< Gun Shy


Friday, August 05, 2005

BOB GARFIELD: Ever since the last election, the media have been wringing their hands over their failure to understand how much cultural values mattered to voters. Among the most polarizing issues, gun ownership. Media tend to stereotype sportsmen, collectors and hobbyists as raging gun nuts. And gun owners tend to see media conspiracies to repeal the Second Amendment right to bear arms. OTM's John Solomon went out in the field, literally, to find some common ground.

JOHN SOLOMON: When it comes to gun policy, the National Rifle Association and the New York Times Editorial Board are usually firing broadsides at each other. Now, the NRA has invited the editorial board to go shooting with them, and the Times public editor Daniel Okrent believes they should.

DANIEL OKRENT: I think it would be wonderful. I think it'd be really, really good thing, for the readers of the New York Times.

JOHN SOLOMON: In a column last summer, Okrent wrote that gun owners are, "among the groups the Times treats as strange objects to be examined on an laboratory slide." For them," he continued, "a walk through this paper can make you feel you're traveling in a strange and forbidding world."

DANIEL OKRENT: It plays out in the paper in coverage that is not empathetic. I think journalism requires a certain empathy. You have to understand what the person's position is and why the person feels that way. And on gun issues I feel, generally speaking, the Times writers and editors who address these issues cannot or choose not to--I think it's more cannot--find that empathetic connection to the person who really wants his gun.

JOHN SOLOMON: That lack of empathy is not limited to blue state media, according to Mike Needs, ombudsman of the Akron Beacon Journal. He wrote a column this past fall suggesting that journalists, even in his red state of Ohio, have a blind spot when it comes to guns.

MIKE NEEDS: When I walk through the newsroom and I talk about what I'm hearing from people in the community--"why don't you have more hunting season coverage"--the reaction is that, well, I don't think we need to do that because that's not something that they're interested in.

JOHN SOLOMON: Needs counts only one hunter on a floor of 170 newsroom employees. That, despite the fact that four in ten Americans say they own at least one gun. It's a disconnect that makes this man's job much easier.

HARRY JACOBS: How're you guys doing today? Everybody a member of the NRA?

JOHN SOLOMON: On a recent Saturday morning, Harry Jacobs, an NRA membership recruiter, is manning the organization's booth at a gun show in the small eastern Pennsylvania town of Jim Thorpe.

HARRY JACOBS: Would you like to get some information? Give you 10 dollars off on a hat.

JOHN SOLOMON: A 58-year-old turkey hunter named Dick offers a representative opinion of what gun owners think they're getting for their 15-dollar NRA membership fee. He believes the media are out to take guns away from private citizens, and the NRA is the only obstacle in its way.

DICK: They don't look at the gun collector or the hunter as a law abiding citizen. I mean, I think they're working together to disarm the American public. And, I mean, that's their objective. And we need the NRA, and we need the people to stick together, or that's what's going to happen.

JOHN SOLOMON: Nearby, Kenny, a cherubic 54-year-old, has a rifle in his right hand and a homemade placard advertising its features hanging around his neck. A lifelong deer hunter, Kenny says he's never seen a realistic depiction of hunting in the mainstream press.

KENNY: The fun part is the anticipation, the scouting, the family gatherings, the strategy sessions, the, the bs'ing and all those things, the going out with your brothers and family members and good friends, getting together. And that's something that's never covered by the media.

JOHN SOLOMON: Like many men here, Kenny fully supports the NRA's opposition to gun regulation, because he fears any concessions will lead down a slippery slope to a complete ban. Another man says that I should especially appreciate that position, since no institution talks more about the potential for a slippery Bill of Rights slope than the press. He suggests I look up a 1994 Washington Post editorial which called the Assault Weapons Ban largely symbolic, but added "Its virtue will be if it turns out to be, as hoped, a stepping stone to broader gun control." To many Post readers, that may seem like throwaway boilerplate, but to gun owners it serves to reinforce their suspicion that the media's ultimate objective is less to reduce illegal gun use than it is to take away all their guns.

DENNIS HENNIGAN: It does not help when you have editorial writers make statements that appear to be hostile to gun ownership per se.

JOHN SOLOMON: Dennis Hennigan is the legal director for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

DENNIS HENNIGAN: That just plays into the NRA's hands, and it allows them to again reinforce their case that there is this conspiracy essentially against gun ownership, and that they are the guardians of freedom.

JOHN SOLOMON: In fact, research by Brian Anse Patrick, author of The NRA and The Media, found a strong statistical correlation between negative editorials in the top U.S. newspapers and spikes in NRA membership. "Ironically," Patrick says, "the strong gun control rhetoric hampers the cause by alienating and energizing gun owners."

BRIAN ANSE PATRICK: More bad press equals more NRA members. In fact, I'll put it flatly. If it weren't for bad press, NRA couldn't possibly be where it is today.

JOHN SOLOMON: Just as helpful to the NRA as bad press is careless press. One notable example occurred two years ago during a live gun demonstration set up by CNN Miami Bureau Chief John Zarella. [ZARELLA TALKING, UP AND UNDER] The story was pegged to the congressional debate on the Assault Weapons Ban. Zarella arranged for sheriffs' deputies to shoot a variety of weapons that he said would become legal without the ban. [GUNSHOTS]

JOHN ZARELLA: Now, that was semi automatic. That said, switch it to automatic. [OVERTALK]

SHERIFF'S DEPUTY: Now, this is automatic. [AUTOMATIC GUN FIRE]

JOHN ZARELLA: Wow. That obliterated those blocks.

DEPUTY: Those blocks--

JOHN SOLOMON: The problem with Zarella's demonstration was that the fully automatic machine gun he referred to had been banned for public use since 1934. And therefore, it had nothing to do with the legislation before Congress. Gun owners may have also found one of Zarella's questions to a sheriff to be somewhat loaded.

JOHN ZARELLA: So, clearly this has nothing to do with right and bear--to bear arms. This is clearly an issue of there is no place on the street for a weapon that can do that kind of destructive--


JOHN SOLOMON: Several days later, CNN felt it necessary to have host Miles O'Brien issue a rare on-air clarification.

MILES O'BRIEN: We reviewed that demonstration and decided that a more detailed report would better explain this complex issue.

ANDREW ARULANANDAM: I don't feel that most reporters are inherently biased. I think that there is a lack of understanding when it comes to covering the issue of firearms.

JOHN SOLOMON: Andrew Arulanandam is the NRA's director of public affairs.

ANDREW ARULANANDAM: It's very difficult for folks who have never fired a firearm or have no desire to fire a firearm [LAUGHS] or no desire to go hunting to understand the culture.

JOHN SOLOMON: To gun control advocates, the press has mistakenly lumped gun control in with cultural values issues such as gay marriage. In fact, according to CNN's Paul Begala, journalists' lack of experience in the field has caused them to miss the more valid link between hunting and the environment. Begala, who has been a hunter far longer than he's been in the media, says the press portrays the sportsman vote solely in terms of gun legislation, when government decisions on the environment, such as wetlands preservations, will likely have a far greater impact on the lives of hunters.

PAUL BEGALA: The most powerful environmentalists I know are hunters, because they see firsthand--it is not an abstraction for them. They actually spend time in the outdoors. They want to take their children to hunt and fish in the same place that their father took them.

JOHN SOLOMON: The NRA's ability to frame the current discussion comes after years of self inflicted media problems, according to Michael Bane, who hosts several gun related shows on cable TV's Outdoor Network, including the NRA produced "American Rifleman."

MICHAEL BANE: The pro gun side was virtually media dyslexic. We had no idea what the media wanted from us. We didn't know how to give it to 'em. And besides that, we thought they were out to get us.

JOHN SOLOMON: Bane's side is now taking a more open stance with the press. He created the Aiming for Accuracy Program for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, an industry trade group. It brings reporters to ranges to do some target shooting and learn more about guns. As part of my own effort to learn more, I accepted an invitation from Todd Smith, the editor of the hunting and fishing magazine Outdoor Life, to shoot sporting clays at the sprawling Orvis Sandanona grounds about 80 miles north of New York City. [SOUND OF GUNFIRE] On arrival, I was equipped with yellow earplugs, a black shooting vest, orange protective glasses, and a brown Caesar Guerini 20 gauge shotgun. An Orvis instructor, Jim Dobbs, showed me how to hold the gun, its butt to the crook of my right arm, my face up on the gun barrel, and how to load the two yellow rounds - not bullets, as I initially called them. Before we shot, Jim previewed the arc of the two birds - actually black and orange clay disks - that would be propelled into the air one after another.

JIM DOBBS: The secret with this is to look up high, pick up the bird, and always have the gun in front and under, and follow through.

JOHN SOLOMON: I approached the wood stand, I loaded the gun and called for the first clay to be launched--



JIM DOBBS: Good. Follow through and under. [GUNSHOT] That's it, beautiful.

MAN: Nice, perfect.

JOHN SOLOMON: I had hit one--

JIM DOBBS: All right.

JOHN SOLOMON: --actually shattered it.

JIM DOBBS: Dead center.

JOHN SOLOMON: By the end, I had fired 90 rounds total. My arms were exhausted, and my cheekbone was bruised from the unfamiliar shotgun recoil. The scorecard said I had actually hit about 40 percent of the clays, but that was not the only surprise of the day for me. I was particularly struck by how obsessed everyone was with safety. Todd Smith, from Outdoor Life, said that's a common reaction of his neophyte guests.

TODD SMITH: It's not about shooting up the countryside. We went out, we were safe, we had a really great time, we had a beautiful day. And that, in and of itself, I think is a misconception that most mainstream journalists never see. I mean, you had a great time today, did you not?

JOHN SOLOMON: I did. [LAUGHING] I did. I even hit something.

JOHN SOLOMON: That was also the experience at the Arizona Daily Star, one media organization that has made a significant effort to improve its gun coverage. The Tucson based paper sent a number of reporters out shooting with expert trainers, and it held an extensive briefing on gun issues for all employees. Executive editor, Bobbie Jo Buel.

BOBBIE JO BUEL: We had two guys show up with hundreds of weapons. And these guys just talked about the basics of firearms. They took them apart, they allowed employees to take them apart, to handle them.

JOHN SOLOMON: As a result, Buel says the Daily Star is now making far fewer mistakes. It also changed the nature of the paper's relationship with some of its most interested readers.

BOBBIE JO BUEL: I remember a couple of months later I was driving down the street one day, and I had talk radio on, and I almost drove off the road; I heard one of these people who had been our biggest critic--and he's still very critical of our editorial page opinions about gun control--but he was on talk radio, and a person called in and started in on the Arizona Daily Star and our agenda and how unfair we are. And he defended us and said "You know, they make mistakes sometimes in the news pages but I think they're really trying to get it right."

JOHN SOLOMON: Considering the problems with the media's coverage of guns, the willingness of the Daily Star to acknowledge its mistakes and attempt to learn from them gives the rest of us in the press a nice target to aim for. For On the Media, this is John Solomon. [THEME MUSIC UP & UNDER]

BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media is produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Jamie York and Mike Vuolo, and edited--by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had help from Sarah Dalsimer and Josh Nathan-Kazis, and inspiration from Gary Calvino. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keith our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and find free transcripts, MP3 downloads and our podcasts at onthemedia.org, and on the ITunes podcast directory. And you can email us at onthemedia@wnyc.org. This is On the Media, from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone.

BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield.