PBS' Frontline is responding to criticism of its recent documentary about the National Rifle Association by misrepresenting the arguments made by progressives in order to dismiss them.
On January 6, Frontline aired Gunned Down: The Power Of The NRA, a documentary that covered the history of the NRA from when the group began to become politicized in the 1960s through legislative efforts in 2013 following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
In a January 8 blog post, Media Matters leveled several critiques against the documentary, namely that it overstated the ability of the NRA to influence election outcomes, that it credited the NRA with Al Gore's defeat in the 2000 presidential elections, and that it created the perception of NRA invincibility by only including recent NRA victories, but not defeats.
In its response, Frontline wrote, "As for the assertion by Media Matters writer Timothy Johnson that the film overstated the influence of the NRA, we stand by our reporting." According to the documentary's producers, "The many interviews we conducted support the notion that since 1999 Washington has failed to enact tougher national gun legislation and the NRA has been the key reason why."
This is a straw man argument. Media Matters never argued that Frontline had overstated the influence of the NRA on federal legislation since 1999. That the NRA is a powerful lobbying force on Capitol Hill is obvious and has been discussed by Media Matters previously.
Instead, Media Matters criticized Frontline -- as it has criticized quite a few media outlets -- for overstating the ability of the NRA to determine the outcomes of elections. In part, politicians' misguided fears about the NRA punishing them on Election Day plays into the NRA's ability to effectively lobby.
Frontline's response doesn't take into account the distinction between the ability to influence election results and the ability to influence legislation. In addition to crediting the NRA with Gore's defeat in the 2000, Gunned Down credulously promoted the NRA's supposed electoral prowess by quoting a former NRA spokesperson saying, "You are a politician, you want to get elected, you want votes, NRA has votes" while offering no countervailing perspective.
Although that type of conjecture is often pushed by the NRA and its allies, a regression analysis of actual House and Senate races that involved NRA spending and endorsements has disproven the notion that the NRA is effective in determining the outcomes of elections.
PBS' Frontline documentary on the history of the National Rifle Association pushed the common media myth that the gun organization always wins and told the debunked story of how the NRA was supposedly responsible for the defeat of Al Gore in 2000.
On January 6, Frontline aired the hour-long feature Gunned Down: The Power Of The NRA, which was directed by filmmaker Michael Kirk. The documentary covered the history of the NRA from when the group began to become politicized in the 1960s through legislative efforts in 2013 following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Gunned Down overstates the ability of the NRA to influence election outcomes. The gun group's influence on federal gun legislation is often credited to the theory that politicians who oppose the NRA will be defeated when running for reelection. A statistical analysis of recent House and Senate races has disproven this notion. Still, mainstream news outlets often advance the myth of NRA electoral dominance.
Gunned Down repeatedly inflates the supposed strength of the gun group based on commentary from former NRA officials -- no current official would talk to Frontline -- and by citing what is considered conventional wisdom in Washington D.C.
While explaining the NRA's successful lobbying to defeat federal legislation to close the gun show loophole following the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School, Gunned Down turned to a former NRA spokesperson who said of the NRA's membership "if it had one political trait, they vote, it's that simple. You are a politician, you want to get elected, you want votes, NRA has votes."
The NRA has often attempted to take credit for Al Gore's loss to George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election. At the gun group's annual meeting in 2002, executive vice president and CEO Wayne LaPierre told the crowd, "You are why Al Gore isn't in the White House."
Gunned Down gave baseless credence to these claims.
Ever since the recent controversy broke about NPR, we've been noting how, despite the constant outcries about liberal bias in public broadcasting, conservative critics have done a very poor job documenting its supposedly offensive behavior. Apparently it's much easier to attack public broadcasting than it is to prove its journalism is unfair.
Writing at Commentary, Michael Rubin claims he has the goods (evidence of "dirty tricks") and wants the United States Congress to investigate what he presents as definitive proof of PBS's bias, as well as its unfair use of taxpayer money. The evidence? A PBS show, Frontline, hosts a website and on that website there's a "commentary" section and in that commentary section there are links to another site that Rubin does not approve of.
Did I mention he wants Congress to investigate this shocking behavior?
It seems that the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) has a similar problem. Someone at its Frontline website has been substituting fake biographies of conservatives written by an organization called Right Web for legitimate institutional biographies.
That they have turned PBS into a tool for policy advocacy and dirty tricks is unfortunate. If that's what Frontline wants to do, so be it. But they should not do it with taxpayer money.
Here's a sample of a supposedly "fake" bio, from the Right Web's James Woolsey entry, which comes complete with 39 footnotes:
The director of the Central Intelligence Agency under President Bill Clinton (1993-1995), R. James Woolsey is a neoconservative writer, activist, and government and corporate adviser who argues that the United States is fighting a "Long War" against terror. Woolsey is a self-described "Scoop Jackson/Joe Lieberman Democrat" who, despite his party affiliation, has advised a number of Republican Party figures, including President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain.
Here's the Frontline response to Rubin's claim [emphasis added]:
The Commentary blog post contended that Right Web publishes "fake biographies of conservatives." After reviewing the matter, we find that the biographies on the Right Web site are not at all fake or fabricated, and seem to be well-sourced. However, we do think it's helpful for our readers to understand this site's particular point of view--and their stated focus on those who "promote militarist U.S. foreign and defense policies"--if they choose to click on this outside link for further information.
If conservatives are going to dedicate themselves to defunding, and demonizing, public broadcasting, they're going to have to do a better job documenting its supposed sins. Pointing to links you don't like doesn't really count.