Dirty secrets under the big top - Page 3

Lawsuits charge Ringling Bros. with abusing animals, endangering public health, and sabotaging its critics using CIA spooks. Could this be the end of the circus as we know it?
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Why is this elephant smiling?

Feld in personal meetings."

Amy McWethy, a spokesperson for Feld Entertainment, refused to discuss the cases or their implications.

The statements of George and Kaplan describe secret bugging and phone tapping, bribes and clandestine cash settlements to silence critics (including Smith, who settled his lawsuit for $6 million), and infiltration of groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

"As part of my work for Feld Entertainment," George wrote in his affidavit, "I was also asked to review reports from [Feld executive vice president] Richard Froemming and his organizations based on their surveillance of, and efforts to counter, the activities of various animal rights groups."

National security reporter Jeff Stein (now with Congressional Quarterly) wrote the definitive account of Feld's alleged black ops for Salon.com ("The Greatest Vendetta on Earth," 8/30/01), and was also allegedly targeted for surveillance and retribution, according to a story in the May/June 2002 issue of Columbia Journalism Review ("Investigations: The scary circus," by Jay Cheshes).

Stein's original stories were followed up by 60 Minutes in May 2003, which essentially repeated the allegations.

The next year, KTVU anchor Leslie Griffith got onto the circus story, doing lengthy, investigative reports on the animal abuse lawsuit revelations for KTVU in 2004 and 2005, just as Ringling Bros. was coming to town.

Then Griffith left the station — at least in part because of the backlash she says she felt from both her corporate bosses and Ringling Bros., whose internal documents reveal an aggressive strategy to counter negative media coverage.

A training manual made public as part of the lawsuit outlines how the circus responds to reporters:

"Immediately upon learning about negative stories about Ringling Bros., the Animal Issues Department will put in place the [Rapid Deployment Force]," it states. "The Animal Issues Department will directly contact the editor/news director.... Armed with videos, literature and other information, the Animal Issues Department Head will demand a retraction or equal time and will work in concert with the grass roots campaign.... If the editor/news director refuses the request, Legal will be informed to determine what recourses exist."

Griffith says it was after KTVU was targeted by this effort that she was barred from doing any more circus stories and her relationship with the station began to deteriorate. "All of a sudden my hair wasn't good enough, my makeup wasn't good enough — after 25 years of doing the news."

Officially Griffith and KTVU parted on good terms with mutual statements of respect. Even today, KTVU general manager Tim McKay (who was station manager when Griffith left) speaks highly of Griffith, telling the Guardian, "Leslie worked here for a number of years and did a fantastic job."

McKay said he didn't know about any contact from Ringling Bros. or Griffith being told to back off the circus stories (he said he would check and get back to us, but didn't as of press time), saying only, "We stand behind the stories as they aired. There was a whole lot of attention given to their accuracy."

But it's clear that Ringling Bros. was aware of and upset by Griffith's work. In 2005 Ringling Bros. attorneys argued in court against efforts by the ASPCA and the other lawsuit plaintiffs to obtain financial records and veterinary records on the Ringling elephants, telling the judge: "To shovel this stuff into the public record and try to draw inferences from it, or put it in out of context, lends itself to all sorts of abuse, the very kind of abuse that we contend took place on the San Francisco television station last week."

Judge Emmet G.

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