Dallas, Texas — A video shown twice before the main speeches at the NRA’s annual meeting mocked CNN’s “this is an apple” commercial.
“This is a lemon,” the announcer declared. (It is unlikely that it is a coincidence that the choice of produce is the surname of a CNN anchor.) “Yes, some people might try to tell you that this is a journalist. They might even scream ‘journalist,’ ‘journalist,’ ‘journalist,’ over and over again. They might put journalists in all-caps . . . but this is a lemon.” The joke worked on three levels, and the gathered gun owners chuckled throughout. In a subsequent video, NRATV host and former U.S. Secret Service agent Dan Bongino silently made lemonade out of some lemons, generating another round of laughter. “When they give you lemons, we give you the truth,” the video promises.
It’s unsurprising that the national news media would be a frequent and favorite target of the speakers at the NRA’s annual meeting — particularly the regular critics of media such as Chris Cox, Wayne LaPierre, and Donald Trump. But even the comparatively buttoned-down Vice President Mike Pence spoke at length about his objections to the mass media’s coverage of firearms and those who own them.
“The media are working an agenda that is very different from most of us in this room,” Pence said. “They won’t tell the whole story of firearms in America. They focus on the tragedies and heartbreak — and well they should — but many in the national media ignore when well-trained, law-abiding gun owners save lives. It’s the truth.” Pence spoke of armed citizens who intervened and prevented tragedies at an Atlanta party, a Philadelphia barber shop, and on a Chicago street.
“I’m calling on the national media to start telling the whole story to the American people about firearms,” Pence said to applause. “It’s time the national media gave as much attention to our heroes as much as they give to our villains.”
Criticism of the media has always been a theme of the speeches at the NRA’s gathering, but this year felt like it could easily have been co-produced by L. Brent Bozell’s Media Research Center.
Even by the standards of the never-smooth relationship between the NRA and the national media, the past few months have left gun owners enraged about how frequently and casually they’re villainized, and how openly gun-control advocates have been exalted. Much of this change in the media’s coverage of gun rights stemmed from the emergence of pro-gun-control students who survived the Parkland shooting.
CNN was always a favorite target of speakers at NRA events, but its recent coverage added fuel to the fire. The prime-time “town hall meeting” CNN put on just days after the shooting represented a particularly embarrassing hour for the network, in which the furious demonization of NRATV Dana Loesch went unchecked while Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel — whose department handled the situation about as badly as is imaginable — was given the stage to lecture Loesch: “You are not standing up for [these students] until you say, ‘I want less weapons.’” It was shameless and deft responsibility-shifting on the sheriff’s part, and CNN let it go unchallenged. (After several days, in perhaps the journalistic equivalent of a referee’s make-up call, CNN subjected Israel to more critical coverage and much tougher interviews.)
The emergence of the Parkland students provided the national media with what was ostensibly an emotional human-interest story — here’s a young student who’s endured a terrifying event, listen to how that experience affected him — and it quickly turned into an opportunity for scathing, often unfair criticisms of gun owners and the NRA. David Hogg quickly became a go-to source for comments that programs, magazines, and newspapers would never print or broadcast in other contexts. In one particularly angry interview, Hogg called the NRA, “pathetic f***ers that want to keep killing our children,” and claimed GOP lawmakers “could have blood from children splattered all over their faces and they wouldn’t take action, because they all still see these dollar signs.”
For better or worse, CNN’s media reporter, Brian Stelter, admitted in a late March interview with S. E. Cupp that he simply couldn’t bring himself to correct David Hogg when he appeared on Stelter’s program.
“There were a few times I wanted to jump in and say, ‘Let’s correct that fact.’ And at one of the times I did and other times I did not,” Stelter said. “There’s always that balance, how many times you’re going to interrupt.”
Almost every speaker at the convention mentioned longtime NRA member Stephen Willeford, who exchanged fire with a mass shooter outside the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and helped chase him down in November 2017. NRA members fairly ask why they’re considered morally culpable for the horrific actions of mass shooters, but the virtues of heroic NRA members are not worthy of comparable discussion.
For the NRA and many of its members, no real conversation about our gun laws can begin until the national media acknowledge that their past coverage has been one-sided and they begin to paint a more accurate picture of America’s gun owners. The NRA enjoyed a lot of legislative successes in the past decade or so, but perhaps the organization wonders how secure those legislative or political victories are in a media environment like the current one. The media largely shrugged at Connecticut governor Dannel Malloy repeatedly insisting that the NRA has “in essence become a terrorist organization,” and Newsweek thought the most newsworthy angle about a defaced billboard declaring “kill the NRA” is that “the gun lobby is freaking out about it.”
In the more than two months since that shooting, HuffPost and YouGov have conducted five surveys tracking Americans’ views on guns. The results show a burst of support for gun reform in the two weeks after the shooting, followed by a gradual reversion to the mean. Once-heightened concerns about gun violence have tapered back to previous levels, as has a desire for stricter gun laws and a belief that gun restrictions can be passed without violating Second Amendment rights.
Florida’s legislature and Governor Rick Scott raised the age to purchase any firearm to 21, and several states passed “red flag” gun laws that allow a judge to temporarily seize guns from someone who might pose a danger to themselves or others. But there’s been little movement on the bigger priorities of gun-control advocates — an assault-weapons ban or more restrictions on concealed-carry permits. There’s little question that most media organizations tossed away traditional notions of objectivity and fairness when it came to covering the gun issue after Parkland. They now must ask themselves whether it was worth it.
“There’s never been a worse time to be a member of the mainstream media,” Cox declared to roaring applause. Members of the national media may dispute that, but they obtained this deep-rooted distrust and enmity the old-fashioned way: They earned it.