Journalistic Downer

A KIRO-TV food-safety investigation merely exposes deficient reporting and vacuous alarm.

LAST OCT. 31, KIRO-TV took to the air in the five o'clock hour with journalistic cannons blazing. The station had a big story, a "dirty secret, one the beef industry doesn't want you to knowsick, injured, or dying cows turned into hamburger," as the station's promotional voiceover put it. It was the first night of fall "sweeps," the most-important ratings month of the year, and KIRO investigative reporter Chris Halsne was going after the beef industry for its use of so-called "downer" cows. Downers are cattle usually too broken down to walk into a slaughterhouse on their own. "Are federal inspectors just standing by?" the voiceover asked, before telling viewers that the station was about to reveal "undercover video raising questions about your family's safety."

Moments later, veteran anchor Steve Raible was telling viewers that the video Halsne was about to show was disturbing, but "we want you to see it for the health and safety of your family." Co-anchor Kristy Lee warned the audience that the images were too unsettling for children and pointed out that Halsne had been working undercover for six months. Then they turned to Halsne, who was live in front of an apparently healthy cow on a Monroe farm. But what, Halsne asked, "about a sick or ill one ending up on your plate?" Over two days, in a four-segment series, Halsne connected downers with e. coli bacteria, reported that downers were handled inhumanely, and said the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) was asleep.

Halsne's assertions, however, don't prove out, despite the fact Halsne is an experienced, award-winning "investigative" reporter. What viewers got instead of evidence was journalistic sleight-of-hand, with half-truths over-sold as full-truths and chains of causation unproven. Simply put, Halsne didn't have the evidence to support his broad claims. He either hadn't done the reporting necessary, or he chose to ignore facts he did uncover. As a result, the series was unvarnished advocacy, a couple of steps removed from Jayson Blair-style fabrication.

Predictably enough, the state's beef and dairy industries had a cow. They aren't suing KIRO, but along with the Chehalis slaughterhouse shown on the series, they have brought a complaint before the Washington News Council, the state's unofficial journalism police. The industry accuses KIRO of factual inaccuracies and flawed journalism. They are rightand it won't be the first time Halsne's lack of attention to proof and detail has gotten him in trouble. But it's even worse than that: It's an indictment of KIRO's news management, who should have been bird-dogging Halsne's work and clearly were not.

THERE'S A SIMPLE STANDARD that underlies investigative reporting. "You've got to prove it," says Jim Upshaw, a professor of journalism at the University of Oregon, who viewed a tape of the KIRO series. He says that KIRO didn't. Proof in journalism usually involves documents or videotaped evidence. Yet, as indicting as documents and video can seem at first blush, careful practitioners of the craft run their evidence by real experts, especially on stories like Halsne's, which involved matters of science and animal physiology.

Within moments of introducing viewers to the idea that downers are unsafe, Halsne implicitly introduced them to the idea that they are also sources of e. coli O175:H7, the sometimes-lethal strain of the bacteria that can enter the human food chain. His on-camera expert on this point was Gaylis Linville, "a consumer expert of sorts" whose son almost died of e. coli poisoning from tainted meat in the early 1990s. She gave a fine emotional response to seeing a downer cow on-screen. Halsne doesn't say whether her son's illness was as a result of exposure to downer meat. Linville was unavailable to explain what training she has to evaluate e. coli, but it strikes one television expert as odd that Halsne would turn to her instead of a scientist, which one can easily find at the University of Washington's medical or public-health schools.

"There's no connection between the woman and the problem," says Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute, a media think tank, who reviewed the KIRO story. "The main question is health and safety. Are downer cattle unhealthy and unsafe for me and my family? The questions raised in the promo and the implications are not answered in the story. 'Dirty secret'? There's no proof of that."

Halsne and KIRO's news director, Helen Swenson, did not return repeated requests for comment to clarify this and other points raised by the series.

Thomas Besser, an associate professor of veterinary microbiology and pathology at Washington State University, has studied e. coli in livestock since 1990. He's just the kind of source a careful investigative reporter would want to talk to. Besser says there are no scientific studies indicating a higher incidence of e. coli in downer cattle than in regular cattle.

Next, Halsne showed an interview with Lester Friedlander, a veterinarian from Pennsylvania who used to work for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service. He said that Halsne's undercover video showing a cow being dragged through some manure represented an excellent source of fecal contamination and that, if it were up to him, all downer cows would be excluded from the food supply. Halsne didn't tell viewers that, since leaving the USDA in 1995, Friedlander has done a fair amount of advocacy for animal-rights groups. More important, he never offered any proof that the cattle he videotaped were contaminated or evidence that Midway Meats, the Chehalis company, had a track record of e. coli outbreaks. (The company's record is clean on that count, according to the USDA.) Besser says that e. coli is not necessarily present in manure, and studies indicate that e. coli can come from other sources. Halsne was floating e. coli as a relevant concern, without relevant evidence.

Halsne did state that the USDA considers downers safe for consumption as long as their meat passes a two-point USDA inspection at the slaughterhouse. But throughout his series, he alleged or implied that USDA inspectors weren't present at Midway Meats. According to meat-industry experts, including USDA officials and the state of Washington's veterinarian, who viewed the tape, that claim is bogus. There were USDA inspectors present. In fact, you could see them in Halsne's undercover video. They were the men in the white lab coats wearing white hard hats.

But Halsne never showed the tape to the USDA. He spoke with the agency during his investigation, according to Andrea McNally, a USDA spokeswoman, but he would only show them the tape if he could capture on camera the instant response of USDA officials viewing the tape. The USDA wanted a chance to review Halsne's evidence at length and then provide a response. Halsne refused. On the air, Halsne made it sound as if the USDA had stonewalled him.

What's more, the USDA asked Halsne to tell them where he had uncovered a potentially unsafe slaughterhouse, so they could investigate. Halsne wouldn't tell them until mid-October. The USDA promptly investigated and found nothing the matter at Midway Meats.

ON NOV. 1, DAY TWO of the downer series, Halsne alleged that the videotaped downers were being treated inhumanely, perhaps in violation of federal law. One piece of video, which KIRO ran repeatedly, showed a downer cow with a chain around its neck being hauled into the air at the slaughterhouse. The animal's tail twitches slightly and its rear legs lightly paw the air.

In the news council complaint, the beef and dairy industry argue that the cow had already been "stunned" and, in effect, was not able to feel pain. (William Sexsmith, the owner of Midway Meats, didn't return a call for comment.) Stunning is a process whereby a "captive bolt gun" shoots into the forebrain of the animal, rendering it largely lifeless.

"She's clearly alive and suffering so much," said Halsne's next on-camera expert, Bruce Friedrich. He's director of vegan outreach for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), a group which has long advocated for animal rights and against the consumption of meat but rarely uses scientific evidence to bolster its assertions. In an interview with Seattle Weekly, Friedrich admitted that he has no scientific or medical training on which to base his assertion of inhumane treatment.

One person it's hard to believe Halsne didn't interview or ask to review his evidence during his six-month investigation is Temple Grandin. She's an associate professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University and is one of the leading experts on downers. She's even written a paper on how to evaluate whether or not a stunned downer is in fact properly stunned. Although she could not review the KIRO report, based on a description of the animal's movements, she said the animal had been properly stunned. Still, Grandin, who the meat industry cites as an expert, doesn't like downers. "Bone racks," she calls them. Commonly, downers are dairy cattle worn down from years of milk production. She considers them a sign of dairies that aren't managed well. On humanitarian grounds, she'd like to see them not processed for meat. But she says there's no link between downers and problems in the food supply.

In an interview, Robert Mead, the state veterinarian, said he reviewed a videotape of the KIRO story and, as far as he could tell, the cow was properly stunned. He also said he could see no violations of federal humane slaughter laws. (Halsne contacted Mead at one point but did not ask about the humane treatment of downers, according to Mead.)

SO IF HALSNE AND KIRO had so little proof of problems in using downers, why did they press ahead with their assertions? It's hard to know, because Halsne and Swenson aren't talking. "That is the bottom of the barrel when that is the response," says Upshaw, the University of Oregon journalism professor. Over-sold investigative series like KIRO's, he says, are epidemic in television news, especially in the superheated environment of ratings sweeps. Mistakes, he says, are made. "You've got to reimpose those boring old newspaper concepts of accuracy and let someone go over your story line" before it airs, Upshaw says.

Halsne has had a story blow up in his face at least once before. In 2001, he and his television station in Oklahoma City were found liable for defaming a horse-racing veterinarian in a 1998 story. A jury awarded the vet $6 million in damagesan unusually large verdict in a media caseand dinged Halsne personally for $250,000.

On June 14, the volunteer members of the Washington News Council will hear about downers and Halsne's story. Largely unknown, the five-year-old nonprofit council fields complaints from the public about deficient journalism. To date, only three have reached the formal hearing stage (other complaints have been resolved informally), and for the most part the media have refused to participate in the process. KIRO-TV has said it won't attend its hearing at Seattle's Town Hall.

If found at fault, KIRO and Halsne face the journalistic equivalent of being pelted with tomatoes. There is nothing the council can do to change the fact that, owing to Halsne's series, downers are no longer processed by Washington slaughterhouses, which don't fancy the bad publicity, or that, as a result, the USDA has had to halt testing for so-called mad cow disease in Washington. That program depended on downer meat.

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