Why did Michael Vick story touch a nerve nationwide?

Larry Timbs with his sheltie, Roadie.
Larry Timbs with his sheltie, Roadie.

We live in a culture where Lassie and Rin Tin Tin each had their own TV show.

And we live in one where folks despise the thought of any degree of cruelty being inflicted on their pets -- dogs, cats, tropical fish, birds, gerbils, turtles, even snakes.

So it's no wonder that the Michael Vick dogfighting debacle has gotten so much press coverage, according to a sampling of editors of community newspapers in South Carolina.

Those same editors will tell you they've gotten lots of letters, phone calls and e-mails -- many of them offering opinions on the embattled Vick or dogfighting.

The Vick story is about a multimillionaire NFL quarterback now fallen from grace, and possibly ruined financially forever because of his involvement in the ancient blood sport of dogfighting (a felony in 48 states). It's also about his complicity in the grisly torture and killing of dogs (by electrocution, beating, hanging or drowning.)

Such stuff touches a deep, sensitive nerve with readers.

"A husband might kill his wife, and it is a story that is prominently displayed and important," Greg Retinas, managing editor of The (Spartanburg) Herald-Journal, wrote in response to an e-mail query. "Yet an animal being tortured or otherwise abused will attract far more reader feedback and outrage.

"Clearly, the aspect of the Vick case that seemed to upset most people was not the dogfighting, or gambling, but the assertion that dogs who didn't perform well were executed by methods such as drowning or strangling or electrocution," Retsinas added. "For many readers who may have stopped being outraged by the transgressions of pro athletes today (steroids, DUIs, etc.) this was something that seemed harder to swallow."

Terry Plumb, retired long-time editor (and now columnist) of The Herald, said via e-mail that in a celebrity culture such as ours, even Brittany Spears or Paris Hilton would have to do something pretty weird to drive the Vick story off the front page.

Plumb notes that Vick first lied about and then pleaded guilty to maiming and killing dogs -- in a country that loves dogs -- giving the story even more legs.

"Put it this way," Plumb said. "Had Vick been charged with cockfighting, it would not have been seen as quite so offensive. Lassie and Rin Tin Tin each had their own TV show. I don't recall a chicken being so honored."

Media coverage of the Atlanta Falcons' star quarterback has been unrelenting, but Plumb thinks that Vick's plight will not have a major impact on most Americans' lives. "That does not mean, however, that the story was of less interest to readers and viewers," he noted. "Any mass media that downplayed the Vick story probably missed the boat."

More coverage than abortion

Likewise, Chip Chase, former managing editor and currently new product development director for The (Sumter)Item, says news coverage of the unfolding Vick drama might have been excessive.

That said, The Item and other newspapers stayed with the story.

"I heard a preacher recently say that this topic was getting more coverage than abortion," Chase wrote e-mail. "When he brought that up, I began pondering why that was the case. One reason is that while it's barbaric, it's never been really in the forefront ... (W)e haven't been de-sensitized to it yet.

"Murder is commonplace; we have it (in) our papers daily. Big metro papers, like say the AJC (Atlanta Journal-Constitution), run murders as briefs. But dogfighting has never been shown in this light. And the fact that a high-profile athlete has been involved only serves to make it an even bigger deal.

"We haven't gone crazy," Chase said, "like mainstream media have. After all, that's not what makes our paper our paper. But we have certainly followed it."

Stephen Guilfoyle, editor of the twice-a-week Chester News & Reporter, says he doesn't know why the Vick story got so much traction.

But he has learned from covering a rural community that whereas some people think dogs and other animals "are just critters with no souls," there also are people who think they are just as alive as you and I. That's the heart of the debate about it.

"We have dog fights here (in Chester)," Guilfoyle wrote. "I don't need to cover ones going on in Virginia. But bigger papers like to jump on things, sometimes using tortuous logic, to get on the flavor of the moment."

The organized dogfighting subculture in the U.S. is kept very secret but could involve upwards of 40,000 money-grubbing, law-defying, heartless, animal-hating people, according to a spokesman for the national Humane Society. That sort of information intrigues Tim Hicks, managing editor of the weekly People-Sentinel in Barnwell.

"What may be the more interesting aspect about the whole Michael Vick case in relation to journalism is that now illegal dogfighting has gotten some exposure," wrote Hicks, a former photojournalist who worked for The Herald and for weekly newspapers in Clover and York.

"Obviously, the problem existed long before Vick's participation in it. I recently went to the county animal shelter where they were holding two pit bulls which they think had been involved in dogfighting," Hicks added.

Hicks wonders how or if newspapers have shifted from the Vick debacle to the larger issue of dogfighting and animal cruelty.

He asks: "How many newspapers did sidebar companion pieces about dogfighting? How many newspapers localized the dogfighting dilemma to their area? Did reporters or small daily or weekly newspapers dig into whether there was as problem in their community on this?

"In a wider scope, how many social ills, diseases, etc., are left unreported or unknown by the general public until some celebrity becomes a victim to it, then it gets coverage? ... Would anorexia, the eating disorder, have gained as wide a knowledge now if singer Karen Carpenter hadn't fallen prey to it?"

About the People-Sentinel's coverage of Vick, Hicks said it's been fairly minimal with the newspaper only publishing a syndicated political cartoon, which ran in its Aug. 15 edition. The cartoon showed an adult dog sharing a scary story to some puppies in which the ogre of the tale was Vick.