Hullabaloo in the hook-and-bullet press

 

As a hunter, fisher and full-time outdoor writer, it pains me to admit that most hunting-and-fishing magazines are right down there with supermarket tabloids.

You can tell the really important articles by the number of exclamation points after the title, as in: "Sportsmen’s group in all-out battle for shooting and hunting rights!!!"

Fact-checking departments are unheard of. Pay is abominable. The few writers who attempt to report real issues, such as damage to the land by extractive industries, are usually encouraged not to name names, unless they say something nice, and, at best, are on their own if there’s legal action.

Aldo Leopold's lament more than half a century ago is truer now than then: "The sportsman has no leaders to tell him what is wrong. The sporting press no longer represents sport, it has turned billboard for the gadgeteer."

There is a group trying to elevate hook-and-bullet journalism — the 2,000-member Outdoor Writers Association of America. I’ve been part of it since 1975, and I serve on the 23-person Circle of Chiefs, the outfit’s conservation conscience. But a nasty incident at the Outdoor Writers annual conference in Spokane last June resulted in 145 individual members and 41 supporting members (including Nikon, the National Wild Turkey Federation, the National Rifle Association, and Safari Club International) canceling their memberships. As a result, the 77-year-old group is said to be "imploding."

I can’t agree. But first, here’s what happened: In 1996, the Sierra Club -- now an Outdoor Writers supporting member — asked me to write an article for its magazine, Sierra, about why sportsmen and environmentalists need to work together toward common goals. The editor called my piece "Natural Allies," and the club used the same title for an effective outreach effort to sportsmen. Even today, the club passes my article around as part of its Natural Allies program, and it did so at the Outdoor Writers conference.

This infuriated National Rifle Association president Kayne Robinson, a featured speaker. Referring to my nine-year-old article — which he’d been angrily slamming against a table — he embarked on a rambling harangue about how the Sierra Club was abusing the NRA, "attacking" its board, and plotting "to hoodwink hunters into voting for gun-ban candidates."

I hadn’t mentioned the NRA. Nor had I "attacked" its board. What I had done was report how sportsmen hop into bed with their worst enemies, voting some into public office purely on the strength of pro-gun rhetoric and service on the boards of groups like the NRA. I did this by reporting the abysmal environmental voting record of Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, currently a NRA board member. There’s no more vicious enemy of fish and wildlife in Congress, yet just before the 1994 elections, Outdoor Life magazine told its readers that Young "is your kind of politician," that he "fights the good fight," and that "you'd be hard pressed to find a more fearless Washington advocate of the sportsman's life."

After Robinson’s tantrum, the board of Outdoor Writers of America wrote him a polite, almost apologetic letter, explaining that maybe this wasn’t the way to behave toward a fellow supporting member. That letter, if you can believe it, is what triggered the exodus. It was said to be another coup in the takeover of Outdoor Writers by the "green mafia," "Bush bashers," and "liberals pushing their political agenda."

Basically, the resigned members see the environmental movement as a plot to steal their guns. And basically, I see their departure as wonderfully cathartic.

Leading the effort to start a new non-liberal, non-conservation-minded writers‚ organization are resigned Outdoor Writers members Tony Mandile, who writes tips on how to bag deer; Burt Carey, president of the Western Outdoor Writers Association; and Bryce Towsley, who writes for North American Hunter, a magazine that recently announced it "will no longer accept manuscripts and/or photos from members of Outdoor Writers because [board members] have not issued an apology to the NRA nor immediately distanced the organization from the Sierra Club."

Mandile warns that "the crooked greenie-weenies are the real enemies." Carey complains about the "Chicken Littles of the environmental left," "green-whackos," and "preservationist-socialist trends [in] courting hunting [sic] and anglers." And Towsley blames "left-wing tree huggers" for his unproductive deer hunting and conservationists for "hijacking" Outdoors Writers.

I wish all resigned members good fortune. And I hope they find enlightenment. As I’ve told them, I have always believed that outdoor writers who come out against fish and wildlife conservation are in the wrong business. To me, it makes as much sense golf writers coming out against grass.

Ted Williams is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). When not on the road, he lives in Grafton, Massachusetts.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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