Gunning for Frontline

Posted by Michael Getler on

Frontline, PBS’s flagship investigative program, takes on many of our time’s most important and most controversial issues. So it rarely fails to stir up viewers. And so it is no surprise that the Jan. 6 edition, “Gunned Down: the Power of the NRA,” focusing on the National Rifle Association served as a lightning rod, drawing strong and immediate reaction from that powerful organization’s defenders and critics.

This was not, however, the more typical straight-forward documentary for or against more restrictive control of guns in America. There certainly was some of that, but what this program took aim at, at least according to Frontline, was an inside look at the NRA and an analysis of “its political evolution and influence, and how it has consistently succeeded in defeating new gun control legislation.”

As a viewer, I felt the program succeeded in its mission and contributed to a better public understanding of this organization and the intense support and antagonisms it generates, and the impact it has on American political leadership. The reviews I read in the New York Daily News, Variety and the Huffington Post, also scored it as balanced and informative.


Do Votes Matter More Than Events?

The program, of course, used the horrendous mass murders at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, at a Tucson, Ariz., shopping mall in 2011 and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012 to set the stage for illustrating the politics surrounding what happened, or didn’t happen, next in each case. This gives the program an anti-gun point of view. But, at least as I saw it, it was necessary to do this in order to get at the main theme, and value, of the program; to demonstrate the political power and motivating factors within the NRA, the don't give an inch, don't show any weakness leadership strategy of that organization for the last 23 years under CEO Wayne LaPierre Jr., and the failure of Obama administration leadership, especially, to accomplish any such controls in the aftermath of the shootings in 2011 and ’12. The Clinton administration came close to success in the aftermath of Columbine but also ultimately fell short.

What’s Missing, Other Than Votes?

I did think, however, that a couple of points were missing from the television presentation.

One was the popular support for gun rights in the country, which of course plays into the power of the NRA. In December, for example, the Pew Research Center reported on a new survey which, “for the first time in more than two decades” of surveys it has done, showed “more support (52%) for gun rights than gun control (46%).” Frontline does take note of the Pew survey in background material on its website and provides a link to it in the program's response at the bottom of this posting. But there is no mention of this in the actual television presentation, which, it seems to me, would have added important context.

The program also doesn’t cover (in the broadcast, although it does in accompanying material on its website) what one reviewer, Mike Weisser, writing in the Huffington Post, describes as “a tectonic shift in the gun-control landscape that has occurred over the past 18 months…the energetic and sustained grass-roots efforts” that are going on in Colorado [and some other states] for expansion of background checks. The New York Times reported on ballot efforts in Nevada, Arizona, Maine and Oregon.

Much of the mail I got was from NRA supporters who felt the program was predictably biased. I’ve posted some representative letters below, and a response from Frontline. There were also critical assessments on conservative websites such as NewsBusters.

And From the Left…

But what I found most interesting was that the program drew some strong online criticism from the left as well, with the liberal Media Matters arguing that the program “overstates the ability of the NRA to influence election outcomes” and its influence on federal gun legislation. Media Matters writer Timothy Johnson also writes that the program “gave baseless credence” to NRA claims that its supporters and voters were the reason “why Al Gore isn’t in the White House.”

Even though no NRA officials would agree to appear on the program, several former top officials did participate in interviews and, along with recorded public appearances by LaPierre, provided what seemed to be quite a fair and informative portrait of the NRA and what motivates its members and leadership.

The Huffington Post’s Weisser, who is a NRA Life Member and was asked by PBS to preview the film, which he says he did, says that despite the absence of current leadership, “they really had nothing to fear since the film covers the rise and current stance of Wayne LaPierre and his team in a balanced and honest way.” Variety called it “fine and even-handed.” The New York Daily News said the NRA “will doubtless see it [the program] as an anti-gun production. On the other hand, the NRA will never get a more admiring assessment of its political skills or its effectiveness in using them.”

As you can imagine, guns in America is a battle that will never end. Many of the arguments are repeated over and over by both sides. Tragic events will almost certainly continue to unfold, which will trigger new battles over those arguments. And then what?

Here Are Some of the Letters

I just watched the PBS NewsHour [Jan. 6] segment on the NRA and the position it took against gun control legislation after the tragedy that occurred at Sandy Hook. My jaw dropped at how the segment inaccurately portrayed the evolution of that piece of legislation. It may have started out as simply expanding background checks as PBS portrayed but it morphed into one of the most restrictive pieces of gun control legislation ever to come before Congress. This was not reported by PBS and shows the station's bias and irresponsible reporting. Media bias and lack of accurate reporting to support an agenda is a route cause of much that is going wrong in our country be it gun control or recent events in Ferguson and NYC.

Fort Worth, TX

(Ombudsman's Note: This letter refers to an excerpt of the Frontline program that appeared on the NewsHour prior to the full program airing later that evening. When asked about this, Frontline officials said they were comfortable with their reporting on the legislation and cited an assessment of the bi-partisan Manchin-Toomey Senate bill by to back up their portrayal.)
~ ~ ~

There was a glaring omission in Frontline's paean to the NRA—the last word being given, as it was, to the Bloomberg Businessweek journalist John Barrett who opined that the NRA engages "effectively" in "democracy," conveniently forgetting, of course, that no "basic right" in the Bill of Rights is ever absolute—and its strategic and tactical cleverness in its war against "the government" and the "jack-booted thugs" who regulate the industry on behalf of the American citizenry. A basic principle of democracy is that informed people vote in their own best interests after considering the context, the facts, the evidence, and the potential outcomes of proposed or implemented public policies. However, the NRA has been preventing, with their authoritarian strong-arm tactics, the collection and reporting of the epidemiological data concerning gun violence in the US by the CDC [the Center for Disease Control] and other public health agencies. Instead, they are telling Americans that "we know what is best for you and we will tell you what you need to know." By any definition, that one-sided dissemination of information is the same as "propaganda," whether it is created by an industry in the private sector, by a government agency, or by a politician, especially if it makes its way into public policy. 

Philadelphia, PA

~ ~ ~

After watching the PBS show on Guns in America, I am even more proud to be a 50+ year member of the NRA. My second thought is that my distrust of the major media and PBS reporting deepens. That show was a one-sided hit piece, just as I had expected it to be. You concentrated on several very tragic events. We all feel deep sorrow for the victims and great anger at the deranged murderers. If you really wanted to be more balanced, you could have discussed how many times daily, yearly, guns are used by law-abiding citizens to protect themselves from criminals. Far more often than the tragic events you covered. But like most Americans, I don’t expect any real balance from the mainstream media. I also note that a mass murderer killed a number of Paris citizens despite very strict gun laws.

You mentioned the “gun show loophole.” I do believe that the loophole is that of private individuals selling a gun to another individual. Some of the definitions I have seen included one owner showing his guns at home to a friend or relative, I also do not want the government to know who has what guns at home, as in “registered.” Most do not trust a government with this information, and especially THIS administration.

Donald Holloway, Chapel Hill, NC

Frontline Responds

We have read the criticisms you shared and consulted with our producers. Considering the passionate views of people on the subject of guns and gun control, it is not surprising that viewers on opposing sides had strong and differing reactions to the film. One viewer complained it was a “paean” to the NRA, while an NRA member criticized it as “a one-sided hit piece.” It is important to point out that this is a sprawling subject, and we have looked at numerous aspects of it over the years – in films and in reporting on our website. This film had a particular focus: examining the political evolution and clout of the NRA, and providing some explanation for why, despite strong public outcries after tragic shootings, little or nothing is done in Washington. We did this accurately.

In light of the complaint that the NRA’s position was missing, we note that even though current NRA leaders would not grant interviews, our producers found former NRA officials whose voices were used throughout the film. They addressed the history of the organization and the patriotic nature of those who believe in gun rights. In footage we used Wayne LaPierre, who expressed his response to the Newtown shootings, and Charlton Heston articulated the unhappiness the NRA feels when guns are blamed for gun violence instead of the people using them.

In regards to the suggestion by an NRA opponent in one of the letters that we were siding with the NRA by not including reporting on efforts to block the CDC from keeping track of gun violence, the viewer is just wrong. Although this is an additional and interesting line of reporting, it only further shows the influence of the NRA – a point that we addressed throughout the film with other examples.

As for the assertion by Media Matters writer Timothy Johnson that the film overstated the influence of the NRA, we stand by our reporting. 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. While our film was focused on the NRA influence in Washington, in conjunction with the broadcast we 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. The article can be found here. We also published a breakdown of spending on the federal level around gun issues, which shows the NRA’s unrivaled dominance in that sphere. For the record, we promoted this additional reporting on the broadcast, for anyone interested in finding out more.

Lastly, we take issue with Mr. Johnson’s suggestion that we “gave baseless credence” to the idea that the NRA was “a decisive” factor in Al Gore’s defeat. Clearly, that election outcome is a whole story itself, and as the article Mr. Johnson 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.

Posted on Jan. 21, 2015 at 11:37 a.m.

Search Ombudsman Archive

As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
Have a comment related to the journalistic integrity of PBS content? Send an E-mail to Michael Getler or contact him at 703-739-5290.
The ombudsman does not replace viewers' long-standing ability to contact stations, producers and PBS.
If you have a comment related to PBS website design or user experience, please contact the Audience Services team.


Will PBS Be a Victim of ‘Dying to be a Martyr’?

An old teaching plan revives an even older controversy.

Some (Almost) Closing Thoughts

Some thoughts about an old “great war” and a new not-so-great one.

The Mailbag: When Interview Subjects Can Be Seen as Stereotypes

Viewers call attention to how interview choices can be interpreted in different ways.

E-mail Update

Sign up to receive an E-mail notification when new columns are published.

Your E-mail address:

Unsubscribe from E-mail update.