Sunday, November 1, 2009

Standing to be counted is aided by a backbone

I have criticized New York Times reporter Joe Drape on more than one occasion for writing that "many veterinarians" agree with his stories' claims that "lax oversight" of medication rules and an overuse of even legal medications are significant factors in the mortality rate of racehorses in the United States.

I am troubled that Drape -- in my reading -- has neither quantified nor identified those "many veterinarians."

And I'm not backing down from that criticism. Names attached to claims always add weight to the opinions offered.

But this denunciation of my position, left beneath Friday's blog post about another story of Drape's, merits deeper inspection. Because while it is intended as a defense of Drape, a criticism of me, and a suggestion that Drape's reporting is accurate -- and it serves as all of those things -- the fact that it was left anonymously tells us even more:

I am one of Joe Drape's anonymous sources, a practicing racetrack veterinarian, who has spent probably 5 hours conversing with Mr. Drape about racing medication issues.
I can assure you that I will continue to insist on anonymity until this subject becomes a less combustible issue, as your unwarranted attacks on Mr. Drape's journalism prove.

That might be one to make me chuckle if the person wasn't serious. Namely the suggestion that my calls for higher journalistic standards and transparency on the subject matter are an "unwarranted" criticism, perhaps even a threat to people of good conscience.

I give remarkably little weight to anonymous critics. I'm very certain that sentiment isn't one held by me alone. The powers that be in any endeavor -- certainly in an industry like horse racing, with deep traditions and a rigid underlying culture, aspects of which do need changing -- are far less likely to be swayed by muffled voices emanating from the darkest corner of the room.

It isn't that anonymous sources or whistle-blowers have never provided necessary information that exposed serious issues and initiated change. They have and they will continue to do so. Anonymity is particularly worth seeking -- and, as a journalist, protecting -- if the source's life is on the line. Like a mob informant.

But I assure you, if you really want to make a difference -- particularly on issues of life and death for others who have no power to speak for themselves and in a field in which you claim documented education and expertise -- the fastest way to start is by growing a spine.

The New York Times' allegedly increasing list of "many veterinarians," few or none of whom I guess will go on-record with their names, does not amount to list of "many veterinarians" in any way. They all might as well be figments of our collective imagination.

In fact, I would respect Drape's reporting on this issue more if he actually phrased his claim as such: "Veterinarians who have voiced their concerns to the Times anonymously due to the volatility of this issue believe ... ."

But that never seems to be what he writes. His language suggests that there's some obvious or documented groundswell of sentiment among the veterinary community; a groundswell that is never really pinpointed. A movement that perhaps can't be quantified because its participants won't stand to be counted.

Certainly the issue of drugs -- legal and illegal -- at America's racetracks, is inflammatory. But is an aggrieved veterinarian's need to protect his career somehow more crucial than, say, mine?

I'm fooling with my reputation in two fields with this blog. I am a professional journalist with 20 years in the business -- fully qualified and experienced to criticize Joe Drape -- and I am also an entry-level breeder of thoroughbred racehorses.

Am I making nothing but friends with my comments here, on this and other issues?


Could my opinions, and the frankness with which they're delivered, potentially cost me opportunities in the fields of both journalism and horse racing?


But I was brought up to believe that if I stood for something, I shouldn't -- nay, couldn't -- be afraid to say it. Even if it made enemies. Even if it came at the price of money or so-called friends or a job.

If standing for what you believe in costs you allies and allows those in the wrong to still prevail, as a small-town police chief once told me, "then this is a job I don't want anyway."

How strongly held are your convictions about preserving the health of these animals if it is more important to protect your business or connections or reputation among powerful people than it is to publicly stand up and safeguard your patients and their equine peers?

It starts with a simple statement. Print this off and have your fellow veterinarians who agree sign on, too.

"I am Dr. ________. I have been a licensed veterinarian in the horse racing industry for ____ years. And I'm sick and tired of what some of my colleagues and their clients are doing to these animals in the name of competition and profit. There is a better way."

Certainly your opposition will be determined and well-financed. They will collude against you. That might indeed cost you some income; perhaps your whole practice if it largely involves racehorses. But do you want to stay in the business if it's that filthy?

Besides, changing the world isn't for the meek.

The most notable hero from the Tiananmen Square demonstrations remains anonymous, other than the moniker "Tank Man." But this "unknown rebel" did not seek anonymity. Far from it. He walked into a public square where one day prior -- by some witness accounts -- armored vehicles of the People's Liberation Army had crushed cars and civilians beneath their treads.

And he stood his ground in front of a column of Type 59 tanks.

To this day we are not certain of Tank Man's identity, not because he sought anonymity, but in fact because he did not shy away from his moment in history. And for that courage, he was dragged away by unknown people, to face an unknown fate.

In Beijing on June 5, 1989, one man, refusing to cower from the adversary, stood down a column of tanks in hopes of changing his nation and the world.

In 2009 America, highly trained and licensed professionals with meaningful experience demand anonymity before giving their professional opinions to a newspaper reporter because the issues are too "combustible" ... in trying to change a sports business.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote: "When a resolute young fellow steps up to the great bully, the world, and takes him boldly by the beard, he is often surprised to find it comes off in his hand, and that it was only tied on to scare away the timid adventurers."

And we've all heard that there's strength in numbers.

But how can the movement to "clean up" horse racing quantify its strength, how will it ever know when it finally outnumbers the opposition, if even the movement's truest believers fear shouting out their names at roll call?


  1. Readers: Be advised that from this point (8:35 a.m.) until mid-afternoon Sunday, I will not be available to moderate comments. Feel free to leave them, but it will be several hours before they're addressed.

    So don't get your shorts in a wad like the person did a few weeks ago and start sending me all-capped rants because I wasn't able to moderate his or her comment at the same time as I was driving home from work.

  2. Horseracing is such a magnet for people to espouse their opions on it's intricacies who have so little knowledge about the business!
    Give it up Glenn, it seems that you are the only person who doesn't realize that Mr. Drape has done more research on medication issues than your lame Google search.

  3. I feel a Bud Light "Real Men of Genius" commerical coming on...

    "Here's to you Mr. Anoymous poster guy...the Internet was invented to share information, but you said NO! I want to hide behind a wall of silence..."

  4. The Tank Man was very brave indeed, and also assuredly, very dead within hours. Not very smart.
    Mark Felt, on the other hand, was both brave and smart.

  5. There are a number of stories about the present whereabouts of "Tank Man." Certainly it would seem the most likely outcome was that he was killed. But at least one book claims that he is alive and in hiding.

    The world WOULD like to know. But probably never will.


I welcome comments, including criticism and debate. But jerks and the vulgar will not be tolerated.