Monday, August 04, 2008

The Montauk...Raccoon...?

I'm a couple of days late here, but did anyone else see all the news play that "Montauk Monster" photo got on Friday? That was actually the first thing I saw when I woke up on Friday morning. (Seriously. I fell asleep watching CNN Thursday night.) The story behind it is that a dead monster washed ashore on a beach in Long Island and a lady took a pair of photographs of the carcass. (Without thinking to lay down anything next to the beast to establish any sense of scale, of course.) All of this apparently took place a couple of weeks ago and the story slowly gained traction in the local press before somehow breaking into the national news on Friday. CNN spent the whole day perseverating about it and by the end of the day I'd also seen the story on MSNBC, Fox, and, as always, Above Top Secret. More fuel was added to the fire when a group of young men claimed to have recovered the monster's corpse, noting breathlessly that "all the flesh just melted off into black goo" without paying much attention to the fact that, well, that's what happens to dead things.

Terrifying monster or just a dead varmint?

In any event, the "monster" is pretty weird looking, especially the "beak-like" bit at the tip of the snout. After looking at it for a while, it seemed to me like that was probably just an exposed bit of skull protruding through the flesh. I was leaning towards "dead dog" as an explanation, but without any sense of scale I couldn't say it with certainty. Plus the thing has kind of funny looking forelimbs. Soon, however, various folks, such as Animal Planet's Jeff Corwin, started noting that the thing looks kind of like a raccoon, and that explanation now seems to easily be the most robust. That assessment is strongly bolstered by the second picture of the "monster", a straight-on shot that has barely gotten any attention from the media. From this angle the "beak" disappears and it becomes pretty obvious that we're just plain looking at a dead coon.

The shot you didn't see: No beak, just a very dead raccoon.

What bugs me about this whole debacle really isn't a lady took a picture of some gross thing that washed up on the beach only to have a news story sprung up around it, it's that the news media had access to two pictures of the creature in question and elected to only publicize the one that looked bizarre. Watch the news report I linked to above and see how much they play up the whole "beak" angle in order to make the creature seem more mysterious. Anyone looking at the second picture would know in a second that the animal didn't have a beak, but much of the media neglected to mention that. Instead they decided to go with breathless gee-whiz journalism and turn an ordinary, if gross, pair of photos into a monster.


Unknown said...

I saw this on CNN and thought "They should really get an expert opinion on this or at least have someone with a skeptical outlook." The media is disappointing and misleading. It's really unfortunate.

Skippy the Skeptic said...

I've come to expect softball reporting about politics and economics, but I can't fathom -accidentally- reporting that a dead monster has been found when it's utterly obvious that it's a freakin' dead raccoon. That's not just shoddy reporting, it's just a fraudulent attempt to get ratings.

Jay said...

You'd think the first question a reporter would try to answer is "what sort of common critter in this area is about this size?" and go from there.

Unfortunately that's not the way the newsmedia works now.