Saturday, June 17, 2006

Report on PETA is Journalistic Malpractice

Tibor R. Machan

When recently Borders Bookstore refused to display the Danish cartoons that were deemed insulting to many Muslims who responded by going on a rampage, some people expressed the view that Borders was being cowardly. Borders management explained they properly didn’t chose to place members of their staff in harms way. So, Borders wasn’t being cowardly but justifiably prudent. It isn’t necessary for Borders to sacrifice some innocent employees for the sake of taking a stand. There could be better ways to show solidarity with champions of freedom of speech and artistic expression.

More recently some members of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) invaded a dinner where the pop star Beyonce Knowles was the host to various invited guests. PETA members “peppered the pop star with questions about her fur use,” reported the Associated Press. In the report AP gave a short characterization of PETA as “known for its untraditional methods of raising awareness about animal rights.”

Never mind for a moment about PETA’s agenda. Certainly, AP’s characterization of PETA’s way of bringing attention to it should not be described in the cowardly fashion of calling them “untraditional methods.” PETA has been guilty of assault, battery, trespass, and harassment against numerous famous individuals who refuse to accept PETA’s viewpoint. These are way beyond “untraditional methods.” They are frequently out and out criminal and AP is plainly mischaracterizing PETA when it refuses to say so. Unlike Muslim radicals, who are reasonably feared to go on a rampage and perpetrated violence against Borders’ employees, AP wasn’t in harms way from PETA. Its conduct is, therefore, pretty clearly cowardly.

But there is more. Using the expression “raising awareness about animal rights” is totally misleading, akin to writing about some group that they are invading people’s private parties in an effort of “raising awareness about ghosts.” There are no ghosts! There are no animal rights! AP might as well be writing its report as if the tooth fairy were something real.

Animals aren’t the type of living being that can have rights; AP and anyone else might as well come to terms with this fact. Rights are what human beings can and do have. That is because they are moral agents—living beings who after infancy begin to make choices in their lives, choices that can be morally commendable or blameworthy.

It is this fact that gives rise to the existence of rights in human community life. Choice brings on moral responsibility and rights provide the criteria by which people’s moral sphere of authority, their sovereignty, is spelled out and translated into law.

To say that animals have rights is like saying that animals have guilt, or moral and legal duties, or can engage in insult or commit murder; none of that makes any sense outside of imaginative fiction or fantasy (like that produced by Walt Disney and thousands of children’s book authors). At its best, talk of “animal rights” is moral hype. It involves claiming for animals something that is false so as to bring to light what could in fact be true, namely, that human beings often abuse them, treat them inhumanely. But it is utterly confusing to mistake the hype for truth.

When AP fails to put quotation marks around “animal rights,” it shows partisanship with PETA and is abandoning its journalistic position of the impartial reporter. In the incidence with Beyonce Knowles, AP did two things that demonstrate either carelessness of out and out bias. It downplayed PETA’s methods, perhaps because, as the AP report states, the organization “had previously attempted to reach Knowles through faxes, letters and rallies outside her concerts.” Ms. Knowles was clearly being victimized in ways that are reminiscent of the methods of the KKK and neo-Nazis, not of civilized advocacy groups and failing to indicate that involves biased, partisan reporting. PETA is a rogue group, frequently engaged in what comes very close to terrorism—attacks on innocent people with whom PETA disagrees and which disagreement is no justification for treating the likes of Ms. Knowles in their criminal fashion.

AP might have noted that by any standard of civilized conduct, PETA ought to straighten out its policies and confine itself to communicating via ”faxes, letters and [perhaps] rallies outside her concerts.” Invading a dinner to which no PETA members were invited and which PETA members attended on false pretenses should not garner this violent group favorable treatment from the Associated Press.

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