from The Textbook Letter, March-April 1996

What I Say About What They Say About Hunting

Lee McEachern

Where would you go to get some classroom videos about the management and conservation of wildlife? Would you want videos produced by companies that manufacture rifles, shotguns and ammunition for hunters? -- companies such as Winchester or Remington Arms or Federal Cartridge?

Probably not. Any teacher should have serious doubts about "educational" materials created by organizations that have an interest in promoting commercial products, and any teacher would be properly suspicious of wildlife-management videos issued by gun-makers.

But what about some videos distributed by a group that calls itself the Council for Wildlife Conservation and Education? That's the organization whose name is displayed on three videos -- The Un-Endangered Species, Wildlife for Tomorrow and What They Say About Hunting -- that have been widely promoted to classroom teachers. The Council's name suggests benevolence and reliability, and teachers cannot easily learn what the Council really is or what the videos really are intended to do. Here are the facts that teachers need to know:

Analyzing NSSF's Propaganda

The NSSF videos present the same basic message in three different packages. Wildlife for Tomorrow is aimed at students in grades 4 through 7, while The Un-Endangered Species and What They Say About Hunting are labeled for use in grades 7 through 12.

The basic message -- that hunting is good and even necessary -- is presented most directly in What They Say About Hunting. This video purports to examine the views of people who favor hunting and people who oppose it, but both the script and the visuals have been contrived to validate hunting and to suggest that the opponents of hunting are, at best, uninformed and foolish.

The first job of a propagandist is to choose what parts of a story should be told and what parts should be ignored. Some of the propaganda in What They Say About Hunting concerns five game species -- the white-tailed deer, the pronghorn, the American elk, the wood duck and the wild turkey -- whose populations had dwindled, in earlier centuries, because of habitat destruction and "commercial exploitation." (That is NSSF's euphemism for market hunting.) But today, we learn, all five species have recovered handsomely, all are more abundant today than they were in 1900, and these five cases show that "regulated hunting is not threatening the welfare of any wildlife species." The logic is faulty, the speaker ignores hunting that isn't "regulated," and he ignores the fact that hunting is threatening the welfare of some species. For example, some large mammals are currently under attack by market hunters, who sell the animals' sexual organs (and other parts) for use in folk "medicines" that are popular in the Far East.

What They Say About Hunting doesn't stop at declaring that hunting is harmless. As the video rolls on, we hear that hunting is a beneficial adjunct to the processes of nature, and that nature itself can't be trusted to get things right. In a scene set in a schoolroom, an unidentified person who calls himself a "conservation officer" gives the low-down to a group of students. He says he can't understand why anyone would want to leave an animal population alone and allow "starvation, disease and predators" (instead of "regulated hunting") to control the population's size.

"Wildlife-management professionals," he avers, "rescued the deer, the elk, the antelope and many other species from the brink of extinction by applying scientific management principles, not by letting nature take its course. Letting nature take its course was not a valid principle a century ago, and it's not a valid principle today."

Amazingly, What They Say About Hunting never shows any hunter killing anything. The only killing that we see is performed by a cougar that attacks a deer. While the cougar eats its prey, an unidentified person -- alleged to be a "wildlife biologist" -- says that nature is cruel and that predators "are also cruel because they kill far more than hunters do." That does not make sense, but the lesson is clear anyway: Students must make fanciful moral judgments about natural processes and must learn that predators are bad guys. Can you imagine a real biologist telling such things to students?

"Educating" the Public?

Each of the NSSF's videos includes, in its closing credits, an acknowledgment that "This program was funded through a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service." There is no indication, however, that the organization that sought the grant was NSSF, or that NSSF is an agent of the firearms industry. The credits don't mention NSSF at all.

Both the Fish and Wildlife Service and NSSF defend the use of tax dollars for producing the videos, saying that the videos are helpful in educating the public about the success of government wildlife-management programs.

But there are other, better ways to accomplish that purpose. If the Fish and Wildlife Service thought there was an important story to tell, the agency could have hired independent writers and producers to do the job. Indeed, much of the footage used in the NSSF videos could have been used in legitimate productions. Transferring federal funds to a "public relations and advertising agency for the recreational shooting sports industry" is questionable, to say the least. Allowing NSSF to produce and distribute self-serving videos that seem to bear the imprimatur of a federal agency is insidious.

NSSF's president, Robert T. Delfay, is not troubled by such things. In a telephone interview, he simply passed the buck to classroom teachers:

"The educator is the ultimate arbiter here," Delfay said. "He's going to look at this program and say, `This thing sucks' or `This thing is reasonable.' . . . I think it's very appropriate for us to provide this sort of information. And the educator has the option of using it or not."

Perhaps, but how many teachers know enough about animal ecology (or even about hunting) to determine whether the "information" in the videos is respectable?

Will teachers discern that many of the people who appear in What They Say About Hunting are actors playing roles? Look at that angry, unshaven fellow who barks at the camera, "If [hunters] like hunting so much, maybe they should all get together and hunt each other -- I'd support that!" Will teachers know that he is an actor whose job is to instill the idea that persons who oppose hunting are irrational and vicious?

Look at that gang of anti-hunting zealots, formed into a picket line and equipped with signs that display slogans like "WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT = MORE TARGETS FOR HUNTERS" and BIG MEN VS. LITTLE DEER." Will teachers know that the individuals in the picket line are actors and that the scene is another phony concoction, intended to deliver another negative message about people who oppose hunting? (During an interview, Delfay defended the picket-line fabrication. "When Hollywood does a movie and wants to shoot a love scene," he said, "they don't go out to Lovers' Lane and hope that someone shows up. They set up the scene. I don't think there's anything unethical about making up those picket signs.")

NSSF says that it already has exceeded its goal of putting 100,000 pro-hunting videos into classrooms. Many teachers, apparently, have failed to recognize the NSSF productions for what they are.

Lee McEachern is a professional journalist, an independent television producer, and a director of The Textbook League.


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