No matter what our individual menu preferences are we think we can all agree that “Everybody’s gotta’ to eat”. People can get sick from tainted food whether it be vegetable, fruit or animal. There are unsanitary dairy farms, cattle ranches, supermarkets, importers and who doesn’t have their own personal restaurant horror story. In the interests of fair disclosure we are both carnivores and Ed worked in a meat packing plant during college. This issue should galvanize all of us regardless of diet as we can all agree that food safety is a biological imperative for Democrats, Republicans, Liberals, Conservatives, Socialists and Greens alike. Ahh, but if only life in the 21st Century could be so simple!
In 1906 muckraking journalist Upton Sinclair wrote a novel entitled The Jungle. Written principally about immigrants in America, it gained notoriety principally from the exposure of despicable practices then occurring in slaughterhouses. Sinclair had written several articles for a socialist newspaper on the meat industry and incorporated his discoveries into the novel. If asked today about the subject of The Jungle, we dare say that most people would say that the book is about the slaughterhouses in Chicago at the turn of the 20th Century. So powerful were those aspects of the novel that the entire industry was eventually forced to change its methods.
In the 107 years that have followed, countless undercover stories have been written by investigative journalists, miles of video footage shot and many thousands of still images created exposing animal cruelty, unsanitary conditions and tainted items – whether animal, vegetable or mineral - entering the food chain. Such stories have become standard fare (pun intended) for TV networks, local affiliates, newspapers and magazines and a buffet (couldn’t resist) of political, trade and animal rights special interest groups. Such stories are ”guaranteed ratings grabbers” says one of my clients, a former big city TV news producer.
Now all the photographers, illustrators, journalists, publishers and even TV “suits” out there should start paying close attention. Legislation often termed Ag-Gag Bills, are being seeded or have otherwise been planted throughout the land. The contents of these bills vary wildly and already exist in Utah, Iowa and Mississippi. Bills have been introduced (or are about to be) in NH, Indiana, AK and NC. These bills were ostensibly introduced at the Federal level as anti -terrorism statutes. The initial intent was to prevent acts of eco-terrorism and/or assist law enforcement in the apprehension of individuals and groups involved in the physical destruction of food processing or animal raising facilities and any attendant loss of human life in connection with such violent activities.. Federal Laws already exist but do not seem to be as limiting as the local bills which are typically pushed by food company lobbyists and trade associations. Photographers as we have often noted, are rarely politically active and thus politicians understandably ignore them.
That initial anti-terrorism purpose seems to have been perverted in at least some cases. Some of the bills either passed or being considered would explicitly outlaw undercover reporting as well as the publication of material gathered by undercover reporting. Now lets say that again real slow so it really sinks in – some of these bills would criminalize the shooting of video, taking of photographs and the possession and/or distribution of same as they relate to the farming of crops, animals, food handling and the production of food. Whether the photos were taken from a public roadway in some instances would be irrelevant. Also known as “farm privacy” bills, the intent of these laws is to protect the privacy of say a farmer from someone seeking to inflict “economic terrorism” or “economic harm” by photographic the farm’s questionable practices.
Politicians, whose knowledge of media practices typically extends only the manners in which they can get their faces on as many home HD screens as possible, either did not realize or care that such laws can effectively prevent stories on unsanitary and/or illegal practices from ever seeing the light of day. No one subjected to criminal penalties will likely shoot, write, possess, print or broadcast such stories. Groups whose agendas are rather clear, ie PETA, The Humane Society and Green is the New Red, have openly criticized these new bills. Elected officials who support these bills have espoused the view that none of this legislation is intended to be used against whistle blowers or muckrakers or investigative journalists. Rather these bills are intended to prevent violent acts of eco-terrorism period. When politicians say, “we have nothing to worry about” we start worrying.
We are not so presumptuous as to try to tell photographers, journalists and news gatherers how to think about these bills. We urge you to do your own homework and run Google ragged in the process. Come to your own conclusions. But here’s some food for thought (last one, we promise) – the worst damage any “eco-terrorist” can do short of murder, is to ruin a business financially. We know of at least a few thousand lawyers who could make a damn good argument as follows: a journalist/photographer team doing an expose which ran in a newspaper read by thousands, on a farm selling tainted milk, helped put that farm out of business and thus committed an act of economic terrorism. It bears repeating that some of these bills criminalize the creation, possession and publication of images of such conditions even if taken from public property.
Now if you should come to the conclusion that this is an outrageous, ”can’t make it up”, abridgement of the basic rights of the press and the people to be informed under (at least) The First Amendment to the United States Constitution, we think you might consider spending some time writing to your elected officials to let them know your views - immediately. If you disagree, then by all means return to this week’s episode of Kim and Kanye.
Some stories for more background and info to look at:
ABC News on blocking animal cruelty news http://tinyurl.com/a28nzht
Two States pushing Ag –Gag laws http://tinyurl.com/auofvfa
Five More States seeking Ag Gag laws http://tinyurl.com/ceewdd5
Wave of ‘Ag-Gag’ Laws Aimed at Criminalizing Whistleblowers and Keeping Consumers in the Dark http://tinyurl.com/cc7calt
Hiding Factory Farm Abuses From Public Scrutiny http://tinyurl.com/bkwq4gq
Ag-Gag Whistleblower Suppression Legislation http://tinyurl.com/bax6yd2