Sunday, October 11, 2009

NYT's Amy Wallace Rolls Over And Plays Dead For "Dog Whisperer" Cesar Millan in 3,126-Word Sunday Business Puff Piece.

If we policed every instance of puffery in the NYT, we'd need a small army of NYTPickers.

But Amy Wallace's Sunday Business section cover story -- a 3,126-word profile of Cesar Millan, better known as "The Dog Whisperer" -- stands as a classic example of the form. In epic length, Wallace manages to rhapsodize almost non-stop about the famous dog trainer, and to reduce any criticism to a, well, whisper.

"Not everyone agrees with Mr. Millan's methods," begins a paragraph more than 2,000 words in, where Wallace finally mentions a minor criticism of Millan raised by s single dog trainer.

But in fact, as any dog owner knows -- including Jill Abramson, the NYT's managing editor, who mentioned Millan in her NYT blog a few weeks ago -- Millan is a controversial, even polarizing figure whose popularity has brought with it some serious objection to his methods.

In her August 3 "Puppy Diaries" column about her new puppy, Scout, Abramson referred to "a raging argument between those who favor the Cesar Millan pack leader approach, which requires firm command and control, and those who prefer the positive reinforcement and reward technique used by Diane and other trainers."

No mention of that conflict, or any others, in Wallace's wet, sloppy kiss.

But in fact, Wallace would have had to go no further than back issues of the NYT -- or even Wikipedia -- to find evidence that Millan's methods have drawn significant opposition.

In September 2005, the American Humane Association (a watchdog group that keeps an eye on popular culture for animal mistreastment) asked the National Geographic Channel to stop airing Millan's "Dog Whisperer" series, calling his methods "inhumane, outdated and improper."

In a February, 2006 NYT story, the director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Tufts University, Dr. Nicholas Dodman, said the Millan had "put dog training back 20 years." He specifically criticized Millan's advocacy of pinning dogs down and pulling on their leash as part of the training process. Dodman also said he approached the TV channel to ask that they discontinue the show.

Wikipedia also makes references to two legal battles that Millan faced, including a lawsuit from a client and another from two former publicists. Both settled out of court.

But you won't find any of this -- or, for that matter, any real assessment of Millan's methods -- anywhere in Wallace's story. Instead, she blathers on endlessly with the encomia of movie stars and other dog owners who've used Millan to train their dogs.

"It's a miracle," the story begins.

"It's unbelievable," starts the second paragraph.

To her credit, Wallace does acknowledge her epic lateness to the subject (yet another flaw of the story) right away. "If you have a television, you may know Mr. Millan," she writes. She mentions his three bestsellers, his magazine and, of course, the show's high ratings. She doesn't mention that Millan has been frequently profiled and written about elsewhere, including a Q&A with the NYT Magazine's Deborah Solomon in May 2006.

Other classic lines from Wallace's piece:

"No wonder Mr. Millan's reputation as a fixer...has been immortalized in pop culture."

"Not bad for a once-poor native of Culiacan, Mexico....When he talks about transformation, in other words, he's living proof that anything's possible."

"According to MPH Entertainment, the production company that is Mr. Millan's partner...he will be a $100 million business in a few years. And he says he's just getting started."

"Like the dogs that he is world-famous for understanding -- and, notably, unlike some of their owners -- Mr. Millan doesn't judge others. Instead, he lives in the now and maintains a sort of ├╝ber-balanced mien."

And that's just in the first thousand words.

Oh wait, we forgot. What about that paragraph that mentioned Millan's weaknesses? Here's what Wallace wrote:

“Positivist” trainers like Ian Dunbar reject the idea that a submissive dog is a happy dog. Mr. Dunbar advocates treating dogs as companions, not followers. While Mr. Millan uses his hand like a mother dog uses her mouth — to nudge dogs to behave — Mr. Dunbar shuns physical corrections and relies instead on treats and rewards.

But lest anyone else get the last word, Wallace hands Millan the mike:

To each his own, says Mr. Millan, whose favored “tsst!” sound is a correction heard around the world. “It’s just that I think I know something you might not know,” he says. “An open-minded human can learn from anybody.”

It's sad to see such weak work from Wallace, who has done distinguished journalism at the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Magazine, where her memorably aggressive 2001 profile of Variety editor Peter Bart made her a finalist for a National Magazine Award. There's no evidence of her tough, skeptical side in today's piece.

Tsst! to Sunday Business editor Tim O'Brien and NYT business editor Larry Ingrassia for letting Wallace's poorly reported and deeply one-sided profile into print.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Good post, but you haven't come up with a motive. What's in it for Wallace to do a puff piece? Is it just laziness, she have a Millan-trained dog, what? Explain.

Anonymous said...

it's easier to do a puff piece than hard hitting journalism and reporting

Anonymous said...

seth baby you a loopy doo aintcha

Anonymous said...

The NY Times ran an Op-Ed piece in 2006 called "Pack of Lies" by a dog expert named Mark Derr that was highly critical of "The Dog Whisperer" and his methods of training.

It's a very good read, here's the link:

www.nytimes.com/2006/08/31/opinion/31derr.html

Interesting how when the Times (and other publications) does a "profile" with a subject's participation, it's largely positive.

The "Dog Whisperer" TV show has been a success and that's all the article is interested in. It's about a successful businessman with a compelling life story, but it neglects to ask if Milan is truly competent and it fails to take criticism of him seriously.

Derr is the dog expert and he says Milan is giving bad (possibly dangerous, if you have a big dog or small children) advice. I'll take an actual expert's advice over Amy Wallce's fawning.

Tallen said...

In regards to one of the lawsuits against Millan by one of his clients, if you would have done your research you would have read that that lawsuit never reached court because Cesar was not even involved. A friend of Cesar's who is a dog trainer, was given permission to use Cesar's facility with one of his clients (not Cesar's, the dog trainers's) during a time that Cesar was not even there.

If you're interested in doing more research, you can read 'The Ultimate Episode Guide' which gives summaries and updates from all of Cesar's clients from The Dog Whisperer in seasons 1-3. You will read about those dog owners who say they have no problems with their dog(s) to this day (some updates are over one year later!) because they still implement what Cesar taught them while others share their dog still has it's original issue....but guess what-they also admit to not following what Cesar taught them.

Martin Deeley, who is the co-founder of the International Association of Canine Professionals, not only agrees with Cesar's philosophy, but had also supported him by doing a DVD with him. You can also go to the Dog Whisperer Fan yahoo group (http://pets.groups.yahoo.com/group/DogWhispererFans/list) and talk with dog professionals who do support Cesar's philosophy including dog trainers, dog behaviorists, groomers, vets, vet techs, many dog rescue workers, etc.