"featured in the Inquirer" (But who'd have known?)

What is "news"?

Can anyone tell me? Important current events and happenings? What events? What happenings? Important to whom? Certainly there is nothing democratic about the definition. I've noticed that it has less to do with what happens than with what an individual reporter wants to write about (and, of course, what the particular editor might allow). In that sense, a lot of what we call news is no more representative of the most important news events than the subjects a blogger might select for a post. Last night I wrote about my dog's taste in music. What I write about is arbitrary, and very much affected by my biases, feelings. Often I'll respond to "news" but this begs the question of what is news. If a "news" story is a product of the desires, biases and feelings of an individual "reporter," then reacting to it by writing about it is not much different from reacting to a blog post.

Some news stories are like blog posts. The difference is that they are in newspapers, and they are supposed to maintain the appearance of "objectivity" -- which means avoiding the personal reflections or feelings -- or biases -- of the reporter.

But there's more than one type of bias. I complain a lot about the Philadelphia Inquirer's anti-gun bias, but few people would deny that stories about shootings are newsworthy events deserving to be reported as news.

What prompted this inquiry was seeing a small demonstration of less than a dozen people making the front page of the Sunday Inquirer. The issue was not guns, crime, murder, but pate de foie gras:

To chef David Ansill, foie gras is rich, silky liver, the perfect topping for his signature dish at his Queen Village restaurant.

To animal-rights activist Nick Cooney, foie gras (pronounced "fwah GRAH") represents the freakishly engorged liver of a brutally force-fed duck or goose.

So Cooney and about a dozen fellow placard-wielding protesters have gathered twice a week in front of Ansill and other Philadelphia restaurants that serve foie gas. Their goal is a foie-gras-free city.

Philadelphia has become a new battleground in the war against foie gras, not only regarded as a delicacy but as a cherished symbol of French culinary pride. Primarily prepared in restaurants and not at home, foie gras is deemed by fanciers as the epitome of luxury, one of the pricier ingredients, usually sliced into medallions and quick-seared or sauteed as an appetizer or garnish.

Restaurateur Stephen Starr removed foie gras from his menus, emboldening protesters to crank up their threats in the last month. Some restaurateurs have conceded just to get rid of them, while others have dug in.

Initially, the article appears to conform to reportorial objectivity according to traditional journalistic standards. First we hear from chef David Ansill. Then animal rights activist Nick Cooney. But reading on, it becomes clear that the latter is really the star of the article, which is about his long struggle as an animal rights activist:
The loudest voice - and the reason the foie-gras movement has come to Center City - is a group under the warm-and-fuzzy name Hugs for Puppies.

Its leader is Cooney, 25, a lanky, long-haired Northeast Philadelphia native who became a vegetarian at 18 and shares a West Philadelphia house with friends and fellow Hugs for Puppies members.

The hard copy edition features two large photographs of Cooney, and a smaller one of Ansill.

But the real front page news is the struggle of this one animal rights activist:

In 2004, an FBI task force raided Cooney's house, searching for materials related to a campaign to shut down an animal-testing company. Cooney and other members targeted Huntingdon Life Sciences, protesting at its New Jersey headquarters and at the homes of employees and business associates. Cooney also was accused in 2004 of violating a court order restricting protests against a corporate executive.

Cooney said he had turned his attention to foie gras and to community vegetarian outreach. He also said he was not opposed to picketing restaurateurs' homes and had once picketed Starr's.

Cooney was "inspired" when Starr pulled foie gras from Barclay Prime, his Rittenhouse Square steak house. But Starr declined to credit protesters with his change of heart.

"Deep down, I did agree with them," Starr said last week31. "I think it is cruel - probably ethically wrong - the way it's raised."

Starr pulled foie gras from his other restaurants, including Alma de Cuba, Morimoto and Striped Bass.

Hugs for Puppies members found several dozen other establishments serving foie gras. Picket lines went up.

Some restaurateurs - including Audrey Taichman at Twenty Manning and Peter Mooradian and Anthony Bonett at Oceanaire - have been receptive, Cooney said. But Perrier "has not been good," Cooney said. "They have never been willing to meet with us."

Perrier sent his lawyers into Common Pleas Court to seek an injunction to bar pickets. In a compromise signed Friday1 by Perrier's attorneys and the American Civil Liberties Union, as many as eight protesters may set up near, but not in front, of Le Bec-Fin. Protesters also must remain 10 feet from Brasserie Perrier, another Perrier-owned restaurant, and may not shout at patrons.

While protesting Friday night outside Le Bec-Fin, Cooney and eight followers spotted Perrier stepping into his black Mercedes and screamed, "Shame! Shame! Shame!"

Perrier drove off.

Cooney and four others protested yesterdaysat across from Di Bruno's Bros. near Rittenhouse Square, which sells 6-ounce packages of foie gras with truffles for $19.99.

The impact of protesters is not clear. Danguin said sales at wholesaler D'Artagnan were at their peak, but foie-gras foes are dubious.

"Demand is dropping once people learn how the product is made," said Gene Baur of Farm Sanctuary, based in Watkins Glen, N.Y., which picketed outside Philadelphia's Four Seasons Hotel on April 28.

A Four Seasons spokeswoman said foie gras was no longer offered at its top-rated Fountain restaurant.

In January, Hugs for Puppies approached management at Oceanaire, a seafood restaurant on Washington Square. Foie gras was removed. "It wasn't selling that well, anyway," said Mooradian, the general manager.

Along with the Starr restaurants, Oceanaire appears on Hugs for Puppies' roster of restaurants no longer serving foie gras. The list contains wishful thinking. Cooney said last week that the Jose Garces-owned restaurants Amada and Tinto were in the process of taking foie gras off the menu, but a spokeswoman said Friday that it remained.

While the story appears to concern itself with the merits of foie gras, the foie gras issue is a vulnerability the activists hope to exploit in order to advance a radical vegan agenda. (Just as the zoo elephants are a wedge issue to advance a larger agenda of closing zoos entirely.)

Why it's on the front page, I'm not sure. Perhaps these things do sell papers, and generate discussion.

Whether the vocal antics of a small group merit such coverage is at least debatable. What's also debatable is the propriety of not letting readers know that Nick Cooney is no ordinary animal rights activist; he's something of a big shot who has written at least two opinion pieces for the Inquirer. Z Magazine describes him thusly:

Nick Cooney is the director of Hugs For Puppies, a non-profit animal advocacy organization in Philadelphia. His writing has been featured in the Philadelphia Inquirer and on PBS television.
If his writing has been featured in the Inquirer, and that's significant enough for another journal to note, why isn't it worth a mention in very paper that's featured him?

I find it very hard to believe that neither the reporter nor the Inquirer editor knew about their own paper's working relationship with a activist prominently featured on the front page of a long Sunday article, and I can only speculate about the possible reasons.

It just strikes me that when a central figure in a news story is a well-known activist who has also written for the newspaper that's covering the story, that also should be considered, well, part of the "news."

At least, it seemed newsworthy to me. Maybe even as newsworthy as a small demonstration against foie gras.

But again, this begs the question: what is "news"?

(I know I'm chronically unable to answer my own questions, but I guess that's why I blog.....)

posted by Eric on 06.04.07 at 10:07 AM










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