Pit bulls, Ann Landers, & Dr. Laura

My first, and arguably most influential, journalistic role model was advice columnist Ann Landers. I discovered her in 1955, when I was a teenager. I liked her crisp, dryly humorous “voice” that radiated moral clarity and common sense in equal measure.

Our culture changed dramatically over the years, but Ann remained faithful to her bedrock principles. She became a laughingstock to counter-cultural elites, but her column remained in syndication for 56 years, proof that although social theorists had no use for her allegedly superannuated views, ordinary people appreciated her good sense and civic-minded values.

Eppie Lederer, author of the “Ann Landers” column from 1955 to 2002, circa 1987.

Revisiting Ann’s work these many years later, it comes as no surprise to find that her opinion on dangerous dogs was consistent with the intelligence and objectivity she brought to bear on other issues.

For example, on October 26, 1987, Ann wrote a column on pit bulls that––statistics apart––shows us how little has changed over the last three decades in the battle between evidence-based opposition to dangerous dogs and irrational pit bull love.

Ann began by referring to a letter she had printed months earlier about a child who nearly died from a pit bull attack. She was then “swamped” with similar stories, some of which she printed.

Facts from Neal Pierce

Ann subsequently heard from “hundreds” of pit bull owners and breeders accusing her of being misinformed and “crazy.” But she also heard from a knowledgeable journalist, Neal Pierce, a writer for the Washington Post Writers Group, who provided her with facts that she laid out for her readers. To wit:

• Pit bulls had inflicted “21 of the nation’s 29 fatal canine attacks since 1983” (i.e. over four years; there are about 40 fatal attacks per year now, about 30 by pit bull type dogs);

• Fourteen of the victims were children under 6 years of age;

• In Philadelphia, the pit bull count had soared from a mere 25 to 4,000 in five years.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The pit bull advocacy movement today sings from the exact same song sheets as they did in 1987. Ann writes that the dog-owner groups and kennel clubs “argue that pit bulls aren’t the problem.” They say it is “humans who breed and raise the animals improperly.”

“Mark of Cain”

Ann was not impressed, calling such logic “fallacious,” and advancing the obvious truth that however amiable pit bulls can appear, they “have a mark of Cain in their genetic history.” Most significantly, no-nonsense Ann cut through the “rights”-based cant that has become the foundational pillar of the pit bull advocacy movement, writing, “Dogs aren’t entitled to constitutional protection. The owner’s right to have a dangerous dog must stop short of his neighbor’s throat.”

Interestingly, Ann ended her column with the words, “There will be no more about pit bulls in this space, but if my early columns were instrumental in calling attention to this continuing nightmare, I’m delighted.”

Did Ann decide it wasn’t worth fielding the hate mail she knew would continue to plague her if she kept on writing about pit bulls? Was her decision influenced by uneasy editors or concerned sponsors getting flak from pit bull activists? We don’t know.  We do know that she did return to the topic of pit bulls at least four times in the next seven years,  always amplifying her previous position,  including updated facts.

Dr. Laura

In the recent case of Dr. Laura Schlesinger’s run-in with pit bull lovers, we know what happened.

On December 15, 2014 the aggressively conservative Sirius radio show host visited an animal shelter as part of a segment on combatting loneliness. Dr Laura expressed surprise at the overwhelming number of pit bulls she found there, in her estimation “about 95% of the dogs” being pit bulls or pit bull mixes.”

Dr. Laura

Reasoning (logically correctly, but politically incorrectly) that they were there because people wanted to be rid of them, therefore making it unlikely anyone else would want to adopt them, she remarked, “Pit bulls are a waste of space and all should be put down.” (Ann Landers would never have shot from the hip like this, nor in such combative language.)

There her troubles began. Little did Dr Laura know: you can diss adulterers, you can diss selfish parents, you can diss promiscuous pleasure-seekers, and nothing bad will happen to you. Diss pit bull lovers, and the sky will fall in.

Advertisers back away

One of the show’s sponsors, Kidsemail.org announced that “due to the negative press and feedback we have received from hundreds of people, we feel that it is best that we do not renew a sponsorship with Dr. Laura at this time.” By the afternoon of Dec 22, 2014,  17,000 people had signed on online petition asking other sponsors to do the same.

One can only imagine Dr. Laura’s shock at the power of the pit bull advocacy movement. Now she (and Sirius) knows, and is unlikely to repeat, or be allowed to repeat, the mistake of provoking their anger.

Tools of hate trade

Pit bull activists may use the same arguments as they did in 1987, but the tools of their hate trade have been upgraded. Ann received letters from individuals, none of whom knew what the others were saying. She had the privacy to decide what to do about her avalanche of hate mail. Her editors had time to assess the fallout. Most important, she had time to do her research and respond to her critics with facts.

But today, when famous people make off-the-cuff statements in public––or even in private, if someone overhears and tweets their remark––it’s a very different story. Dr Laura was pilloried on social media where, thanks to personal anonymity and the emboldenment that group reinforcement confers, Dr Laura experienced a “mobbing” that no public figure can any longer withstand. It would have done her no good to amass facts in her defense as Ann did. There’s no time for that nowadays, when a few irate emails or tweets to a sponsor sow panic, and when a barrage of orchestrated public vituperation––what pit bull activists excel at––sows terror (there were rumors afoot that Dr Laura’s family members had been threatened.)

Dr. Laura caved

And so, Dr Laura Schlesinger, whose stock in trade is outraging social progressives without apology, was brought low by the pit bull advocacy movement. She posted on Facebook: “After reading the emails from pit bull lovers, I realize that my comments were hurtful. I apologize for causing any pit bull owner/fancier any distress.”

Drawing the obvious message from these cautionary tales, it is clear that celebrity public figures, no matter how fearless they are in principle, are no match for an unscrupulous pit bull advocacy movement, which prefers the chilling of discourse to debate.

Apart from social media, there are differences between 1987 and 2014. In 1987, Ann Landers received a tide of letters attesting to the damage pit bull type dogs were guilty of. But those individual victims didn’t know about the other victims, and had neither the tools or the motivation to organize themselves into a protest group. Now they do. And although tragic in itself, the escalation of pit bull carnage is going to work in their favour.

Examples of Miami-Dade & Aurora

It is also important for the organized victims’ advocacy groups to realize that while victim advocacy is in its infancy in terms of a “movement,” pit bull activism has had the advantage of decades of “community” training, with the added advantage of cultural memes relating to humans – “discrimination,” “rights,” “guilt by association,” and all the rest – to blow confident wind into their sails.

Even though beating against the cultural current, victims’ advocacy groups should not be intimidated or discouraged. The silent majority of people do not want dangerous animals in their neighborhoods, as surveys demonstrate, and they are under no illusions about what constitutes a dangerous dog. We have seen proof of that in the failed BSL-repeal campaigns of Miami-Dade County (Florida), Aurora (Colorado), and elsewhere.

And so victims’ advocacy groups should not assume that pit bull “victories” like the humiliation of Dr Laura mean the way is closed to them to spread their message. They will find other ways to garner positive media attention, to encourage public pressure on institutions like the Centers for Disease Control to do something and to bend the public will toward a proliferation of BSL. The Internet taketh away, but the Internet also giveth. Be of good cheer, and say not the struggle naught availeth.

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