butchered like cattle, with their meat sold abroad like beef. Do you see where this is going?  Banks is right.  These horses are horribly mistreated, before finally being killed, butchered and eaten.  Like cows. 

The whole point of the story is that it is wrong to treat horses like cows.  The lingering question, however, is why then is it ok to treat cows like cows?  Why are cattle cars ok for cattle but not horses?  It all seems a bit racist.  Years back I went to a fundraiser at UB to raise cash to protect ducks and geese.  We drank beer and ate chicken wings.  I was a mess.  My hands and face smeared in red sauce.  Bones and cartilage piled in front of me.  Conversations about the poor ducks continued unabated all around me.

 I guess we’re supposed to eat cows and chickens but not horses and ducks, except of course Peking Ducks, which once double fried and doused in a sweet pungent sauce, stop being ducks altogether and morph into some sort of amorphous “takeout.”

 At this point my mind starts to wander with my personal experiences with chickens and cows flashing before me.  In 1984, while working as a media consultant for the anti-nuclear Abalone Alliance in San Luis Obispo, California, I accompanied a group “backcountry” to the hills behind the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant as the ill-fated Rainbow Warrior, the Greenpeace flagship later sunk by French navy seals, put giant inflatable whales ashore at the waterfront power plant as a bizarre and somewhat useless form of protest.  With private PG&E security helicopters buzzing ahead I had to move smartly over the steep exposed hilly terrain.  My feet followed a series of crosscut trails up the hillside, eventually leading me to a bush where I could hide and observe the Rainbow Warrior.

 Grazing cattle, I later learned, cut the trails.  This was the first indication that I had, that contrary to what I’ve always been taught, cows think.  They also have a sense of humor.  As they approached my bush, I panicked.  I had only previously seen cows close up at the Bronx Zoo or dead, butchered into small pieces Ted Bundy style and shrink wrapped in supermarkets

 Perhaps they were bulls, as in bullfights, as in dead skewered matadors.  This could be bad.  I radioed to the Rainbow Warrior, unaware that my communications were broadcast over the PA onto a deck full of journalists.  “How do you tell the difference between a bull and a cow?”  They answered, “Bulls have horns.”  I looked at the cows.  At that moment the one closest to me mooed.  “Shit,” I proclaimed, “The motherfucker just honked at me!”  Funny cow.

 My chicken friends were a bit more hardcore.   They were cannibals.  My mind’s eye is still haunted with the image of a chicken wildly running by our house in Belize with a garbage picked chicken head hanging from its mouth.  About a dozen hungry chickens were in hot pursuit.  The chickens would wander around the entire village by day, always separating and finding their way back to their respective homes at night.  Like the cows, they too could think.  They would also eat anything, creating a perverse form of recycling turning human waste into human food, getting the last laugh at the expense of those who would soon murder and eat them.

 Then there’s the pond duck story, gleaned as I chowed down on a former pet goat at a hobo camp in Minnesota.  But I won’t get into that here.  You’ll have to buy or borrow (as in replace your TV with a library card) my book, People of the Rainbow, (University of Tennessee Press) for the pond duck story. How’s that for shameless self-promotion?  We bury ads in the middle of TV programs.  Why not articles?

 My point, finally, is that there is little difference between eating chickens and cows, or eating cute ducks and horses.  The difference is cultural.  TV inundates us with carefully crafted mouthwatering animations of juicy fast food burgers.  At the same time Susan Banks brings us an endless gaggle of cute fuzzy animal stories.  The contradictions are glaring to a thinking mind, but invisible to one numbed by TV.  A horse is a pet and a cow is food.  End of story.

 By turning off our TVs we are cutting the umbilical cord to one of the preeminent mediums for defining American norms and mores.   It could be discomforting.  Cows are cute with their big “cow eyes.”  Pigs are real smart.  I eat them both.  Yet, like you, I also feel pain in my heart as Susan brings us yet another tail of hungry abused kittens.  I guess we could all use a few months to sort things out.



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