"Media Matters"; by Jamison Foser

››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

In the wake of this week's tragic events at Virginia Tech, several leading news organizations quickly predicted that there is little-to-no chance of the shootings resulting in stricter gun control measures -- in some cases, distorting public opinion and recent political history in order to do so.

From The New Republic to Free Republic

In the wake of this week's tragic events at Virginia Tech, several leading news organizations quickly predicted that there is little-to-no chance of the shootings resulting in stricter gun control measures -- in some cases, distorting public opinion and recent political history in order to do so.

CNN's Bill Schneider, for example:

Is the Virginia Tech tragedy likely to put gun control on the political agenda? Don't bet on it. In recent years, gun control has been an issue most politicians prefer to stay away from.

The last significant gun control measures to make it through Congress were the Brady bill in 1993 and the assault weapons ban in 1994.

And what happened? Democrats lost control of Congress for 12 years. President Clinton said the gun lobby had a lot to do with his party's defeat. Democrats have been gun-shy ever since.

Then-Vice President Al Gore rarely talked about gun control during the 2000 presidential campaign. Gore even went so far as to say he wouldn't restrict sportsmen or hunters, "None of my proposals would have any effect on hunters or sportsmen or people who use rifles."

So, what's the problem? There certainly is no shortage of Democrats who have stayed away from gun control in recent years, and no shortage of Democrats who think that political concerns suggest they should continue to do so.

But Schneider oversold his case -- badly -- by claiming that, ever since the 1994 assault weapons ban (arguably) cost Democrats control of Congress that year, Democrats have been gun-shy ever since. Schneider offered two purported examples to buttress his case -- the presidential campaigns of Al Gore and John Kerry. A careful observer will note that Schneider omitted any mention of the other presidential campaign during that timeframe: President Clinton's re-election campaign in 1996. That might seem a curious omission -- Schneider is arguing that even Bill Clinton knows the assault weapons ban was a significant cause of his party's losses in 1994, and that Democrats have stayed away from gun control ever since. Surely, then, Clinton's own approach to the issue in his 1996 campaign is relevant to Schneider's point.

Well, Bill Clinton didn't run away from gun control during the 1996 campaign. He ran on gun control -- even ran ads bragging about the assault weapons ban, and criticizing his opponent for opposing it. In fact, you can watch those ads on CNN's website: here's one ... and here's another. On the July 1, 1995, edition of CNN's Inside Politics, host Wolf Blitzer even played a portion of a Clinton ad highlighting the assault weapons ban, describing the ad as "what many are calling the kick-off to Bill Clinton's re-election campaign." Coincidentally, Blitzer now hosts CNN's The Situation Room, where he responded to Schneider's report not by noting that, in fact, Bill Clinton touted the assault weapons ban in television ads, but by simply saying "All right, Bill. Thank you for that report."

Of course, this doesn't mean that, in general, Democrats haven't been "gun-shy" about gun control in recent years. But by omitting the clearly relevant example of Clinton's gun ads, Schneider suggested greater unanimity than there is on the topic -- and omitted information that suggests that whatever caution Democrats do feel on the topic may not be entirely justified by recent political history. After all, the campaign in which Clinton ran those ads bragging about the assault weapons ban ended with him carrying Kentucky on the way to winning 379 electoral votes.

The Politico ran an article about Republican congressman Ron Paul that asserted that his views on guns "[e]cho[] the views of many Americans" and that "based on public opinion polls and reader feedback at Politico.com, he's far from alone." But Paul opposes any federal gun control legislation -- including the measures that are already on the books. Paul has introduced legislation to repeal every federal gun law. Those views place him in a tiny fringe on the outskirts of public opinion -- yet The Politico presented this extreme minority view as the norm.

Time's Karen Tumulty, in a Swampland blog post, did just the opposite: She presented a policy proposal -- registration of firearms -- that has enjoyed the support of nearly 80 percent of Americans as "radical." (In response, Tumulty accused us of taking her "out of context" and protested that she had written that the policy was "more radical" than another, not that it was radical. Tumulty is mistaken on the first count: We provided more context in our item than she did in accusing us of taking her out of context. As for the second, if Tumulty really believes that a loaded phrase like "radical" -- with or without the modifier "more" -- is an appropriate description of a policy that enjoys overwhelming public support, she is certainly entitled to that opinion.)

Dana Bash, Schneider's colleague at CNN, also spread misinformation about the public's attitudes toward gun control. Bash reported that "Democrats are reluctant to pass new gun restrictions, in part because public support for tightening gun laws has been steadily dropping. In 1990, 78 percent of Americans backed stricter gun laws. Now it's only 49 percent."

But, in claiming a dramatic decrease in support for tightening gun laws, Bash badly misled viewers. She used results from two different Gallup poll questions, one having to do with restrictions on the sale of firearms, and the other a broader question about "gun laws."

In October 1990, 78 percent of Americans said "the laws covering the sale of firearms should be made more strict." Gallup asks that question every October; the October 2006 poll found that support had dropped to 56 percent.

The "only 49 percent" figure Bash used came from a different question, which Gallup asks every January: "Would you like to see gun laws in this country made more strict, less strict, or remain as they are?"

Not only did Bash overstate the decline in support for tougher gun laws by mixing and matching results from different questions, in doing so, she obscured the fact that public support for stricter laws governing the sale of firearms has actually increased in recent years. From 1990 through 2000, at least 60 percent of Americans supported such laws. Then, in the October 2001 poll -- conducted just a month after the September 11 terrorist attacks -- Gallup found that support for tougher laws governing the sale of firearms had dropped to 53 percent. After dropping again to 51 percent in October 2002, support has increased to 57 and 56 percent in the past two years.

What many news reports that misstated public opinion or political history on gun control have in common is the premise that there will be no effort to change gun laws any time soon. Whether that assumption led journalists to overlook relevant facts, or resulted from their misreading of polls and history, we cannot know.

What does seem clear is that their certainty was premature. Just this morning, The Washington Post reported:

With the Virginia Tech shootings resurrecting calls for tighter gun controls, the National Rifle Association has begun negotiations with senior Democrats over legislation to bolster the national background-check system and potentially block gun purchases by the mentally ill.

Rep. John D. Dingell (Mich.), a gun-rights Democrat who once served on the NRA's board of directors, is leading talks with the powerful gun lobby in hopes of producing a deal by early next week, Democratic aides and lawmakers said.

Under the bill, states would be given money to help them supply the federal government with information on mental-illness adjudications and other run-ins with the law that are supposed to disqualify individuals from firearms purchases. For the first time, states would face penalties for not keeping the National Instant Criminal Background Check System current.

The legislation, drafted several years ago by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), has twice passed the House, only to die in the Senate. But Cho Seung Hui's rampage Monday has given it new life.

That's right: After two days of media assurances that there is no way Democrats would ever consider tightening gun laws, which is getting less popular by the day, traditional opponents of gun control like Dingell and even the National Rifle Association are reportedly considering legislation drafted by McCarthy, one of the nation's most prominent supporters of gun control.

Of course, that doesn't mean Dingell and the NRA will end up supporting the legislation, or that it will pass. But it would seem to suggest that confident predictions by Schneider, Tumulty, and others that there is little chance of stricter gun laws as a result of the Virginia Tech shootings were premature.

Indeed, it would seem to suggest that the public would be better served if journalists stopped trying to tell us what will happen and, instead, just tell us the facts. As we argued last September:

[R]eporters often refuse to offer their judgment about matters of fact, but they do offer their judgment about the potential political effects of events and actions.

This is completely backwards.

Consumers of news lack the time, expertise, and, in many cases, ability to determine which of two contradictory statements by competing political figures is true. They often lack the resources to determine if, for example, President Bush's claim to have "delivered" on the promises he made in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is true. That's where news organizations should -- but, with depressing frequency, have not -- come in. They have -- or should have -- the expertise and the time to assess those claims, and to report the facts. That's what readers, viewers, and listeners need. That's what journalism should be all about.

On the other hand, as consumers of news, we don't need journalists telling us what the "political impact" of something is going to be; how it will "play at the polls." It's our job to decide that. It's our job to decide who we'll vote for and why; how we'll assess the parties' competing agendas and approaches to the problems we face.

Instead of telling us how they think we'll react, we need journalists to give us the information upon which we can make an informed decision. To tell us the facts, and the truth, and the relevant context. Then we'll tell them the political impact.

We didn't point out at the time the other problem with journalists trying to predict the future rather than explain the present: Their predictions are often quite bad.

So, for example, we heard over and over again last year about how debate over national security issues would play to the Republicans' political advantage. Anybody remember how that turned out?

And, for weeks, leading news organizations have been ominously noting President Bush's latest assault on Democrats, wherein he and his administration assail them for being pro-surrender and wanting the troops to die and similar nonsense. Democrats had better watch out, the media keeps telling us, or Bush will turn the tables on them. And how is that working out? Roughly the same way every other renewed White House PR offensive over Iraq has worked out for the last few years: very, very badly. As Greg Sargent has noted, recent polling suggests that the more people hear Bush's arguments, the more they disagree with him. And, according to a Washington Post poll released this week, the more they want Democrats to set Iraq policy, not Bush.

It seems likely that a significant reason for journalists so often getting these things so wrong is the relatively narrow range of opinion that they hear from their sources, the people they quote, and their guests. As Media Matters Senior Fellow Duncan Black has argued on his blog, where he writes under the name Atrios, "the acceptable positions in Official Washington range from the New Republic to the Free Republic."

The latest example of the narrowness of that range of "acceptable positions" comes from MSNBC, which, having sacked Don Imus last week, is apparently granting on-air auditions to potential replacements. Who gets the first shot? Does the cable channel that already features programs hosted by conservatives Joe Scarborough and Tucker Carlson, along with Chris Matthews, who frequently bashes Democrats and swoons over Republicans, turn to a progressive voice for its morning show? No. After NBC News president Steve Capus explained the Imus firing by saying "there should not be a place" for "hurtful" comments on MSNBC, the channel is turning to Michael Smerconish next week. The same Michael Smerconish who has said that Muslims who pray in public are committing terrorism and decried America's "limp-wristedness."

Politico Editor-in-Chief John Harris has described the narrow spectrum of opinion preferred by the media as a "centrist bias" on the part of "the vast majority of political reporters." Setting aside the question of whether Harris and his fellow political reporters are right about where the "center" is, he explains the problem with this "centrist bias":

I sometimes think that if Washington political reporters ran the government their ideal would be to have a blue ribbon commission go into seclusion at Andrews Air Force base for a week and solve all problems. It would be chaired by Alan Greenspan and Sam Nunn. David Gergen would be communications director, and the policy staff would come from Brookings and the American Enterprise Institute. They would not come back until they had come up with sober, centrist solutions to the entitlements debate, the Iraq war, and the gay marriage controversy.

It took me a while to realize how this instinct for rationalist, difference-splitting politics can itself be a form of bias. It is ideologues, rather than Washington technocrats, who make history. On the right, ideas about free markets that a generation ago were exotic are now mainstream. More recently, what started out as the left's critique of the Iraq war increasingly defines the center.

The narrow range of opinion -- from The New Republic to Free Republic -- that is overrepresented in the news media largely excludes strong progressive points of view. It also helps conventional wisdom to calcify.

Which may be one reason why, long after public opinion polling began to show that President Bush is highly unpopular, many in the media couldn't seem to grasp that simple point (Chris Matthews, for example, was "amazed": "I always thought Bush was more popular than his policies. I keep saying it, and I keep being wrong on this. Bush is not popular.") And why, long after public opinion polling showed that people have had enough of the Iraq war and want out, many in the media seem to have trouble grasping that fact. When news organizations treat Joe Lieberman and John McCain as representative of the range of valid opinion, they are bound to be out of touch with a large segment of the American public -- and, in the case of Iraq, the clear majority.

But, particularly when the conventional wisdom is at odds with public opinion, the "political realities" it is supposedly based upon can shift quickly. Just look at health care: For years, in the wake of the failure of the Clinton health care plan in 1994, few prominent Democrats talked about universal health care, and fewer journalists seemed to take it seriously. Now, the three leading Democratic candidates for president -- Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama -- all tout their support for universal health care.

So, rather than misleadingly using polling data and recent history to assert that there will be no change in gun laws, maybe the media should focus on explaining -- really explaining, in detail -- what the guns laws are. Americans strongly supported the assault weapons ban that the Republican Congress allowed to expire in 2004, and yet its expiration did not lead to a large spike in the number of Americans who support stricter gun laws. Might that suggest that many Americans don't know the assault weapons ban no longer exists?

We don't need the media to tell us how they think the gun debate will play out, or what the public reaction would be. We need them to simply report the facts: What are the laws we have now? What evidence is there that they work, or don't work? What proposals to change the laws are out there? What are the arguments for and against? Those are the kinds of questions journalists should focus on, not trying to guess what will happen -- and misleadingly using data to do so.

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