Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Internet | Media

June 12, 2007

Taking Aim at a Giant Hog

Rhonda Shearer took on a tale of boy-shoots-wild hog as part of her effort to clean up stinky journalism and restore the beautiful truth.

Hadley Robinson

In recent weeks, the once simple story of the "Monster Pig" has gotten much more complicated. Alabaman Mike Stone claimed the pig his 11-year-old son Jamison shot and killed on May 5 weighed 1,050 pounds and measured 9 feet 4 inches from hoof to snout. Stone's story quickly spread across newspapers and television screens over Memorial Day weekend. But the monster pig was shot down on an enclosed hunting preserve, Lost Creek Plantation, in Delta, Alabama. An Associated Press story claims the pig, once named Fred, was owned by the Blissitt family, who sold it to the plantation four days before it was shot.

Jamison Stone with his prey (Photo courtesy Melynne Stone)
"Lying appalls my aesthetic sensibilities. Lying is ugly. Truth has a real beauty to it."—Rhonda Shearer

Jamison Stone with his prey (Photo courtesy Melynne Stone)

Rhonda Shearer added to the controversy by releasing a report disputing the pig's reported size. Shearer, the widow of Stephen Jay Gould, is a sculptor and art historian who runs the website Stinky Journalism. This media-ethics project aims to correct news stories that lack scientific evidence.

Shearer started investigating the pig photographs because she thought the news stories about Jamison's hunt had no proof for the mass of the pig. She sought out retired NYU physicist Richard Brandt to do a photo analysis of the pictures used by news outlets and posted on Stone's website, Brandt claimed the photographs were indeed altered.

Shearer wrote a report on Stinky Journalism with Brandt's findings. According to Shearer, after NBC found out about her research, they cancelled a segment with Jamison and Mike Stone. Fox News ran a story citing Shearer's website and her claims that the monster pig could be a hoax. Afterwards, Mike Stone and Shearer posted responses to one another's claims on their own websites. "I'm not fighting with him," Shearer says. "I think he just made a mistake and he's desperate."

Gelf caught up with Shearer amid all the controversy from her office at the Art Science Research Laboratory in New York, which she founded. We discussed how truth is an aesthetic to her, the media's responsibility in these sorts of stories, why she cares about the monster pig, and why this story created so much buzz. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Gelf Magazine: Why did you start Stinky Journalism?

Rhonda Shearer: It started from my work at Ground Zero. People were complaining about how the press was covering the stories. I said, "It's not a big deal, I'll help you write some corrections." My definition of a rational mind is the ability to change one's mind in light of some evidence. Anonymous testimony does not hold to rational evidence. But these beliefs aren't held by many of the major publications. They will not make corrections. It almost seems like there is no bar which will be reached to get them to change their minds.

Rhonda Shearer

Rhonda Shearer with a firefighter. She helped in relief efforts after Sept. 11, 2001.

I'm an artist and an art historian. It become like the theater of the absurd. I realized the rules of engagement for getting a correction were, you write in, then they write back. They might make a correction and then it would be over. When you keep going and collecting evidence and going back, their world kind of melts. The journalists are resistant. It becomes a whole other situation. Those corrections are the motivation for the website.
There's something beautiful about truth. It's an aesthetic. Lying appalls my aesthetic sensibilities. Lying is ugly. Truth has a real beauty to it. The idea is, it's a process. It's like a sculpture—you have a whole big pile of stuff like in this pig story and you just have to wade through it and suddenly you can catch different threads and you start reeling it in and it becomes bigger and bigger and bigger. I do find that I used observation skills that I have as an artist and apply them to this Stinky Journalism business. It's meant to be a very positive thing. We really aim to make journalism better.

GM: How does a stinky story catch your eye?

RS: It really depends. They can be driven in different ways. Sometimes they are driven by complaints. Somebody says they've been treated unfairly or something is slanderous. Or you might see weird use of anonymous sources that just don't make sense. The others are just visual. For the recent case I'm working on, I realized the headline in the advertisement matched the headline in the story. I said, "That's weird."
I'm working on that case, but the pig went to the head of the line because it was time-sensitive. I knew it was tricky. The mainstream media tried to cover themselves by using distancing language. When I saw the photo I said, "This is not right." Then I just jumped into it with all four feet.
Accuracy in the media is an important thing. It's about democracy. There needs to be good decisions about what to put in the media. In psychology, you need real boundaries in relationships. Maybe there needs to be these kinds of boundaries with information. There's a strict boundary between journalism and fluff. The fluff is empty-calorie journalism. These things have to be discussed.

GM: How does the internet change journalists and media outlets making corrections?

"The category of these news stories are, 'Too good to check.' It wasn't a coincidence that it was a holiday weekend."
RS: Media corrections are the pivotal issue, especially because of the internet. Before no one cared because records were on a microfilm in a library. Now any one thing is living forever. It's alive, it's as if it was printed yesterday. You have all this contradictory information of the same events. It's an oil spill that needs to be cleaned up. Procedures need to be put in place where errors can be corrected and people will be responsible for information they are putting out there. I can think of the errors like zombies. These errors live forever unless you shoot them in the head—that is, correct them. The problem with errors is they will be repeated and propagated and they are a danger. False information is dangerous and it's garbage and it needs to be cleaned up.

GM: How much of an influence do your reports have on the media?

RS: Different things have happened. I was trying to approach media with corrections and I met so much resistance. They would stonewall and work together against it. That sounds like paranoid talk, but I have the emails to prove it. I decided a better approach was to build up Stinky Journalism because it's needed and who can you depend on to tell the truth? So I'm just going to do it myself. I would love to be able to do other things. I don't need to be doing this. But the good part is with all the negatives in the world at least I can work with young journalists on a daily basis. We get change. We really do. One media outlet or one journalist at a time.
I think that long term, our vision will prove effective. We'll just have to see. We're just at the beginning of the journey here. What I do love about it is that young people here are able to get published and learn critical thinking. You have got to get on the phone and call people like crazy. I think a lot of reporting is not like that anymore.

GM: Why not?

RS: It's too expensive. In general, its always money. The second reason would be that if people are superstars they get away with it and they aren't questioned or held to standards by their editors.

GM: You criticize the Associated Press and Fox News coverage of the pig story. How would you suggest they should have done it differently?

RS: They should have gone to some scientists like I did. I called the scientists and said, "What did you think of the photos?" and they said, "Great Photoshop." You look and then you call some experts. It's easy. An expert says feral hogs don't come this big. Marry your intuition with expert testimony. Call one expert on feral pigs and the other on trick photography, a Photoshop expert. But then, there wouldn't have been any story. The category of these news stories are, "Too good to check." It wasn't a coincidence that it was a holiday weekend.

GM: A lot of people have responded to your story with, "Who cares?" Is this one of those empty-calorie, fluffy stories you mentioned?

RS: When you really look at it, it's almost a moral tale. It's fluffy. It's a boy and he shot a pig and it's the world's biggest pig. But there's more when you put it under a magnifying glass. For a hoax this big to be perpetrated, there has to be more behind it. Basically, when you start looking at all the things that are involved, whether it's the execution of the hunt or the motive for how the whole thing happened, it becomes a deeper story and a moral tale. I hope what we're doing is promoting the idea that it's not about blaming the Stones; it's about blaming the media. He's a child. The media has to be responsible.

"These errors live forever unless you shoot them in the head."
GM: One question asked by commenters on your report is, why would the Stones lie? What reason would they have to exaggerate this story?

RS: They're getting 500 bucks a photo now. I make my point very clear. One $500 picture is worth a 1000 words. We have more on that. We're reporting more on that. We'll talk about the money angle and motive and the non-coincidental events. It's not pretty.

GM: During this controversy, your page was so crowded it didn't load. Has Stinky Journalism received this much attention before?

RS: No. In my own life, I've had hot stories getting all sorts of calls but in terms of this publication, this is the first time.

GM: What made this different?

RS: It's a combination of things. I think from a psychological point of view it's a David-and-Goliath story. Hairy beast and a fresh-faced boy with a gun—it's what fairy tales are made of. He felled the beast. Everybody's lost any knowledge of these things. In the old days, hunting or shooting was common and people had a different social reference point. Nowadays everybody buys bacon in a package and people don't even know how big a pig is.

Related in Gelf: A look at the banner atop Shearer's website.

Related on the web: A 2005 profile of Shearer.

Hadley Robinson

Hadley Robinson is a Gelf contributor and a staff writer for the
Webster Times.

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Article by Hadley Robinson

Hadley Robinson is a Gelf contributor and a staff writer for the
Webster Times.

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