Accuracy in Media

One of the arguments in favor of public broadcasting was that public TV would be independent and willing to take risks. But New Jersey public television has yanked a documentary because it upset the animal rights movement.  The film, titled, “Bears: Too Close for Comfort,” could possibly have saved lives by alerting people in New Jersey to the very real threat posed by black bears, some weighing 500 pounds, on the prowl for food. Marauding black bears in the state are attacking people, including young children. 

The New Jersey Network (NJN) for public television had agreed to run the film, and had heavily promoted it. But under attack by activists who believe we should peacefully co-exist with bears who may want to maul us, NJN pulled the film. 

Accuracy in Media reviewed the film. It is dramatic in the sense that stories about bear attacks on human beings are, by their nature, gripping and frightening. Some involve bears breaking into peoples’ back yards, attacking family pets, and actually invading homes. It is definitely not a boring documentary with talking heads, although it does feature interviews with state Fish and Wildlife officials and animal rights activists. In terms of offering different points of view, the film passes the test of balanced journalism.  Rather than presenting bears as a threat to be wiped out, the film interviews people who think bear attacks are rare and who believe people and bears can live together without much problem. “We have nothing to fear from these animals,” says one. 

Nevertheless, opposition to the film was led by a group called “Bear Education and Research,” headed by Lynda Smith, who appears in the film but believes it is too sensational, contains factual inaccuracies, and portrays bears “in a very negative manner.” Her group calls bears the “dolphins of the woodlands” and believes that people don’t have to be afraid of them. The victims might disagree. Rather than hunt and kill bears who may be a threat to people, her group favors bear-resistant garbage cans, priced at $50 dollar each, chained around trees. Her website, which features a photo of a cute and cuddly black bear cub, declares that, “Once your neighborhood bears learn they cannot get into the can, they will move on?” She is shown in the film with her expensive trash cans.

Smith was able to critique the film because she cooperated with the director, Tom Phillips, and got a copy of the film in advance of its scheduled airing.  But that’s when she turned on Phillips. She promptly wrote a letter to NJN and mobilized her supporters, asking that the film be pulled. She even found fault with the title of the film, “Bears: Too Close for Comfort,” because it implies that bears can be dangerous.

When we asked if corrections of the alleged mistakes would convince her to support airing the film, she indicated that, in her view, nothing could be done to salvage it. Smith insisted the film would “scare people unnecessarily” about the threat posed by bears and she compared it to a “Friday the 13th” slasher film, in which the main character ambushes, maims and kills people. “Some people like them, some people don’t,” she said of horror movies. “It’s not something in particular that I’d like to see on the air.”

When asked if people in New Jersey should have been given the same opportunity as she had, to review and comment on the film, Smith claimed there were other problems, including defective releases signed by participants to appear in it, and criticism from others. She denied engaging in censorship, saying, “I’m very anti-censorship. I think people can watch and decide for themselves absolutely.” 

In the end, Smith claimed, “The viewers did decide” about the film. The viewers, she said, didn’t like the promotional spots for the film and registered their objections. Of course, those “viewers” did not see the entire program, as Smith did, and they denied that right to others.

Director Tom Phillips, who was willing to share the finished product with a bear activist, never anticipated that criticism of the film would translate into a coordinated campaign to keep it off the air, and that NJN would comply with the demands from a special interest pressure group. He didn’t fully grasp how people who profess the free exchange of ideas would move to keep ideas they oppose off the air.

Paul Mulshine, a columnist for the New Jersey Star-Ledger, noted that the alleged problem with the film releases, alluded to by Smith, was seized upon by NJN as a reason not to run the film, and that NJN had violated journalistic ethics by improperly going to the State Attorney General’s office for guidance in the matter. That office agreed with NJN that the releases were somehow deficient, and that the film therefore shouldn’t air. This is an office of the same New Jersey state government that sided with the bear lovers by canceling a bear hunt.

An expert told Mulshine that the controversy over the releases, which are sometimes signed and used on rare occasions before interviews are broadcast, was phony. There wasn’t even any need for releases in this case, he said. Mulshine is convinced that NJN, under fire from the animal rights activists, was simply looking for an excuse to kill a film that it had already accepted for airing. Because of this despicable conduct, he now agrees with the state legislators who want to terminate the $15 million in state funding of NJN.

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