Noted outdoors writer in freefall from legend to pariah

 

In what might be considered the fastest career collapse in history, Jim Zumbo - for decades one of the nation's most visible outdoor writers and broadcasters - has lost everything in a matter of only a few days.

Zumbo lives near Cody, Wyo., and has long been hunting editor of Outdoor Life magazine. He also has (had) a TV show and has been published in countless outdoors publications. Most of his writings have been on hunting, and he has long been considered a standard-bearer for all things dear to the sport.

All of which is gone now - permanently, it would seem - because of a few paragraphs he posted on his Outdoor Life blog on Feb. 16.

That day, Zumbo had been shooting prairie dogs with various Remington employees ("executives," by one report), and one of their guides had mentioned in passing that an increasing number of hunters were using assault-style weapons, particularly for prairie dog shooting.

This amazed Zumbo, who, that evening - tired from the day's outing, he later said - quickly updated his blog.

"Sorry, folks," he wrote, "in my humble opinion, these things have no place in hunting. We don't need to be lumped into the group of people who terrorize the world with them, which is an obvious concern. I've always been comfortable with the statement that hunters don't use assault rifles. We've always been proud of our sporting firearms."

Zumbo issued an apology shortly thereafter. But to no avail.

Only days later he was fired by Outdoor Life (he wrote his first story for the magazine in 1962); excommunicated, in effect, by the National Rifle Association (according to his website, he had appeared promotionally with NRA officials in 40 cities); and disassociated from his TV show by Remington and Mossy Oak, among other advertisers.

The TV show, on the Outdoor Channel, has not been broadcast since.

Friday, a woman who answered the phone at Zumbo's home said he would return my call seeking comment. No call came.

What's going on here? Can't a person - particularly someone who has long supported anything and everything to do with the "outdoors" (including conservation) - express an opinion without losing a career?

Apparently not. Particularly in this age of instant communication and blogging. Cyberspace is filled with invective about Zumbo's blog posting, with gun and Second Amendment advocates having a field day at his expense.

Outdoor Life and Remington got the message, and quickly. Neither they nor any of Zumbo's other corporate supporters wanted trouble. They dumped him in a heartbeat.

Those who understand the outdoors writing and broadcasting "business" know the line separating the magazine and TV outdoors media from outdoors manufacturers and distributors often is invisible.

This isn't the case - or isn't supposed to be - in newspaper outdoors writing. But in magazines and on TV, outdoors stories are told and broadcast with two primary intentions: to entertain and inform readers and viewers, and to place products into the hearts and minds of consumers.

It is, in short, a business - and one in which, for better and worse, the communicators often are inextricably tied to product makers and distributors.

In this context, and particularly in retrospect, it's no wonder Outdoor Life, Mossy Oak, Remington and others headed for the exits so quickly. They had businesses to protect, and no matter how much they like Zumbo personally - by all accounts he's a good guy - they needed to minimize any threat he comments represented to their bottom lines.

Zumbo couldn't have done worse, of course, than to anger gun advocates, particularly owners and supporters of assault-style weapons (see accompanying definition).

They're still smarting from the 10-year ban on certain of these weapons that began under President Clinton (the ban expired in 2004, but a bill proposing another ban was introduced in Congress just last month).

Widely criticized in the general media, and often misidentified, assault-style weapons - rifles - don't differ in their actions from semi-automatic hunting rifles. Each fires a round when the trigger is pulled - differing in that sense from fully automatic weapons, which are and long have been illegal to possess in the United States.

Still, Zumbo's comments lent voice to what many hunters believe, namely that assault-style weapons are the black sheep of guns and do nothing to engender hunters and shooters to the general public.

But the NRA knows that any divide between hunters (who tend to view guns as a means to an end) and gun advocates (who often value guns apart from their specific applications) could be an Achilles' heel in its fight against gun-control proponents.

Thus the NRA's one-for-all and all-for-one approach to gun ownership.

Said the NRA about Zumbo:

"Comments expressed by outdoor writer Jim Zumbo reflect neither the opinions of the National Rifle Association and America's gun owners, nor are they an accurate portrayal of facts in regard to semi-automatic firearms lawfully owned by millions of citizens. Therefore, NRA Publications has suspended its professional ties with Mr. Zumbo."

The problem with differentiating among legal firearms is that, as the saying goes, guns are neither inherently good nor bad.

They're just guns.

I might prefer a fine English double, 20 gauge, for walking in the grouse woods in October. But the next person might choose an AR15, be it for personal protection, shooting or, yes, in some cases, hunting.

In fact, attempting to draw distinctions between guns (again, so long as they are legal) and the reasons people own them can be as frustrating as trying to ferret out which types of hunting should be legal, or even ethical.

Example: I've always wanted to hunt mountain lions in the West. But if I do, I don't want to shoot a cat out of a tree, which is where and how these animals ultimately are dispatched.

Similarly, in some states, dogs are legal for deer hunting. But I don't want to use them. And while someday I might like shoot birds in Argentina, I don't want to shoot thousands of them - even if, as if often the case, they are pests, and even if they are given to local people for food.

Zumbro's train came off the track because he forgot, in his blog, that, when the subject is guns and gun ownership, in his position at Outdoor Life and as a TV host, he was both journalist and industry representative.

That said, whatever his transgression - and as a journalist he made none, in my view - Outdoor Life, Remington and the others would have been far better to accept Zumbo's apology, follow his story and blog with other stories and other opinions, and weather the storm.

That way they would have shown some backbone - always an admirable trait.

And supported a friend.

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