Fake But Accurate? Dan Rather-Style Journalism Excused for Animal Documentaries

It seems that Dan Rather-style journalism, putting forth fake information to promote the supposed greater good, extends to animal documentaries as well. On Tuesday's Nightline, reporter John Donvan exposed this dishonesty in a lengthy segment. But he also partially defended the practice of   falsifying scenes of animals in the wild in order to promote conservation. He even featured a participant who justified the practice as "worth it to have told the lie." [MP3 audio here.]

After showing completely manipulated scenes of wolves and whales, of rented, captive animals being portrayed as wild, Donvan spun, "Some argue that using captive animals actually spares truly wild animals the trauma, disruption and danger that comes with human contact."

The ABC correspondent interviewed Chris Palmer, a whistle blower who worked on several of these documentaries and exposed the fraud in his new book Shooting the Wild. Yet, Palmer, who is an environmental professor at American University, excused the practice: "I think you could make the argument that this is okay, because the film is going to do a lot of good...Maybe it's worth it to have told the lie."

Donvan recounted a scene from the documentary Whales in which two of the creatures leave Hawaii and, at the film's climax, arrive in Alaska. Donvan theatrically recounted, "Whew. That is pretty dramatic. One problem, though."

Palmer cynically explained: "The point is, we made that up. I mean, the mother and calf we see arriving in Alaska is not the same animals that we saw leaving in Hawaii." Palmer lead the journalist through all sorts of deception, including importing captive wolves and hoaxing a fight between a bear and a predator.

Donvan and ABC should be commended for debunking fraud. But, it would have been nice for him to show a little more outrage about such journalistic dishonesty. At one point, he argued, "And that's the other side of the argument. The fake stuff, and it's usually only a fraction of any movie when it happens, it helps us to care, inspiring awe, even love. Putting us on the side of the animals, which is why he makes films himself."

In other words, the ends justify the means? Conservation is a laudable goal. But, suppose this was a conservative film? Would Donvan be so forgiving?

Finally, it was the same network, ABC, that in 1994 sent two producers with fake credentials to pose as Food Lion employees in order to stage poor hygiene at the supermarket. So, perhaps it's not surprising that journalists would defend such practices.

A transcript of the September 28 segment, which aired at 11:35pm EDT, follows:

CYNTHIA MCFADDEN: We begin tonight with a shocking look behind some of the most popular nonfiction films of our time. Nature documentaries. These films seek to deliver a sense of wonder at the quirky private behavior of some of the colorful characters in the Animal Kingdom. The problem, according to a long-time industry veteran we interviewed tonight, is that some of the most incredible scenes are 100 percent fake. John Donvan has our report.

JOHN DONVAN: Animals on the screen. We love them. Beethoven in the movie of that name. Lassie, in the classic TV show. And then, of course, there is Flipper. All of whom were, we knew, essentially actors, trained animal performers following a script. But animals on screen this way, in the wildlife documentary - and this is Disney's 1958 "White Wilderness," what made it so dazzling- and what made later films like IMAX blockbuster "Wolves" so enchanting or "Whales" was the sheer wonder of seeing animals wild. In a world with such much accidental beauty, like this haunting image of an underseas bone yard.

CHRIS PALMER (Author, Shooting the Wild): Except that we put it there.

DONVAN: We journey along with these creatures, wait - what did he just say?

PALMER: Except that we put it there.

DONVAN: He's talking about that whale skull on the sea bottom.

PALMER: We had a scientist who had this killer whale skull, and we asked him if he would bring it and then we put it at the bottom of the sea.

DONVAN: And back in the Wolves movie, that dead animal the whole pack is feeding on?

PALMER: We found a dead animal. You know, there's lots of road kill around. And so we put it there and-

DONVAN: You hauled that animal there-

PALMER: Oh we hauled that animal to that place. And often in this situation, we didn't do it here, but often in this type of situation, people who manage these animals will put M&Ms or something tasty in the innards of a dead animal.

DONVAN: M&Ms stuffed animal?

PALMER: To make the animals feed on it.

DONVAN: Oh, no. Oh, yes, says Chris Palmer.

PALMER: These wildlife films, too many of them involves deceptions, manipulation, misrepresentations, fraudulence, and the audience doesn't know.

DONVAN: And who is Chris Palmer to say that filmmakers have been faking? Well, he was the producer of "Whales." And executive produce of "Wolves" and of "Bears" and others. Only now, in a book called "Shooting in the Wild," he is pointing fingers - including at himself.

PALMER: And I have, after 30 years in this business, I have come to - and I've been part of that problem.

DONVAN: Because - get ready for another one - this is from "Wolves," this family subsisting on the side of an unforgiving mountain, their only refuge, this den dug out of hard earth - well, these animals aren't actually from around there.

PALMER: What is happening in reality is, those wolves are captive. They are from a game farm.

DONVAN: They don't live there?

PALMER: They don't live there. They have been rented.

DONVAN: This is - it's rent a wolf.

PALMER: Rent a wolf.

DONVAN: Oh, one more thing. The den dug out of hard earth?

PALMER: That den is artificial.

DONVAN: Are you telling me that you built this?

PALMER: In order to get a camera in there, because the wolf is habituated to the noisy camera, and to the cameraman and so on, this is all made up.

DONVAN: Now yes, there was a notice included in the movie, it came near the end of the closing credits indicating that captive wolves had been used in the making of the movie.

PALMER: But who reads the credits, except my mother? No one.

DONVAN: Technically, in the small print you're covered.

PALMER: Yes, technically we're covered. But there was no indication watching the film that those are wild wolves. Everybody would think they were watching wild free running wolves.

DONVAN: Yes, they would indeed. And how disillusioning to be shown this illusion. It's heartbreaking. The truth is heartbreaking because you played on our heart-strings so much, to make us care. But Palmer says it's not just him and it's not all that new. "White Wilderness," that movie won an Oscar back in 1958. But this famous scene of lemmings committing suicide was outed as a fake years ago. Those lemmings were hurled off those cliffs by the filmmakers. Lemming suicide is a myth.

PALMER: So lots of deceptions going, and the reason I've written a book is to launch a campaign around the world to ask whether - whether what we're doing is right. [Clip of Palmer teaching] Why would you make a film like that?

DONVAN: Palmer now heads the Center for Environmental Filmmaking that he founded at American University in Washington. He tries to teach ethical film making but concedes the reason he has cut corners over the years is simple. It's money.

PALMER: When you're under that pressure and money is running out and the weather is closing in, ethics is the last thing on your mind. You are after that shot.

DONVAN: So, you bring your own wolves, you know you'll get the shot. And if you can tug at the viewer's heart-strings, you know you'll get the ratings. If the industry went completely, completely honest by the way that you describe honest, would the movies get really boring?

PALMER: I think you can do it, but it take as lot of creativity, a lot of hard work.

PALMER: But just not too much creativity.

DONVAN: Part of this is up to those that eat this stuff up so readily. You watch "Whales" and you get all wrapped up in the struggle of this pair, Misty and Echo, mother and child. But how do they know their names?

PALMER: We made them up.

DONVAN: And now watch, you see Misty and Echo set off on a journey of thousands of miles to reach their feedings grounds in Alaska and the movie makes it seem that they might not make it.

NARRATOR ("WHALES"): Some of the whales I've gotten to know have never returned.

PALMER: And the film items how they overcome amazing obstacles and challenges from killer whales, from impacts from ships, from drift nets and so on. Our ship goes up to Alaska, we're waiting for them there and will we see them? And the music swells and the audience is thrilled that Misty and Echo have arrived safely.

NARRATOR: Then, the moment they had hoped for. By sheer luck, they spot a calf with familiar markings. It's Echo.

DONVAN: Whew. That is pretty dramatic. One problem, though.

PALMER: The point is, we made that up. I mean, the mother and calf we see arriving in Alaska is not the same animals that we saw leaving in Hawaii.

DONVAN: Reason? They had no means or money for tracking two whales at ocean depths for 3,000 miles. Still, it feels good that Misty and Echo or whoever they are finally make it or seem to. Can we not care about the animals if we don't give them human names?

PALMER: It is easier to care about animals if you give them names. And this is a big debate in science. You know, Goodall named her chimps and she was criticized for that. But look at the incredible good that she's done.

DONVAN: And that's the other side of the argument. The fake stuff, and it's usually only a fraction of any movie when it happens, it helps us to care, inspiring awe, even love. Putting us on the side of the animals, which is why he makes films himself. So, in his movie "Bears," yes, it's true, that not all the animals are truly wild. The bears got there that day by truck, essentially.

PALMER: Yeah, yes.

DONVAN: And it's true there was a trainer off-screen in this scene telling the animals what to do.

PALMER: The trainer is making signs. They are trained through being fed, rewarded with M&Ms and food.

DONVAN: But you do end up really liking bears, caring about them. The same thing with the wolves. Some argue that using captive animals actually spares truly wild animals the trauma, disruption and danger that comes with human contact. Chris Palmer concedes that point. Chris, I get the feeling that you are torn about this, that there is - there is an argument to be made that for the greater good, you can tell a little lie here and there in a movie.

PALMER: Yes, yeah. I think you could make the argument that this is okay, because the film is going to do a lot of good. It's going to promote conservation. Animals won't really be harmed. We won't really be disturbing wild animals. Maybe it's worth it to have told the lie.

Scott Whitlock
Scott Whitlock
Scott Whitlock is the senior news analyst for the Media Research Center and a contributing editor for NewsBusters.org