Whale Story

Fame is such a bummer. But much less of a bummer, Lair Scott can now see, than obscurity.

Given an ounce of professional celebrity, the ounce journalists consider their due, Scott would never have been accused of duplicity by the Shedd Aquarium and Lincoln Park Zoo. Ergo, his recent attempt at investigative journalism would never have been stricken from the airwaves.

In Scott’s professional background is a cable TV show called Community Alert. He has a major project in the works–a weekly half-hour report on “animal-welfare issues” that will be seen from coast to coast. To this end he founded the production house Modern Animal News Television. He told us a pilot should be ready by March and that MTV is interested.

But that will be then. This is now. MAN-TV’s first exercise was distinctly low profile–a report on the Shedd’s beluga whales made for the public affairs program Earth Network. Public affairs programming on commercial television tends to be concentrated in those hours when the public that wouldn’t watch it anyway is sound asleep. An excellent specimen of the type, Earth Network appears on WGBO, Channel 66, at 7 AM on Saturdays.

Distributed since 1990 by Howie Samuelsohn’s Highland Park production house of the same name, Earth Network is also carried by cable channels along the North Shore and in eight other cities. WGBO is used to taking whatever Samuelsohn gives it. Only once before had program manager George Leh refused to broadcast an Earth Network show–a study of the peace movement made durng the 1991 gulf war. Leh couldn’t see where it had anything to do with the environment.

Lair Scott’s show is now the second. He’d interviewed Betsy Raymond, a Shedd spokesman who gave him a copy of the Shedd’s “B-Roll”–that is, raw videotape–of the capture last August of four beluga whales in northern Manitoba. He’d collected Canadian videotape of the same whale hunt–tape revealing that catcalling protesters had shadowed the Shedd’s boats and portraying the hunt as a sort of heartless rodeo. He’d interviewed animal rights activists who gathered outside the aquarium to protest the confinement of the whales within.

It had been shaping up as a simple little show. But on September 22 two of the belugas died.

Obviously Scott needed to deal with this disaster. He needed Betsy Raymond back on camera. Alas, when he offered Channel Five some of his Canadian tape of the whales’ capture he poisoned his relationship with the aquarium. Five asked for an interview, and not only was Scott heard explaining that beluga hunters capture whales by jumping on their backs, he was also identified as an animal rights activist. When Raymond saw the newscast she felt jerked around; this was the guy she’d been cooperating with because she thought he was a Channel 66 producer. Scott called Raymond and left a message on her machine. He said that Five had misrepresented him, quoted him out of context. But Raymond didn’t call back.

Scott turned to the Shedd’s PR firm. President Jean Baker told us, “He said he had to talk with Betsy Raymond and he had to talk with her now. And if she wouldn’t talk with him he was going to do a very negative piece on the aquarium.” Baker said she told Scott to do whatever he wanted. “It infuriated him. He said, ‘It’s not fair! It’s not fair! And I’m going to ruin Baker & Associates and I’m going to ruin the Shedd Aquarium.’ He would call our office and just harass people.”

Those were trying days. “This is the first time I’ve ever had calls come in that were abusive calls without anyone leaving a name,” Baker said. “Just someone saying, ‘Shame, shame, shame on you.'” She suspected Scott.

Absolutely not, Scott insists. “Those are animal activists. They’ve got me completely mixed up with animal activists out there. I’m an animal-welfare journalist reporter type. I may agree with a lot of the things they’re doing, but I do not agree with a lot of their tactics and I vocalize these things to them personally. I think sometimes they go way overboard. And sometimes the Shedd goes way overboard by not sitting down with them. And I get in the middle of this. Don’t kill the messenger!”

As for that nasty conversation with Jean Baker, Scott insists he never had it.

Shunned by the Shedd, Scott added some footage of Chicago’s major TV stations asking pointed questions about the Shedd’s beluga program. His show was supposed to air on October 10. WGBO postponed it two weeks to give Scott time to collect written permissions to use the borrowed footage and to bleep out the cursing of protesters in Manitoba. (George Leh says he heard “the F word.”) Two days before the new air date Howie Samuelsohn found out the show wouldn’t run at all.

The new problem, said Leh, was Scott himself: he’d been misrepresenting himself as an employee of the station.

Welcome to the free-lancer’s paradox, where a reporter doesn’t work for whoever it is he’s working for. To put a fine point on it, Scott was a representative of Modern Animal News Television producing a show for the Earth Network that would run on Channel 66, but not of 66 itself. This crucial distinction is apt to escape anyone who hears it, though Scott insists he tried to be precise.

Scott’s downfall began with a call to WGBO’s public service director Jean Halevi from Carol Leifer, a publicist for the Lincoln Park Zoo. Halevi told us they were on another subject when Leifer wondered, “By the way, Jean, this Lair Scott, is he one of your producers? He seems a little strange to me.” Scott had been talking to Leifer about a Christmas show for Earth Network on the caroling of the animals.

“He said he was a national network something,” Leifer told us. “I said I was delighted. Then he started talking about why we don’t have a special place for handicapped animals. All of a sudden the red flags went up. He said it was a wonderful zoo, but he needed to present a balanced view. And I thought ‘Animal rights!’ I put him off. I handled him the way I handle anyone I don’t want to deal with.”

Did he say he worked for 66? we asked Leifer.

“I don’t think he actually said he was a Channel 66 producer, but it certainly was the impression I got.”

Curious, Halevi called Betsy Raymond, who turned out to have the same impression. “He told us he was doing a documentary for Channel 66,” Raymond said later. “And what we learned from Channel 66 is that he’d misrepresented himself. I think that’s unprofessional and I think it’s dishonest.”

Any chance you simply misunderstood him? we asked.

“That’s possible,” Raymond said.

Samuelsohn talked to the cameraman who’d taped the interview with Raymond. The cameraman said Scott explained he was from Modern Animal News Television and didn’t even mention Channel 66 until Raymond asked where she could see the show.

Against Samuelsohn’s wishes, Scott made an immediate call to WGBO. Samuelsohn could see how angry Scott was, and he didn’t want Scott screwing up Earth Network’s relationship with Leh. Scott almost did. He and Leh engaged in what Scott calls “a shouting match,” and today Leh describes Scott as “a jerk.” Leh said, “I’ve been in the business 32 years and I don’t need to be talked to this way. I know quality, and I don’t put something on the air just because he thinks it should be.”

Scott is dead certain WGBO canned his show because the Shedd wanted it canned–and the Shedd wanted it canned because it was embarrassed by Scott’s footage of the beluga roundup. In Scott’s mind the question of misrepresentation is a shabby pretext. He fired off a widely ignored press release declaring that WGBO had deemed the program “too controversial to air” and announcing that “attorneys for M.A.N.-TV are exploring legal options.”

“This whole issue, I believe, is freedom of the press,” Scott told us. “If we don’t get the truth out there, then what are people going to believe when they continue to capture more whales and they die?”

Final Days

In the final days the president searched the papers for solace and portents. “Look at this,” he said. “Alger Hiss. Folks used to think he was a commie. No good. But now the cold war’s ended–I ended it, didn’t do it alone of course–brave Red general speaks out. Hiss was innocent all along. Clean as a whistle. Years of slander and pillory but God bless him lived long enough to see his good name restored.”

“You always said he was guilty as hell,” the president’s wife remarked. She was pounding angrily at her laptop, turning out the latest volume of her dog’s unexpurgated memoirs. If all went well, this would be not only the first book about the Bush years but also far and away the most sensational.

“Then there’s Galileo,” the president rambled on. “Was always in his corner. Learned at Yale earth goes around the sun–‘course not something I could bring up on the campaign trail. All great men–people slow to appreciate–sometimes picture not as clear as it should be. Took the pope 350 years. Me–might be shorter. Might be longer. Bet one day historians say, ‘Hey! Great leader and family man!'”

“Galileo never called the pope a bozo,” said the president’s wife.

“Had to be careful back then because of that burn-at-the-stake thing,” the president pointed out. “Religious crackpots. Wonderful people. God bless ’em. May have cost me the election. Been thinking about it, Bar. If you could still buy Penthouse at the 7-Eleven I might have carried every state in the union.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.