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Friday, April 19, 2013

Congressional Gun Vote Defeating Restrictions Triggers Media Outcry

By: Dylan Byers - 4/18/13

If you thought President Obama was outraged after the Senate killed the plan to expand background checks on guns, you should have seen some members of the press.

Even by the standards of today’s partisan media environment, the response has been noteworthy. Television hosts, editorial boards, and even some reporters have aggressively criticized and shamed the 46 Senators who opposed the plan, while some have even taken to actively soliciting the public to contact them directly.

The decision by some members of the media to come down so firmly on one side of a policy debate has only served to reinforce conservatives’ longstanding suspicions that the mainstream media has a deep-seated liberal bias.

“I guess the liberal media get annoyed when Senators listen to their constituents and think for themselves, rather than doing the media’s bidding,” Bill Kristol, the editor-in-chief of the Weekly Standard, told POLITICO.

”It’s clearly biased and unmistakably ideological,” said John Podhoretz, the conservative New York Post columnist. “These outlets can do what they do want, but nobody should kid themselves about what they’re doing.”
Conservatives are doubly frustrated because amid all this cheerleading, the media largely turned a deaf ear to one of the right’s central substantive arguments: There is little evidence that the Manchin-Toomey plan could prevent another Aurora or Newtown ­ a fact many reports glossed over. Indeed, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein recently stated on the Senate floor that universal background checks, while “very important… would not have been prevented the tragedy in Newtown.”

Nonetheless, leading media figures and outlets still tried to shame the Senate. CNN’s Piers Morgan, a longstanding gun control advocate, called the Senate “a pathetic, gutless bunch of cowards.” MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough said the American people had been “insulted,” and called it “a turning point in the history of the Republican Party.” The New York Times published a scathing editorial from Gabrielle Giffords, who accused the Senate of being “in the gun lobby’s grip,” and the Huffington Post splashed the images of shooting victims across the top of its homepage below the headline: “No Justice.”

Others went beyond criticism and embraced advocacy. The New York Daily News, which had published a crusading series of covers criticizing politicians for their opposition to gun control, ran photographs of the 46 Senators who had opposed allowing a vote on the background check measure alongside a phone number, urging readers to call and complain. HuffPo’s Ryan Grim similarly published those Senators’ Twitter handles urging readers to “let them know how you feel.” MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski took to Twitter herself and wrote 46 separate tweets publicly shaming those Senators.

Such responses have earned widespread praise from the proponents of expanded background checks, but others question such advocacy can still be defined as honest journalism.

“I call it crusading journalism in the spirit of Upton Sinclair,” Arianna Huffington, the president and editor-in-chief of Huffington Post, told POLITICO, adding that she was proud of her editors.

Proponents of expanded background checks argue that the case is hardly partisan because it has such widespread report among Americans ­ as high as 90 percent, according to one survey.

“When you’re on the same side as 90 percent of people, that’s not even advocacy,” HuffPo’s Grim told POLITICO. “On this one, we’d like fewer people to be massacred ­ whatever can be done to have fewer kids and fewer innocent people gunned down.”

Grim also said that such advocacy efforts did not threaten HuffPo’s journalist credibility, and resisted the suggestion that HuffPo was a partisan news organization.

“What allows us to fully maintain our credibility is that when it comes to journalism, there’s no whiff of partisanship,” he said. “This flows from core principles: If Democrats are not living up to those principles, we’re certainly not giving them any quarter. That’s why readers continue to trust us.”

To many conservatives, of course, the Huffington Post, Piers Morgan, and even Scarborough, a moderate conservative, are part of an East Coast media elite that is disconnected from the true American worldview. The fact that they’re all rallying behind the Manchin-Toomey plan only reinforces that sense of distance.

“I don’t think anybody thinks of these guys as journalists. They are essentially the avatars of the upper West Side media culture in New York,” Rick Wilson, the Republican media strategist, said. “They are not objective, fair-minded journalists, and they are not in touch with the concerns of ordinary Americans.”

Regardless of the media’s partisan preferences, Podhoretz hardly sees majority support for an issue as a carte-blanche for the media to pick sides in a policy debate.

“First of all, 90 percent of people saying they favor background checks is not the same thing as saying they favor Manchin-Toomey,” Podhoretz told POLITICO. “But more importantly, look back at the provisions of the Contract with America in 1994 ­- every single one of those provisions had 70 percent support in public surveys. I don’t remember the media taking up those provisions in September and October of 1994 because they ‘represented the will of the people.’”

Just 24 hours after the Senate’s rejection of Manchin-Toomey, it’s difficult to tell whether this recent outpouring of frustration is the beginning of a renewed effort or the last gasp of a hard-fought campaign that couldn’t even push a watered-down background-check bill through congress.

For his part, Wilson believes that media’s influence over the national conversation has diminished in recent years.

“We used to live in a world where a New York Times op-ed had a disproportionate effect on society. More and more, the New York Times, Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski ­ they sound to ordinary Americans like Ivy League smarties telling each other how smart they are,” he said. “The media institutions of the Acela corridor are so disconnected from American society that Americans no longer pay attention.”

Asked whether he thought media efforts to keep the gun debate alive would be effective, Grim gave a measured response that ­ in addition to casting a somber prediction for the days ahead ­ seemed to recognize the limits of HuffPo’s ability to direct the course of the national conversation.

“Unfortunately, I think the ongoing slaughter is going to keep this debate going,” he said. “I would like nothing more for this debate to disappear ­ we’d much rather have that. “Because we’re a news organization, we can’t drive the agenda,” he added. “The agenda is driven by politicans and world events. We can only respond to that.”


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