Truth Flickers And Lives
In October, the Animal Legal Defense Fund and NYClass, two of the animal rights groups pressing to banish the carriage trade from New York City, held a dramatic and well-attended press conference to reveal the results of documents they had sued the New York Police Department to obtain.
The ALDF accused the New York City carriage drivers of committing more than a dozen "hit-and-runs" over the past five years. The press conference was held in a breathless way, as if a secret investigation had yielded shocking and dramatic results. The reporters bit, as they often do when accusations are made against the carriage horses.
The accusations were widely reported throughout the city, many people and stories have frequently referred to them. It was ironic, because some of the carriage drivers call the continuous stream of press conferences denouncing them "hit-and-runs:" lots of accusations, little or no evidence, no accountability, compliant journalists taking notes and recording videos for their blogs.
This week, I contacted the New York Police Department – no court order was necessary, they were happy to speak with me about the hit-and-run allegations, they told me that none of them could be verified or were found to be true. No charges have been filed They were simply allegations, and there was no evidence to justify taking action on any of them.
It would be accurate to say there were no confirmed hit-and-run incidents involving carriage horses in New York in the past five years if you were simply reporting the facts, rather than spinning them.
Police spokespeople told me there were no injuries or deaths reported in the police reports, and it struck me as odd at the time, since a dozen calls to police about alleged and non-life threatening hit and run accidents did not seem all that high, given the volume of carriage rides in New York. Although there are no precise figures on total rides, the carriage trade reports earnings of approximately $15 million each year, which works out to roughly 300,000 rides. That means out of approximately 1.5 million rides over five years, only 12 people reported hit-and-run-incidents involving carriage horses, and none of those were confirmed.
I could well imagine a more fair-minded mayor calling a press conference to praise this remarkable safety record, given the slaughter and death caused by motor vehicles in the city:
I asked the NYPD how many people died in hit and run accidents in New York City in 2013. A spokeswoman said there were 47 deaths resulting from hit and run vehicular traffic incidents that year, there were 203,390 total crashes in New York City in 2014, 17,260 in one month alone. Twenty-five people were killed in New York City in vehicle accidents last month. There is no record of any press conference being called to talk about the hit-and-run deaths that were real and were confirmed by the police and which were confirmed and did result in death or injury.
But the people holding the press conference seemed disinterested in facts or fairness. "NYC carriage drivers have committed more than a dozen “hit & runs” over the past five years," they reported at the press conference.
Although the ALDF and NY Class were careful to use the word "allegations," the press release and the press conference made it clear the animal rights groups were accusing the carriage drivers of new crimes along with the old unproven ones: animal abuse and cruelty, cheating tourists, filthy stables (no fire extinguishers, no room for the horses to turn around) and overworking the horses.
In 2013, the ALDF held another press conference, and they accused the carriage trade of working the horses more than nine hours a day, seven days a week in extreme heat, accusations found to be false by veterinarians and equine associations, the police and the New York City Department Of Health. The horses do sometimes work up to nine hours a day, which is not considered cruel by horse trainers and veterinarians (most work about seven or eight, the drivers say, much of that standing in lines), and they have five weeks of vacation a year.
The horses are not permitted to work in temperatures in excess of 90 degrees ( horses in the wild do not live under temperature restrictions, many work and live under much warmer conditions than occur in Central Park. Some carriage horses do work seven days a week, some don't. It is not considered cruel for working animals to work every day, my border collie Red does not get weekends off from herding sheep, and he works harder than any carriage horse in New York, his tongue is often dragging on the ground.)
The "hit-and-run" press conferences are familiar by now, ritualistic. There is always the suggestion that the carriage drivers are either cruel or inhuman. Or less than human. In fact, a key element of the campaign against the carriage horses has been the dehumanizing of the drivers. If you study the history of dehumanization of people, it is common enough, it seems necessary to dehumanize someone who is innocent of any crime when you are seeking to take away their work, way of life, or property without legal process or cause.
So the moral reasoning of the animal rights groups in New York work this way: if they aren't guilty of abuse or leaving the scene of accidents, well they aren't good people, so it doesn't really matter. They must not be believed or treated with dignity or respect. The self-styled progressive mayor, a champion of underdogs, won't speak to the carriage drivers, meet with their representatives, or visit their stables.
The stable owners and drivers are the children of immigrants, many from Ireland, they are considered immoral and "random people" by the animal rights organizations and the mayor, they must work and live outside of the normal rules of conduct that government the moral community.
In the curious world of the New York Carriage Horse controversy, truth and facts are a flickering flame sometimes. I was a journalist before becoming an author, I worked at the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Dallas Times-Herald and CBS News. I wrote for Wired Magazine and Rolling Stone. I loved journalism and believe very much in facts and truth, both are important and deserve to live. One of the most fundamental rules governing us was the idea that we could not relay accusations against people without seeking to confirm their truth or authenticity.
Truth and facts are the poor orphans in the controversy. But I have found at least one journalist who seems to believe in that bettered ethic – journalists today often simply are stenographers, relaying accusations and arguments back and forth like judges at a tennis match – his name is Henry Goldman and he works as a reporter for Bloomberg News covering the administration of New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio.
deBlasio promised to ban the horses on the first day of his administration. That was almost a year ago.
I was heartened to come across a video of Goldman at work. He was the only reporter I know of to challenge the damaging accusations made at the press conference in October. This video – it was recorded by videographer Sanci Bachom – of a real journalist's patient but determined effort to pin down a politician and animal rights activists about the truth is compelling.
Truth does live, and so does journalism, I recommend watching this video for anyone who wants to see what a true reporter does, what I did and still do, how the people seeking to ban the horses are so reckless with truth and the reputations of others. I wish for the carriage drivers that they take heart, there is hope, there are people for whom facts do matter. The truth is sometimes a hit-and-run thing, but facts do not ever lie to us.