Sunday, August 2, 2015

Sweet Revenge

Turning the Tables on A Pit Bull Con Artist

by Barbara Kay

[Editor's note: This series consists of two posts: A Pit Bull Advocate's Interview with Merritt Clifton, and a prefatory essay by Barbara Kay titled Sweet Revenge.]

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Most of us know the old dictum, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” I’ve had to say “shame on me” a few times in my life. But reflexive distrust is foreign to my nature and my general life experience. So my defences against fraudsters aren’t foolproof. Two years ago I got taken for a ride by a consummate charlatan, who also (unbeknownst to me at the time) happens to be a pit bull advocate.

“Mark” – not his real name – got in touch with me in the fall of 2012. He introduced himself as a student from a well-known college of technology in Toronto, who had decided to do his final-year film assignment on pit bulls. A member of the Ontario legislature was at the time attempting, through a private member’s bill, to repeal Ontario’s 2005 pit bull ban, sparking the usual buzz that accompanies such initiatives. Having read some of my columns on pit bulls, Mark hoped I would appear in his documentary as a spokesperson for the anti-repeal side.

He seemed genuine in his assertion that the subject was entirely new to him, and that he hoped to make an objective film from an entirely neutral perspective. As a gesture of good faith, I asked him to respond in writing to a number of pointed questions, such as: Do you own or have you ever owned a pit bull? Have you ever taken part in any advocacy work on behalf of pit bulls? And so forth. He assured me in his response that before taking note of the issue in the news, pit bulls had never been on his radar before.

I asked him who else he was interviewing on my side. He said he was happy to take suggestions. I told him about Merritt Clifton, publisher and editor of Animals 24/7, and at that time editor of Animal People News, the doyen of humane-movement history and research on breed-related damages to animals and humans. I also sent him one of Clifton’s annual reports on canine depredations by breed, strongly urging him to contact Merritt for a telephone or e-mail interview. He thanked me warmly for the information and said he would.

A few weeks later, I did my interview. The set-up was professional.  Mark was pleasant and focused, with a list of reasonable questions. I thought I acquitted myself pretty well during the 45 minutes or so I taped, from which I knew much would be edited out, of course.

But I was disturbed to learn at this meeting that Mark had still not been in touch with Clifton, and a feeling of unease took hold. It was only after another rather sharp email nudge that Mark did contact Clifton, who agreed to an e-mail interview. I saw the exchange and was very relieved that Mark had asked so many leading questions, pleased at Clifton’s generosity with his answers, and how much basic information he managed to convey. My unease dissipated, and I looked forward to seeing much of it in the final product.

Two months later, Mark sent me a draft version of the film, which I unfortunately failed to cache before it was removed from the Internet. However, I had made sure to send it around to Clifton and a few others, who had the same appalled reaction to it as I had.

The film was a travesty of journalistic integrity, essentially an info-mercial for pit bulls. Approximately seven people were interviewed in the film, which was of 10 minutes duration. I was the only person on the BSL side, and I appeared for about 45 seconds, my remarks carefully selected to make me appear as a conspiracy theorist (the chosen comments had to do with the pit bull advocacy movement as a propaganda machine supported by a wealthy activist: true, but de-contextualized unpersuasive and somewhat alarmist sounding).

One of my statements was put to an interviewee on the pro-pit bull side for rebuttal; but Mark had misquoted me, so her rebuttal was meaningless. I was not offered any reciprocal opportunity, a blatant show of bias in itself. Neither a dog geneticist nor a dog behaviourist was interviewed. There are many shots of docile, friendly pit bulls, no shots of them engaged in the vicious “sport” of dogfighting. No surgeon who has worked on a pit bull mauling and could have explained the magnitude of difference between a normal dog bite and a pit bull mauling was interviewed. No victims of pit bull attacks were interviewed.

One pro pit bull participant stated that former Ontario Attorney-General Michael Bryant had done no research before imposing the ban, a brazen lie which Bryant was never called upon to challenge. Indeed, until I contacted Bryant, he had no idea the film was being made. One really has to wonder how the creator of a film about repealing a pit bull ban, who claims to be making a “balanced” film, can justify his failure to seek an interview with the politician who backed it.

I was devastated to see that not a single word from Clifton’s interview had been included in the film, never mind a single fact or statistic. It was clear that I had been bamboozled by the smoothest of con artists, and that the “fix was in” since the conception of the film. Given Mark’s tender years, this is a disturbing fact in itself. If the tree of Mark’s life bends increasingly in the direction established by the twig he is now, he will achieve Soviet-level prowess in the field of agitprop, whether it is pit bull advocacy he sticks with, or moves on to damage control for celebrity rapists.

In retrospect, I am amazed on two fronts. I am astonished that Mark overplayed his hand so foolishly. A better con artist would have included some lines from the Clifton interview, of the kind that advocates are practiced in rebutting with myths, and allowed me more time on air, and in a more flattering light. Then he could have made a case, however meager, for his objectivity. I am also shocked that he thought I would accept his duplicity without retaliation. Narcissism breeds complacency, I daresay.

What I did was what any reasonable cheater should have predicted I would do. I immediately contacted the head of his film studies department, recounted a faithful history of the affair, and demanded that my image and words be redacted from the film. I also pointed out the fact that I had been misquoted by one of the interviewees, so asked that that be redacted as well. And I further noted that Mark had received a plethora of information via the anti-pit bull world’s foremost and most credible authority, and had ignored it. I did not have to add that if the film went public, I had a very good podium for writing it up as a cautionary tale, and for casting the film studies department of the college in a bad light.

I had almost instant satisfaction. Two days later, the department head informed that he had viewed the film, agreed that it was unusually biased (although he defended the right of the filmmaker to be biased; well, so do I, I just don’t defend the right of the filmmaker to lie about his bias when directly asked), and agreed that I was justified in demanding redaction of my role in the film, which he had ordered Mark to do. Nothing could have been more gratifying. I had been duped, yes, and I had endured a few unpleasant hours imagining the unredacted film being used for its intended propaganda purposes, but on the other hand, here was Mark with a useless piece of film, in which seven earnest pro-pit bull people argue that pit bulls are wonderful. Yawn! The most rabid pit bull fan in the world would find this diminished film about as riveting as a dog food commercial touting its own brand of kibble.

Did I learn my lesson? To the extent that I will never take part in any student film production again (unless my own son or daughter is making the film). But I did take part in another film project on pit bulls, and the Ontario ban-repeal controversy, made by professionals, and it was a good experience; the film was objective and I felt I was given respectful and positive attention. The moral of the story is never to lend your name and reputation to anyone on whom you cannot do real due diligence. In the case of the professionals at Fido and Wine, I could see that their own credibility was at stake and important to them.

Even though I was able to salvage my error regarding Mark, I continued to feel bad about having dragged Merritt Clifton into participation, which he only did at my request. He wasted time and energy on a scam, and that has bothered me for more than two years. It occurred to me that his effort wouldn’t go to waste, if the interview were made public, and if open-minded people of good faith, seeking objective information, could access Clifton’s responses to Mark’s questions (which were good questions, by the way: Mark has a poor character, but he is by no means stupid). The responses are a kind of Pit Bulls 101, and it is in that spirit that I introduce (with permission from Merritt Clifton, and very lightly copyedited)…The Interview!

As you read this, ponder how it could be that even a biased filmmaker could read these responses, then toss the whole interview into the garbage, film his gossamer-thin agitprop, and still look at himself in the mirror and call himself a maker of documentary films. I would like to think the episode was a wake-up call for him, but realistically, I am afraid the episode has probably trained him only to be craftier in his methods of deception. Tellingly, Mark accused me on Twitter a year after the episode of being a person who does not honour her contracts. I responded that contracts made in bad faith are not considered contracts – ethically, of course, and even in courts of law. But that he believes he is the wronged party does not speak well for his future.

I blocked him from any further contact with me via Twitter. Another small satisfaction.

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Read: A Pit Bull Advocate's Interview with Merritt Clifton