Monday, December 8, 2008

Man with a mission

Continued from Part 2 here.

Randy Travis, reporter for Fox5 "I-Team", self describes himself as someone "looking for examples of government waste, corruption, consumer fraud and anything else that I think you'll find interesting and important". His recent stories have mostly been covering local issues including a crooked swami (strangely named Dr. Commander), his indignation with the driver of a Mercedes SUV, taking the bus to work and some story about home stagers. He also seems to be on a roll covering animal abuse related stories, perhaps having discovered a journalistic niche worth exploiting.

One of Randy's most recent missions was to uncover the story behind the new management at Fulton County Animal Services. What prompted him to focus on FCAS can only be surmised but I don't think it would be too outrageous to guess that perhaps he heard some grumblings from the newly fired employees. So, with hidden camera in hand, Randy and the undercover I-Team set their sights on FCAS and Jere Alexander.

You can watch their report, all four parts, here, here, here and here..

So, did you watch it? Pretty damning isn't it? A woman with connections to Pit Bull fighting takes over a pound just full of Pit Bulls, and suddenly there are dog fights and dogs are dying; cats are disappearing; employees are bitten and then fired when they start to complain; there are dogs on chains; nasty dog owners are getting away with all sorts of shit and, to top it all off, her husband looks really, really big and frightening and quite possibly dangerous. Dang, she must be evil.

However, Randy left out a few things.

Let's dissect this piece of sublime reportage and fill in some of the missing pieces Randy and the I-Team somehow failed to mention.

We find out in Part 1 of Randy's report, that the recently fired kennel manager is Myles Swain. He holds up a dog bite he suffered while still working at FCAS and he is criticizing Jere Alexander's handling of the dog that bit him. It's almost understandable that with a dog biting him like that, and it was a big wound, he'd want revenge by having the dog put down immediately (it was put down within the week - not fast enough, I guess).

What Randy fails to mention in his report is that Myles Swain got his hand bitten while trying to break up a dog fight (Randy later admits this detail, when confronted with it, but only in his blog). One of the first things any dog owner learns, or should learn anyway, is that trying to break up a dog fight with one's bare hands is a risky prospect. People often get accidentally bitten by their own dogs when they are in such a frenzied state. You'd think that someone, like Myles Swain, with 27 years experience working in a dog pound would know that and would understand the risk to his unprotected hands.

Why would Randy neglect to mention those details? He uses Myles Swain's opinions extensively throughout the news report. Is it because he doesn't want the audience to question Myles' judgment or lack of it? Later, in his blog, Randy lets on that Myles had told him that he's been bitten hundreds of times in his 27 years on the job. Hundreds of times? Hmm. I'm not sure what that says about Myles' dog handling skills but nevertheless if getting bitten is such a common occurrence with Myles then what's the big deal here? Is it because Myles has a bone to pick with Jere over the timing of the execution? Is it because the dog wasn't put down quick enough for Myles' taste? Or is it because he was fired by Jere Alexander and now has an axe to grind?

The next segment shows some dogs chained up on what is allegedly Jere's property. This would be contravening a local anti-tethering law and Randy's message is that Jere is breaking a law she should be upholding, end of story. However, anti-tethering laws are highly controversial because in the minds of many people they don't make a lot of sense. I've discussed it in this post here, but, in short, the argument is that simply tying a dog up to a immoveable object doesn't necessarily do a dog any harm. It's all a matter of degree. How long is the dog tied up for? How is it treated otherwise? What are its options? Maybe the dog prefers to be outside during the day, on a tether, sleeping on the grass basking under the sun or under the shade of a tree instead of being locked up inside. Or maybe the dog is doing just fine being tied up in the yard instead of waiting execution in a kennel at the pound.

Just because something is written in law doesn't make it right. Slavery was written into law. Segregation as well. Sometimes laws do more harm than good and sometimes it takes brave individuals to oppose those laws. I don't know the real situation with those dogs allegedly tied up in Jere's backyard and I doubt Randy does either but I suspect that any dog cared for by Jere is a dog getting about as good as it's going to get.

Next is the business with the disappearing dog attack ticket. Looks like Randy's really caught Jere red handed here and with all her long pauses (carefully kept in the edit) and all her delaying tactics she's got to be guilty. She's got to be hiding something. She's got to be.

I love that shot (edited in) of Randy giving her the Randy stare down. He should patent that. Randy, here, sideswipes Jere by asking her about a leaked memo (hmm, leaked by whom I wonder?) she wrote telling someone on her staff to make a vicious dog bite ticket issued against the owners of the dog go away. It's a serious ticket as the dog has bitten some children. Once the camera finishes showing us Jere reading this memo, she basically tells Randy she can't comment on it because it's still under investigation.

Under normal circumstances, that should be enough. When you hear police on the news saying they can't comment on something because it's under investigation, you don't automatically assume the police are hiding something. You take them at their word. Randy, obviously, doesn't agree with that philosophy.

He also, apparently, doesn't agree with finishing off his stories. From Jere:

As for the vicious ticket - it finally went to court. I had said to make it go away because that charge requires a known propensity, and this dog didn't have any priors. Normally, we don't like to go to court without a case. Plus, all the sworn statements and bite reports disappeared with a rogue field officer who was canned. Also, the dog was already dead - shot at the scene - so there was no real point in terms of containing the dog. Yes, the situation was egregious (although the "children" were like 15), but I didn't see a point in ticketing the woman with the dead dog. When my boss learned of all this, he said we had to do something just to appease folks (always my kind of law enforcement) and so we re-issued the ticket. The woman didn't seem to realize that she'd probably be found innocent, because she plead guilty and was fined.

I guess this incidental piece of information didn't fit in with Randy's world view of how things should be. He totally leaves this out. Never mentions it. Even if he got this information after the initial broadcast, as a reporter, you'd think he'd perhaps mention this little bit of news. Nope. He's got Jere hanging at the end of a rope. Better for the ratings to just leave her there.

Let's move on. I'm not going to tackle every last second of this Swiss cheese-like news report but let's look at just a couple more issues Randy brings up.

In part 2, some undercover camera work shows an employee standing around as one dog is picking on another one. The employee does nothing, mentions something about "initiation". Later, Randy brings up "initiation" with Jere asking her if this is something she allows. Of course she says no. But, what is Randy trying to infer here? That Jere, because she likes Pit Bulls, secretly condones this aggressive behaviour? The only one at possible fault here is the do nothing employee who, if Randy's segment is to be believed, should be fired (and I think he was though I can't confirm this) just like Myles Swain was fired. Of course this would be good news for Randy because then it would give him one more person with an axe to grind against Jere whom he can interview.

In third part of the report, Randy brings up this thing about how Jere can't account for 80+ feral cats which were brought to the shelter. He mentions that the state Agriculture Department is doing an investigation into this (although Randy later admits in a very round about Randy way that the Agriculture Department's inspection found nothing wrong with the way FCAS was being run by BHVF). Ridiculously, this has lead some online commentators on Randy's blog to surmise that Jere had taken the cats away to be used as "bait" for Pit Bull fights.

Watch the online broadcast and then read Jere's response which again Randy and his I-Team failed to fully report:

And as to the cats - I'll say again what I've told the reporters: the feral cats were relocated. Some went to feral colonies and barnyards. Most were released near a priest's cabin in the mountains. The cats were supposed to have been spayed/neutered ahead of time, but we don't seem to have records of more than 14. (It's not a coincidence that many records have been altered and gone missing when certain employees were terminated from the shelter). Feral cats should not end up at the shelter in the first place, and we relied on volunteers to spay/neuter some of the cats, just like with rescues. Although our volunteers weren't licensed separately as a rescue - I thought it could be done as part of the shelter's own TNR program, and I thought the cats had been sterilized. And yes, the volunteers included my mother and another wonderful woman who has since passed away. Everyone had the best intentions and the cats are probably happier than if they were dead.

Contrary to what Randy and the I-Team may want people to believe, I'd say the only thing Jere Alexander is guilty of is doing a lousy on-camera interview. She's way too natural and by natural I don't mean she acts natural, I mean she is natural. She's behaving on camera the way most people would naturally behave when put on the spot with a TV camera in front of their face and a reporter asking difficult questions. She appears nervous. She fumbles her words and there are too many pauses and there's uncertainty. She needs to learn to be more slick, get her own professional make-up artist, maybe train with a professional actor or politician to work on the surface sheen to give us the sort of onscreen persona we've come to expect from TV personalities. She'll need these skills if she wants to face off against the likes of Randy Travis again.

But then that's unlikely to happen.

On November 2, because of mounting public outrage due to continued negative reporting from Randy and the I-Team, Jere Alexander resigns. She writes him this letter:

Dear Randy,

I resigned, and I want to thank you. I don't think I could have left the shelter right now but for this persecution, because I was helping animals, and I felt responsible for doing all I could to help. But all the shelter killing can't end right now, not with the limited resources we have, and I can't take any more killing. Your investigation has definitely brought a lot of information to light and helped me to make some hard decisions.

But you certainly didn't give me a fair shake. I'd love to talk about the terrible deeds of the employees who are lying to you. But I can't: it would've be unethical to discuss personnel matters on the news or the internet. I also can't explain the circumstances around a ticket that is still pending. Wish I could. But I did share with you that the email you had was part of a larger conversation: there was no shutting down of an investigation. That's why we can't discuss it yet. [Jere kept her word on this. The above details concerning this case weren't revealed until after the investigation was concluded].So you can draw your own conclusions, and so can the public, but I'm at a disadvantage in being held to ethical canons (and county contracts) that you are free to ignore.

I didn't ever claim to have all the answers, and I came into this job eager to learn. I have tons of transferable skills, worked my ass off, did the best job I could - and it was a damn good job. My "agenda" was always to be a no-kill (or, more accurately, high-save) shelter - for all breeds and non-breeds. If that's personal, so be it, but I'm not alone in that desire. I'm proud that I wasn't willing to accept old tired shelter philosophy and BS as gospel. Despite what you've reported, there are plenty of other people who have seen the positive changes, but you didn't talk to them. Any issues could and should have been worked out with the good of the animals in mind rather than hate.

It's BS to say that pit bulls are aggressive, or that they are more aggressive than other breeds. I used to think that there was something to that claim in terms of a higher prey drive toward other dogs (NOT people). But I was so wrong! After managing the shelter, with all kinds of dogs (not to mention knowing hundreds of pit bulls in the course of my research) I have realized that it just isn't true. That idea is just overblown compared to training, socialization, and perception. The number of dog injuries in the kennel was NOT higher after we took over and stopped killing all pit bulls. The information you are spewing is just not accurate. We also instituted 24 hour supervision, just to keep dogs safe, as we told you and as you neglected to report. As awful as it is, dogs are going to get hurt in shelters, whether we kill all the pit bulls or just most of them.

I also can't believe that the son of a UGA professor would so cavalierly dismiss scholarly research. Unlike you, I'm bound by IRB protocols: I can't hurt the people I "investigate." My research was so difficult - emotionally, legally and ethically, but that's why it's important! But I know it wouldn't be quite as salacious for you to mention all that in your story.

Finally, for you to say the story "is what it is" - is, um, crap. Obviously your story was slanted and edited to show the side you chose. Any sophisticated consumer of media knows that. And it's not even internally consistent (are pit bulls good or bad? are we saving them to hurt them?) All the massaging you did to that content to get some kind of story doesn't even work. Maybe you would do better as a storyteller than a news reporter. But obviously you need a line of work that allows you to punish people with impunity.

We can all disagree about pit bulls, on the impossibility of "objective" journalism, on ethics and law enforcement. The bottom line is that it's all quite a lot more complicated than you can show in the format of news media - but if you take it upon yourself to condemn, you should try and understand rather than going for the cheap thrill - not for my sake, but for the sake of the animals. My life will greatly improve as I step back and finish my dissertation so I can tell MY story (and it's a doosie).

But with this unnecessary and negative press, you really have hurt the animals and especially the poor pitties, and for that, you should be discredited. But I don't want any part of that. I'll continue to fight for animals and pit bulls and shelter reform everywhere.

Again, this letter remains unreported by Randy.

At the end of Randy's third installment, he humbly accepts the compliment from the broadcast's co-anchor that because of his news reports Jere Alexander is no longer at her job as Director of Fulton County Animal Services.

In the next post, we'll take a look at the on-line assault on Jere Alexander's character and job performance inspired by Randy's broadcasts.

Final part here.


Caveat said...

Wow. Thanks.

Media talking heads are out of control and their casualty list continues to grow.

They just assassinated one hell of a good character.

We need accountability in mainstream media - surely freedom of the press wasn't supposed to mean being able to skate no matter what lies are told.

Social Mange said...

Good investigative journalism, One Bark. Something obviously missing from most mainstream media nowadays.

House of the Discarded said...

Wow. I'm speechless, which isn't easy to do.

I'm sitting here wishing I could take Jere out to lunch and buy her a drink or something.

What a loss for Fulton Animal Services.