Media slant changing on gun issues

By Dr. Michael S. Brown
web posted January 29, 2001

American news organizations have been accused of having an anti-gun bias for decades. A study by the Media Research Center, for example, claimed a 10 to 1 bias in stories broadcast on network evening news programs during 1999. There are, however, some indications that this situation is slowly changing.

During the 2000 election, media outlets devoted an unusual amount of attention to the viewpoints of gun owners and gun rights organizations. An unprecedented number of these stories showed a distinct effort, not always successful, to avoid bias and present both sides of the issue fairly. In some cases, it was mildly comical to watch on-air reporters and pundits attempt to neutralize their usual slant.

Even the often maligned National Rifle Association received more balanced treatment than normal. NRA president Charlton Heston was the focus of much media coverage as he crisscrossed the country prior to the election. Reporters seemed to be in awe of his dramatic speeches which were delivered to large crowds of passionate gun owners.

After NRA Vice President Wayne LaPierre stood up to Bill Clinton early in the campaign season, he was invited to appear on several television programs. The organization's operations and internal conflicts were covered in depth by ABC news in a one hour special report that was amazingly fair until the final segment, when Peter Jennings revealed his personal bias in a big way. The spectacular rise in NRA membership (to 4.2 million) was mentioned constantly during the campaign by numerous sources.

This trend seems to be continuing beyond the election season. After the recent murders in Wakefield, Massachusetts, the first opinions printed by several newspapers emphasized the fact that strict gun laws in that state simply disarmed the victims without hindering the killer.

Although this reduction in the media's anti-gun bias is far from complete, it is interesting to speculate on the cause. Perhaps journalists have developed a guilty conscience about their ethical lapses. Perhaps they have finally realized that a mountain of evidence shows the futility and counterproductive results of gun control laws. But a somewhat more cynical explanation may be the simple desire of all journalists to tell a good story.

Imagine the task of a reporter assigned to research and write a story on some aspect of the gun debate. On the anti-gun side there is the usual cast. Start with the limousine liberals like Teddy Kennedy, Rosie O'Donnell and Diane Feinstein. They repeat the same tired, hypocritical message urging passage of laws to outlaw gun ownership for ordinary people while everyone knows they have guns of their own or are protected by armed bodyguards.

You also have the anti-gun organizations like Handgun Control Inc., which represents the views of its ultra-rich benefactors, and the insipid Million Mom March, which uses their own massive donations from wealthy foundations in a contrived effort to generate interest among American soccer moms and support for Democratic Party candidates. From a reporter's point of view, these groups are just plain boring.

Now consider the interesting stories and fascinating characters on the other side of the issue:

In New Jersey, a group of African-American shooting enthusiasts started the Tenth Cavalry Gun Club. They are so successful that they are now opening chapters in other areas. Stories about this group explode the myth that gun enthusiasts must be white, as do stories about the group of Filipino shooters called the 1521 Sportsman Association.

In Nevada, Dr. Ignatius Piazza is creating a city in the desert that will be built around a complex of shooting ranges. Since every family will be armed to the teeth, it will probably be the safest and most polite city in America. To promote his enterprise he offers popular classes to teach anyone, even soccer moms, to shoot actual Uzi submachine guns.

In Merced, California, there was the dramatic story of the pitchfork murders. In this sad case, three small children were murdered in their home by a madman wielding a pitchfork. Their older sister, who was capable of using the family rifle for self defense, was unable to reach it because her father believed he was required by law to keep it locked up.

In almost any part of the country you can find dramatic stories of women who have aided their recovery from rape or assault by learning the art of armed self defense. They vow that they will never be victimized again. Some of them have used their new skills to survive a second assault. There are powerful, emotional stories here. Women empowering other women by passing on firearms skills is becoming a major theme in the gun culture. Others are rediscovering their heritage as outdoorswomen by learning to shoot and hunt.

Stories like this are becoming easier to find as authors and reporters uncover these dramatic events. A good example is a book by Robert A. Waters: "The Best Defense - Stories of Intended Victims Who Defended Themselves With a Firearm".

When the media filters out stories like these to satisfy their own bias, they are missing an opportunity to attract a larger audience.

The era of political correctness is slowly drawing to a close. Journalists who wish to stand out from their peers are finding an amazing variety of interesting stories within the politically incorrect American gun culture. In many cases their story proposals are spiked by editors and producers who still feel a political connection to the anti-gun lobby, but a growing number of positive stories about gun owners are appearing on the air or in print.

This trend will accelerate as a larger number of media outlets are forced to compete for the same audience. Control of television news divisions is passing from old-line liberal journalists to pragmatic businessmen who know that alienating (or boring) a large portion of the audience harms the bottom line. The old anti-gun bias that has been a staple of American media culture for over 30 years is slowly fading as the nature of the business changes.

Although things are improving, this is not the time for gun rights activists to relax. Messages from viewers and readers will have more impact than ever as news executives search for clues to audience preferences.

Dr. Michael S. Brown is an optometrist and a member of Doctors for Sensible Gun Laws, on the web at http://www.keepandbeararms.com/dsgl

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