Forget Liberal Bias. There’s a More Worrisome Threat Underlying BigMedia’s Attack on Antibiotics and Modern Farming
“There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” – Willa Cather, 1913
Haters of CBS News anchor Katie Couric were handed one more reason to cry liberal bias when the network devoted nearly a quarter hour last week to an investigative series on the next “Ticking Time Bomb:” Antibiotics in American livestock and poultry.
“…as with the ABC News “Nightline” piece two weeks ago [which was critical of modern dairy farming],” wrote Dairy Herd Management magazine editor Tom Quaife the morning after Part 1 of CBS’ antibiotics expose, for instance, “you have to look for the hidden clues of media bias. Certainly, Katie Couric’s liberal use of the term ‘factory farm’ is one such clue.”
“That's what happens when you give a liberal that no one likes (and possibly doesn't like herself) a camera crew and microphone…” an anonymous poster to an Indiana grain marketing website said of her antibiotics report.
'The danger commercial farming faces isn’t the FDS-scented Progressivism America’s Attack Poodle brings into nearly every CBS report'
But agriculture hasn’t caught on yet to the fact that Couric’s politics are only the sideshow, a distraction from the real issue. The real danger commercial farming faces isn’t the FDS-scented Progressivism that America’s Attack Poodle undeniably brings into nearly every one of her CBS reports. History (and the broadcast networks’ plummeting share of the news market) teaches us the public quickly builds immunity to that. There’s a much bigger challenge agriculture faces in responding effectively. This new threat--which is in fact an old, old one--was betrayed by what Couric said in a phone interview reported by Orlando Sentinel TV critic Hal Boedeker: “I’m having a ball…,” she told Boedeker. “All I think about is doing the best broadcast every night. It sounds like Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney: Let’s put on a show.”
The show that never stops
Some show. Better still, some story. An ancient tale, woven deftly, effectively and seamlessly in pictures and sounds, in plot and characterization. In accidentally revealing her real underlying loyalties, not to the politics of the Left, but to the politics of the fable, Katie has invited us to look inside the structure, delivery and ultimate purpose of BigMedia's attack on feeding antibiotics, a farming practice that’s gone on uneventfully for more than half a century, poses less risk to the health of the public than eating a bowl of chips while you sit in front of the Evening News every night, and is arguably the most heavily regulated modern animal farming practice.
Tales that used to begin “Once upon a time…” now start, “From CBS News World Headquarters in New York, this is the CBS Evening News, with Katie Couric.” An entire body of scholarship reaching back to the dawn of the broadcast television era has attempted to explain how the structure of the world’s most popular medium affects its meaning. And the best way to understand that message, according to one of the leading thinkers in the discipline, the late London School of Economics and Political Science Professor Roger Silverstone, is to look at today’s television programming as the new myth. It meets the same needs today that the poet bard Homer did for ancient Greece. By the structure of its tales, television helps explain to the masses the daily experience in ways people can grasp quickly and comprehend deeply—if only by emotion. Silverstone and others view television as not simply entertainment, but as rich myth-making. And it’s myth-making that’s active not only in TV drama, but in broadcast news, as well. He wrote:
“Television is a central cultural institution of our society. The forms of that communication are themselves basic… [T]hey consist in the mythic narratives, part myth, part folktale, and in magic and ritual. Television is not sacred…. But the emotions and power of the sacred are preserved.... Television’s effectiveness consists in its ability to translate the unfamiliar into the familiar and to provide frameworks for making sense of the unintelligible.”
Once you know what to look for, those mythic, folktale elements are apparent in Katie’s story on antibiotics, as it is in much reporting on modern agriculture. Let’s look at the elements of this modern Fractured Fairy Tale.
All the right characters
In 1928, Russian linguist Vladimir Propp published Morphology of the Folk Tale, the now-classic deconstruction of how informal folk and fairy tales structured their plots and built their characters around them. Translated into English in the ‘50s, it transformed how American and European scholars came to understand both the structure and, more importantly, the underlying meaning and purpose of tales that although they were generally passed orally, without rules and restrictions, appeared to nevertheless maintain a structure and formula which changed little over the centuries. Though Propp has been challenged by others since, his 31 folktale plot elements and seven character roles can be seen repeating themselves over and over in today’s mass-media story-telling, both in print and broadcast. In Katie’s telling of the farm antibiotics tale through creative source selection (and equally creative disregard) and some deft editing, we see Propp’s fairy tale characters play out their roles to a tee:
The Villian. The shadowy “Factory Farmers” Katie breathlessly bespeaks five times over a three-minute segment of the story—underscored by images of barred entries, grim rows of cold metal gulags, dead pigs, and animals and birds packed behind bars—couldn’t fit Propp’s description of the folktale villain more perfectly than if they were made up. They’re never effectively identified as an individual person—in most cases because they refused, like the Arkansas Pilgrim’s Pride plant accused of infecting workers with the drug-resistant skin disease Methicillin-Resistant Staph Aureus (MRSA), to be active participants in their villianization by cooperating with the storytellers. But the underlying threat of the Factory Farm villain pervades the story from the opening title:
They threaten the story’s hero with imminent, shadowy danger… a “Ticking Time Bomb” (despite a half century of antibiotic use in agriculture).
They pose an unrealized threat to the health of anybody who eats—never mind the large body of scientific research, completely ignored by the CBS tale, showing no one has ever suffered a case of untreatable disease from eating food from animals treated with antibiotics.
They evilly deprive the tale’s villagers (you and me, that is) of magical properties—another hallmark of Propp’s classic villain character—magical properties somehow passed through animals raised without antibiotics, in fresh air, faces raised to the sun, eating “good feed” (which, from the description, apparently differs little from what the villains feed). This all passes unchallenged by any mention of the fact there’s no meaningful objective evidence to demonstrate those farming practices mean better health for consumers. That “lack” as Propp called it, is a hallmark trait to almost all fairy tales. An aching emptiness caused by an unnatural separation from the natural world, it sets the hero off on a quest in every fairy tale. Is there any better description of the modern public’s often inexplicable longing for the mystical community and individual healing properties of “local food?”
The Donor and the Magical Helper. These important characters help the tale’s hero by moving him along in his quest, often by providing elements granting magical powers. Seen in that light, it should come as no surprise the attempts at introducing science in Katie’s tale never really discuss the scientific basis of the arguments, as any scientist would understand it, anyway. (The closest being her citation of two studies: One, a University of Iowa survey of hog farms that, Katie tells us, found a new strain of MRSA in 70 percent of hogs and 64 percent of workers, all of which used antibiotics, and no MRSA on antibiotic-free farms. What she neglected to explain, though, was the study based its conclusions on a tiny sample of 300 hogs and only six antibiotic-free farms, and that some of the farms that used antibiotics were inexplicably completely free of MRSA. “Our data do not allow us,” the study’s own authors wrote, “to speculate on the relationship between antimicrobial use and MRSA carriage.” Two, a Danish study that tried to connect the introduction of the antibiotics known as fluoroquinolones in animals to outbreaks of fluroquinolone-resistant human Campylobacter shortly after. And again, what the storyteller leaves out is the fact these were not “common” antibiotics used in feed—in fact, in this country they require a prescription. And, the study says nothing about a whole host of other factors, including human use of those drugs, that are most likely causing the increase.)
Instead, the scientific elements that are introduced into in the Ticking Time Bomb become simply props in the hands of the Donor and Magical Helper characters, magic wands they wave across the screen to empower their hero against evil. How else to explain why CBS chose characters like Pew Charitable Trusts Health and Human Services managing director Shelley Hearne, who according to Katie “has studied the health effects of factory farming for 25 years” (at which time the average hog farm housed only a decidedly unfactory-like 167 to 214 hogs), despite never having authored a significant scientific journal article on the subject of antibiotics? A classic magical helper character in this tale, Hearne waves (literally) her magical pronouncements over Katie that these dangerous elements “can be in waters that runoff in a farm,” (perhaps, but they're quickly killed by modern farms' standard waste-handling systems and pose infinitesimally small risk to anyone short of somebody swimming in manure lagoons), or “they could be in the air,” (contrary to the evidence provided by those who do the real science. “Bacteria simply do not fly through the air and cause human infection,” says veterinarian Rich Carnevale, vice president of scientific, regulatory and international affairs for Washington’s Animal Health Institute.)
Others like principal FDA deputy commissioner Joshua Sharfstein and Danish scientist Frank Aaerstrup similarly pronounce their support for thwarting the Factory Farmers’ evil practice, without being troubled by Katie to explain any details of any science. Meanwhile, the numerous, equally credentialed voices questioning those conclusions are never let into the tale, silenced by CBS, we can only assume, because their magic might call into doubt our hero’s magic.
The Dispatcher. Like the previous two, this character helps move the hero along in his quest by identifying what Propp called "the lack,” an empty need that only the hero’s quest can fill. In Katie’s story, this role stars Johns Hopkins University’s “Center for a Livable Future” advising professor Ellen Silbergeld, who authored a 2008 report for Hearne’s PEW foundation that supported ending many uses of farm antibiotics--and ignored much of the same opposition science Katie ignored. Silbergeld has a long history of opposing antibiotic use, and not just because she believes it’s bad for the environment and human health. Apparently Silbergeld also holds the belief America would be better served by a return to the nostalgic agriculture of her childhood, in which everybody, city and country, kept a milk cow and few chickens in her backyard.
“I think we need to blow up this system,” Silbergeld once said of her desire to abolish the U.S. food regulatory system that, to her, seems overly accommodating of farms that are simply too big by her standard.
"I think the Danish and European experience indicate that there will be real and measurable public health benefits," she tells Katie, sending her off on the quest to abolish the use of antibiotics and, by extension, the factory farm system it supports. Incidentally, that would be the Danish experience in which, despite banning a decade ago most of the antibiotic uses Silbergeld objects to in the United States, farms there have similar levels of MRSA in their livestock herds, they are struggling with a major outbreak of human MRSA, and the amount of human drug-resistant Salmonella increased after its antibiotic ban—and was blamed on the very ban she supports by the World Health Organization.
The Princess. Propp was more concerned with the plot role characters play than their appearance and physical characteristics. Thus, he was careful to note that the princess character in fairy tales wasn’t always literally a princess. The princess character is any character that acts as victim to the villain, powerless, the character whose affections the hero earns through his struggle. In that sense, the opening of Katie’s tale (where, not coincidentally, we usually find princesses in fairy tales) is thick with princesses, male and female.
The CBS story opens with a weeping poultry plant worker named Bill Reeves, followed with a flash-by series of four additional nameless poultry-plant MRSA victims, all of whom protest their victimization at the hands of Pilgrim’s Pride’s flesh-eating, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, minus any interjection by Katie that science shows animal and human strains of MRSA are different bugs and, therefore, the workers were more likely to have been victimized by the local medical system than by the poultry plant where they worked. Their characteristic powerlessness is subliminally and (shamelessly) underscored by the plaintive underlying music, their rural setting, their southern accents, their dress, their dentistry.
The False Hero. Propp’s False Hero character type--one who attempts to lay claim to the hero’s actions and steal the affections of the rescued princess--is played in CBS’ tale by the representatives of conventional agriculture. Through creative editing and more careful non-inclusion of sources, Katie’s fable advances the plot through the false hero of Liz Wagstrom, National Pork Board veterinarian. Wagstrom reassures Katie banning antibiotics here as Denmark did would only punish the consumers she’s trying to save—punish them by increasing the cost of their pork by a meager 5 cents a pound. Meanwhile, what Katie ignores is Wagstrom’s caution that Denmark killed more pigs even as it increased the amount of medicines important to human medicine by two-thirds, because veterinarians were forced to prescribe them to treat sick pigs.
Similarly, Katie’s sole venture into the belly of the beast to interview the Pork Board’s chosen Factory Farm representative, Iowa pig farmer Dave Kronlage, dwells solely on the cost of food (and specifically Kronlage’s profit), while ignoring any discussion of the body of scientific literature that shows medicated farm animals produce safer food by helping hold down natural human-threatening disease levels—in both Factory Farm and non-Factory Farm—and that banning them would likely cause more humans to be sicker for longer than now suffer from antibiotic resistant bacteria, according to research by Iowa State veterinary epidemiologist Scott Hurd and others. Kronlage’s not really medicating pigs because it’s better for the animals, the False Hero winds up communicating, but because healthier pigs make him a buck.
The Hero. And naturally, the hero in this tale? Katie herself. Just as her villain does, Katie fits all the character roles of Propp’s traditional fairy tale hero. She’s a (wo)man of the people, so common no one need speak her last name: Just Plain Katie. She appears disguised as a commoner, cloaked in the words and garb of the people to travel unrecognized among those she’ll humbly serve. Urged on by the Dispatcher, gifted with magical defense by the Donor and Magical Helpers, she leaves the comforts of home to set out on her quest, to Denmark (the land that gave us the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale), even to the distant hinterlands of Iowa, and Oklahoma. There, she defeats the villain, rescuesg the princess victims of villainous Factory Farming and grants absolution to antibiotic-free turkey farming convert Duane Koch, who has magically succeeded in doing what no others could: absorbing the costly loss of antibiotics without spending more than “very little,” (tell that to the four in five Danish pig farmers who will have exited farming between the ban and the year 2015), while making more profit, and while providing magic antibiotic-free turkey thighs to consumers for what appears to about half the national average.
"Does it make you feel better doing it this way?" Katie counsels. And won’t we all live happily ever after?
Why does it work?
It’s easy to dismiss BigMedia's myth-making as “just entertainment.” But consider that despite better science, despite a long history of using antibiotics with no real adverse consequences, despite the demonstrable downside of banning their use, agriculture can never quite seem to get on top of the antibiotics slander. There’s a reason. Fairy tales serve their purpose, and they serve it effectively.
For millennia, folk tales have met a critical need in society, helping people cope with issues that are often too big, too deep and too dark for us to gaze upon directly. Try as we might to pretend we’ve outgrown the need for them, that we’re a little too smart to fall for fairy tales, the fact that millions of e-mails circulate daily about gang-initiate rapists hiding in unsuspecting women’s backseats at filling stations, or promises that every time you forward a message [fill in company name here] will donate [fill in amount here] to help a baby boy [or girl] obtain a needed [fill in organ here] transplant bespeaks otherwise. As TV scholar John Fiske wrote of our ancient need to believe that’s found its way into television, “In such an explanation of Propp’s structure, the struggle between the hero and villain is a metaphorical transformation of that between the forces of order and disorder, good and evil, culture and nature.” Silverstone agreed: The only difference between TV and the ancient fire-side talebearer was one of technology.
For a populace "suspicious of complexity," as New York Times columnist Charles Blow disdainfully dismisses the common man’s criticism of the current political administration which Katie fawns over, TV permits us to examine the painful issues that may be too difficult without cloak of myth. It’s no accident CBS in its pre-broadcast memo to affiliate stations was heavily promoting local-color stories that connected antibiotic dangers with risks to children through the school lunch program. Children die every day and they die from their food--whether through lack of it, too much of, or contamination of it. And each and every one is a tragedy for those closest to it of almost unbearable dimension. The antibiotics/local food/wholesome children’s food fairy tale is too welcome as a means to explain that unexplainable. Thus its power.
Says University of Michigan media and culture professor Paddy Scannell of Silverstone’s interpretation, “This role was a new incarnation of something very old, as old perhaps as human societies and their cultures. Myth was central to human societies as a mediating device for the management of the implacable realities of life in all its unpredictable, uncontrollable strangeness…. It brought order to chaos through the formal structures of language and narrative. There is a palpable sense, in all Silverstone’s thought, of the fragility of the ordinary, orderly character of the world. Beneath the light surface of things lies darkness and disorder.”
Or as Reeves, the poultry worker who one day woke up with MRSA blamed on the poultry antibiotics, told Katie, “You go from a just regular day to knowing you may die in a couple of hours.”
'Agriculture mobilized prior to the CBS story to gather, analyze, massage, message and provide facts and science. Yet productive, technical agriculture lost'
If having the luxury of watching a tale in which a hero, good and pure, defeats a villain and prevents that kind of inexplicable, senseless loss in the process--plus it only costs you a nickel more per pound of meat--who the hell couldn’t root for that? Today’s commercial agriculture is being slowly strangled, starved of oxygen to continue to do what it does best, not because it lacks science, because it has no facts. Those are easy to find for anyone willing to read more than the abstract of scientific studies or the university press release or the activist blog site. A literal army of minds and bodies mobilized preliminary to the CBS story to gather, analyze, massage, message and provide those facts, science and spokespeople to the storytellers.
And yet, productive, technical—innocent—agriculture lost in its round with CBS.
Agriculture has the science. What it doesn’t have—or at least, is fast losing—is authenticity. Katie and her characters may be mythical, their accusations not real, but they are nonetheless authentic. Believable through characterization. Cautiously worded, lawyerly talking points delivered by well-credentialled talking heads with no felt passion and none of the character traits we're taught to trust even before we can speak are as powerless against them as a house of straw.
As Hemingway noted, the things a storyteller knows and drops from his story form the hidden portion of the iceberg, deadly, substantial and belying the insubstantial part above. The parts he drops because he doesn’t know them, they make a glaring hole in the story. Until agriculture gives at least as much attention to finding and highlighting characters with the humility, simplicity, naiveté and untaintedness that makes them natural, authentic heroes in the modern fable of feeding a hungry world, until animal agriculture learns to tell our tale in stories that can meet those purposes, Katie’s going to have the stage.
Ready? In five, four, three....
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