Obama Surgeon General Nominee Prevails Over NRA And Right-Wing Media Smear Campaign

Dr. Vivek Murthy overcame a longstanding right-wing media and National Rifle Association smear campaign to gain Senate confirmation as Surgeon General on Monday by a vote of 51-43.

Conservative media had worked to cast Murthy as a radical for his uncontroversial stance that gun violence is a public health issue and criticized his supposed lack of qualifications.

The conservative media attacks against Murthy began in early March. Coverage of his nomination focused on his past acknowledgement that gun violence affects public health, which conservative media spun as evidence Murthy is obsessed with gun regulations. (Murthy has actually said his focus as Surgeon General will not be on gun violence, but rather obesity.)

Fox contributor Katie Pavlich claimed that Murthy is “rabidly anti-gun” and “must be stopped,” and Fox & Friends co-host Peter Johnson, Jr. argued that, if confirmed as Surgeon General, Murthy would make the examining room about “about party registration or about gun registration” rather than medicine. Fox hosts also worked to downplay Murthy's considerable accomplishments and suggested that he was unqualified to be “our nation's doctor” because “he hasn't done much in his career yet,” all while arguing he would turn the Surgeon General role “into a hyper-partisan position.” These arguments became the basis for an extended smear campaign on Fox News and conservative blogs.

In fact, Murthy's stance on firearms is common within the medical community. The American Medical Association (AMA) agrees that gun violence “has reached epidemic proportions” and has argued that the medical profession carries an obligation to combat gun violence. The Institute of Medicine has also advocated for a “public health approach” to fight gun violence. Furthermore, Murthy's credentials were endorsed by a broad array of health care groups including the American Public Health Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Cancer Society, American Diabetes Association, American Heart Association, and Trust for America's Health.

Murthy's confirmation marks a significant loss for the NRA, which began its campaign against the nominee even before conservative media joined the crusade. In a February 26 letter to U.S. Senate leaders, the NRA's top lobbyist warned that confirming Murthy would be “a prescription for disaster for America's gun owners.” The letter kicked off an extensive lobbying and grassroots effort as well as the mobilization of the NRA's media arm in a failed attempt to block Murthy's nomination.

In May, the NRA's magazine, America's 1st Freedom, gloated that the stalling of Murthy's nomination was evidence that the “NRA is a political force to be reckoned with.” The next month's issue falsely claimed that Murthy's group, Doctors for America, supported “civilian disarmament.” (In fact a letter to Congress describing the group's positions indicates that it supports several gun safety measures, but nothing approaching “disarmament.”)

During one of the numerous segments attacking Murthy on the NRA's television and radio shows, NRA News host Cam Edwards went so far as to use the Murthy nomination to argue that “doctors are a lot more dangerous than gun owners are in this country” because of deaths due to medical errors. Last week a representative for the NRA's lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action, appeared on NRA News to claim “gun control activist” Murthy thinks “you own a gun and you're the equivalent of some sort of infectious disease.” In last ditch efforts to block Murthy, the NRA issued an alert urging that it was “critically important” that NRA members contact their senators and “ask them to OPPOSE confirmation of President Obama's radically anti-gun nominee.”

The NRA defeat also stands in contrast with a tired media myth that the gun group wins every time. One conservative commentator even used Murthy to tout this myth months ago, prematurely writing that "[b]y all indications, the National Rifle Association and allied gun-rights groups have killed" the nomination before arguing "[t]he retreat from Murthy also provides a reminder that liberals' wishful thinking about the NRA being a 'paper tiger' deserves once and for all to be rejected."

In defeat, the NRA will likely attempt to revive media myths about its supposed electoral dominance. For this reason, media should be cautious in reporting on the potential impact of the NRA scoring the vote, as research shows the gun organization has little impact in determining election outcomes.