Riding, Roping--and Editing

ESPN Censors Rodeo Cruelty

May/June 2002

The magazine of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)

By Karen Charman

On December 9, 2001, at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas--rodeo's Super Bowl--a 14-year-old bucking bronco named Great Plains broke its back and had to be carried out on an animal stretcher in front of a sold-out crowd of 17,000. Though the event was televised by the cable network ESPN, the TV audience had no clue about what happened: The camera cut just before the horse flipped over, and none of the announcers said one word about the incident. The horse was destroyed an hour later.

ESPN spokesperson Mike Humes could not say why there was no mention of the incident, only that "it's an editorial decision that's made by the production crew after discussion with the event organizers." That would be the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA), the world's largest professional rodeo organization. "We determine what goes on the air," PRCA commissioner Steve Hatchell told the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle (12/24/00). "ESPN doesn't have anything to say about any of it." (Hatchell declined to confirm this in an interview with Extra!.)

Animal rights groups are fuming about what they call the sanitization of rodeo to reach a mainstream audience. Much of what they complain about occurs in the chutes before the animals charge out into the arena--tactics such as twisting tails and electric prodding. Horses and bulls are also fitted with often painful straps to make them buck. "The idea is to make the animals perform as wildly and violently as possible," says Ellen Buck, a veterinarian with the U.S. Humane Society.

Calf-roping and steer-wrestling cause the most injuries to rodeo animals, Buck says. When rodeo cowboys lasso running calves, the rope often jerks the calf up off its feet before it gets slammed down in the dirt, resulting in bruising and fractures. She says slamming larger-bodied steers to the ground at top running speeds is at least as bad: "Their necks are jerked around about 180 degrees."

"If they presented [rodeo] honestly and showed the whole thing as it is, people would force a change or cancellation of this damn event," says Eric Mills of the Fund for Animals, based in Oakland, California.

That's exactly what the PRCA is afraid of. As soon as I mentioned the issue of animal rights, Hatchell got downright twitchy, asking what that had to do with media coverage of rodeo. Though he said the "jerk down" was penalized at PRCA events, he did admit that PRCA broadcasts don't show what happens right at the end of the calf-roping. "We're trying to generate more fans, so we don't want that to be overly showcased," Hatchell told Extra!.

The popularity of rodeo has grown substantially since Hatchell, a former commissioner of several college football conferences, began his job three and a half years ago. Hatchell has boosted TV coverage from 46 hours a year of mostly late-night time slots to more than 130 hours last year--much of that prime time--on ESPN, ESPN2 and The Nashville Network (Chicago Tribune, 12/26/01).

He's also beefing up the PRCA's stable of corporate sponsors, which now includes Wrangler jeans, Jack Daniels whiskey, Coors beer and Dodge trucks. "Now we're in the front door with sponsors we couldn't get before," Hatchell told the Dallas Morning News (10/26/01). PRCA has hired the Host Communications marketing firm to boost their sponsorships further, the paper reported. Host president Marc Kidd is quoted saying "the ability to position an American icon like the cowboy in the marketplace" makes his company "pretty bullish" about what they will be able to do for the PRCA.

Promoting cowboy culture

On December 28, 2001, CBS News' 48 Hours helped promote cowboy culture with an entire show profiling the aspirations of three men obsessed with rodeo. Steve Hindi, president of Showing Animals Respect and Kindness (SHARK), an animal rights group based in Elburn, Illinois, says 48 Hours taped an extensive interview with him and Peggy Larson, a large-animal veterinarian with rodeo experience, who came to the conclusion that "rodeo events are inherently inhumane." But not one second of either interview appeared.

Instead, in his wrap-up, CBS's Dan Rather used two sentences to summarize animal rights groups' complaints of rodeo as institutionalized abuse, focusing on the use of the bucking strap. "In response, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association says the device does no harm and only brings out behavior that comes naturally to begin with," Rather told his audience.

"Dan Rather was supposed to be the next Walter Cronkite. But I'll never believe anything CBS News ever says again," Hindi says.

Speaking of myth, rodeo proponents claim that the sport springs from real work done on real ranches in the West. But real cattlemen disagree. Mike Callicrate, a feedlot owner in St. Francis, Kansas, told Extra! that anybody treating animals the way rodeo cowboys do would be fired on the spot. "When anyone is handling an animal too roughly, we have a saying: 'Don't make a rodeo out of it.'"

Karen Charman is an investigative reporter specializing in agriculture, environment and health issues.