Frontline Relies On Straw Man To Shield Its NRA Documentary From Criticism By Progressives

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.

Frontline Misrepresents Media Matters Critique Of Documentary's Treatment Of NRA Influence

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.

Frontline Backtracks On Suggestion The NRA Was Responsible For Al Gore's 2000 Defeat

Media Matters criticized Gunned Down for suggesting that the NRA was “a decisive factor” in the defeat of Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election. In its response to Media Matters, Frontline changed its tone, writing, “Clearly, that election outcome is a whole story itself, and as the article [Media Matters] cites states, there were arguably a multitude of factors that could be described as decisive. Our research and interviews with people on both sides of the debate, however, support the conclusion that the NRA was one of those factors.”

Although Frontline acknowledges that “a multitude of factors” could have caused Gore's loss, the documentary did not present any alternatives other than the NRA's advocacy. During a sequence lasting several minutes, Gunned Down framed the 2000 presidential election as an opportunity for the NRA to get revenge against Gore because of his tie-breaking vote on Senate gun show loophole legislation following the Columbine High School mass shooting. Gunned Down showed a montage of the NRA's anti-Gore advocacy, then news footage of Gore losing the election, followed by the claim of a former NRA official that the NRA was responsible for Gore's defeat, before finally the narrator said, “In Washington, they say the NRA was a decisive factor in Al Gore's defeat.” Below is a full transcript of the segment:

NARRATOR: One year after [the] Columbine [High School mass shooting], it was time for another NRA national convention.

NRA ARCHIVAL AUDIO: Ladies and Gentlemen and members of the National Rifle Association of America, your president, Charlton Heston.

NARRATOR: They had overwhelmed the Clinton administration and successfully demonstrated their power in Congress. It had been a very good year for the NRA.


NARRATOR: And now the NRA would take the offensive.

HESTON: That leads me to that one mission that is left undone, winning in November.

RICHARD FELDMAN, FORMER NRA LOBBYIST: The race between George W. Bush and Al Gore; that's the last year that the gun issue played a critical role in American politics.

NARRATOR: Now it was time to settle a score with a man who had broken that tie vote in the Senate, Al Gore.

HESTON: I want to say those fighting words for everyone within the sound of my voice to hear and to heed and especially for you, Mr. Gore. From my cold dead hands.

NARRATOR: They would spend $20 million on the 2000 election, the most aggressive political campaign they had ever undertaken.

NRA AD (ARCHIVE): Al Gore wants government testing, licensing, and registration for all firearms owners. He cast the vote that would have shut down every gun show. This year vote freedom first, because if Al Gore wins, you lose.

WAYNE LAPIERRE, NRA CEO AND EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT (ARCHIVE): To all of you in West Virginia, it's Halloween, and Al Gore doesn't need a mask to scare gun owners and hunters.

TIM DICKINSON, ROLLING STONE: The NRA wins because it's patient and because long after America's dismay about these gun massacres has faded, the NRA and its membership are still thinking about guns.

ARCHIVAL NEWS FOOTAGE: Good evening everybody and welcome to our election coverage 2000. Stay with us we are about to take you on an exciting and bumpy ride.

NARRATOR: On the night of the election it all came down to a handful of critical states. One of the first to go was Ohio.

ARCHIVAL NEWS FOOTAGE: We found in the exit poll is gun owners, 40 percent of the voters in Ohio were gun owners, and they went almost 60 percent for George W. Bush. George W. Bush gets West Virginia --

NARRATOR: -- West Virginia --

ARCHIVAL NEWS FOOTAGE: -- which has been solidly in the Democratic column for a long, long time. Bill Clinton's home state has gone to Bush --

NARRATOR: -- and Arkansas --

ARCHIVAL NEWS FOOTAGE: -- six electoral votes and they go for Bush.

NARRATOR: And even Al Gore's home state of Tennessee --

ARCHIVAL NEWS FOOTAGE: -- embarrassing Vice President Gore by snatching his state's 11 electoral votes.

PAUL M. BARRETT, AUTHOR: Al Gore lost his home state, lost West Virginia, these are states that he should have won.

FEDLMAN: Had any of those states gone the other way, Al Gore would have been president.

ARCHIVAL NEWS FOOTAGE: Florida goes Bush, the presidency is Bush, that's it.

NARRATOR: In Washington, they say the NRA was a decisive factor in Al Gore's defeat.

FELDMAN: In no small measure it was that fight over guns after Columbine that had the firearm community more enlivened and engaged and a few votes difference in Florida and the whole thing would have gone the other way.

Frontline's new conclusion the NRA was “one of those factors” causing Gore's defeat is also without evidence. While the claim is a common right-wing talking point, actual research conducted on voter attitudes during the 2000 election show that Gore's position on gun policy -- which was mainstream for a Democratic presidential candidate -- gave him a slight nationwide advantage on Election Day. For example, Gore lost his home state of Tennessee even though a 2000 survey found 60 percent of Tennesseans wanted more restrictions on firearms. This suggests other factors were responsible for Gore's defeat, the most obvious of which would be the well-established partisan trend in southern states towards going for Republicans rather than Democrats in presidential elections.

Frontline Moves The Goal Posts On The NRA's Success -- Or Lack Thereof -- Following Sandy Hook

Media Matters criticized Gunned Down for spending a great deal of time on the NRA's successful efforts in blocking a background check bill in the U.S. Senate following the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre while failing to mention the numerous NRA losses on the state level during the same time period. According to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which tracks all state level gun-related legislation, between the Sandy Hook mass shooting and December 1, 2014, states have enacted 99 stronger gun laws, 88 weaker gun laws, and 55 minimal impact laws. Ten states -- California, Connecticut, Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Washington -- have enacted substantial legislation strengthening gun laws while four states -- Illinois, Georgia, Missouri, and Alabama -- enacted substantial legislation weakening gun laws.

In its response, Frontline argues that its documentary focused on “the NRA influence in Washington” but that Frontline “reported on our website about recent state-level gun control successes, even in the face of the prevailing edge of the pro-gun lobby in statehouses. ... For the record, we promoted this additional reporting on the broadcast, for anyone interested in finding out more.”

Gunned Down described its position on the NRA's influence by concluding, “In Washington, they say the NRA came out of the shootings at Sandy Hook stronger than ever.” The fact remains that Gunned Down spent approximately 15 minutes covering the U.S. Senate fight over background checks -- where the NRA was victorious -- without mentioning state level legislative fights. Of course, doing so would have undermined Frontline's promotion of the claim that the NRA is “stronger than ever.”