Gunning for Frontline, Part Two

By Michael Getler

MARCH 4, 2015

Two months ago, on Jan. 6, PBS’s flagship investigative program, Frontline, aired a one-hour broadcast titled “Gunned Down: The Power of the NRA.” That is a guaranteed hot-button issue and I got some mail immediately, mostly from critics of the program who felt it was biased against the National Rifle Association.

I forwarded some of the letters to Frontline to get its response, did some research, read analyses of the program done by conservative and liberal media-watch groups, and read those press reviews of the program that I could find through a Google search at the time. On Jan. 21, after receiving responses from Frontline, I posted a column about the program. It included some of the letters, links to the reviews, links to the conservative NewsBusters website and to the liberal Media Matters site which, in this case, had argued that Frontline had overstated the NRA’s political influence.

I don’t want to go through the whole column, but I pointed out that this was not the typical documentary for or against more restrictive gun controls but was, as Frontline labeled it, 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.”

I made a couple of points of my own that I felt were missing from the television presentation (but were referenced in the accompanying online material). But my general assessment was that 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.”

Then, about a month later, about Feb. 15, the March edition of an NRA magazine, “America’s 1st Freedom,” appeared and included “An Open Letter to PBS from 5 Million NRA Members.” It described the Frontline program as “shockingly slanted” and asked their “law-abiding, tax-paying members” to write to me and demand answers to a list of questions about the program provided by the NRA.

Beginning around Feb. 18, I started receiving what are now close to 500 letters, almost all of them reflecting some or all of the points in the NRA magazine. The volume of messages coming in picked up after the NRA posted a link to the letter on one of its Facebook pages earlier this week. I answered nearly all of these by pointing out that I had given my views and those of others in a column a month earlier. Those few who answered my message didn’t seem to be satisfied. There was no indication that the NRA had seen my column before it posted its call for a write-in campaign. And, as is frequently the case with write-in campaigns, it was hard to tell if many of those who wrote had actually seen the Frontline broadcast.

In any event, I have no reason to change the initial assessments I offered in the Jan. 21 column which, to borrow a phrase, I felt were fair and balanced. I sent the newly-published NRA questions to Frontline for further responses from the producers to the specific NRA challenges.

What follows is the NRA open letter and the Frontline response.

The Open Letter from the NRA to PBS

After viewing the Jan. 6 "Frontline" episode, "Gunned Down: The Power of the NRA,” we have a few questions.

According to the Center for Public Broadcasting (CPB) charter: "The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 requires the CPB to operate with a 'strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature: It also requires it to regularly review national programming for objectivity and, balance, and to report on 'its efforts to address concerns about objectivity and balance."

We request an explanation of how the following facts concerning "Gunned Down" fit with that charter:

• Why are there twice as many pro-gun control sources on the program as those on the pro-Second Amendment side of the issue?

• Why are only politicians who supported the Manchin -Toomey background check bill included, but not even one pro-gun politician who voted against it?

• Why did you include reporters from the notoriously anti-gun Rolling Stone and The New York Times, but fail to include journalists from any pro-gun outlet?

• Why did you interview only Newtown families who campaigned for gun bans and background checks, but fail to even mention families who are not calling for additional legislation?

• Why did you allow to go unchallenged Vice President Joe Biden's oft-repeated claims that 91 percent of Americans and 80 percent of NRA families support background checks? In truth, the poll cited for the 91-percent statistic used very misleading questions to get the desired "answer"—and no polling organization has access to NRA member rolls to even conduct an opinion survey.

• Why did the producers fail to show even one positive, lawful use of firearms-hunting, sport shooting, competitive shooting, collecting, armed self-defense, etc.-while featuring multiple mass shootings?

• Finally, why did the producers choose ominous background music when NRA and its policies are introduced, while more sympathetic background music is used for opposing content?

When "Frontline" contacted NRA leaders about the possibility of being interviewed for this program, they examined the previous work of the producers, the list of journalists to be featured, and viewed the list of other interviewees. It was clear that PBS could be planning a very slanted piece of journalism. After careful consideration, NRA staff declined to participate in their own berating—a prescient assessment since the program turned out to be just that.

Please advise when, per your charter, you will be conducting the mandated review for objectivity concerning "Gunned Down:' and when you will make that report available to us. Thank you.

Here’s the Response from Frontline Producers

Thanks for giving us the opportunity to respond to the questions posed in the NRA’s letter to you. We are not entirely surprised that the NRA would call upon you to investigate the fairness of “Gunned Down” and whether it meets the various journalistic and editorial guidelines we operate under. Of course, we feel our film does meet those standards.  And, we can’t help but point out, as you know, that the NRA is a powerful special interest group with a long record of attacking the media whenever it feels that reporting does not sufficiently reflect its pro-gun viewpoint.

Frankly, it is hard not to be cynical about their overriding complaint that we did not have enough people in the film articulating their views.  Our team asked for interviews multiple times from a range of current NRA officials – including members of the board of directors – all of whom declined to talk to us. But as the open letter acknowledges, the organization made up its mind about the film beforehand. Now comes their demand for you to investigate us for not having enough of their voices in the film!

That said, following the last note I wrote you, I went back to our producers to discuss the NRA’s specific points and here are a few thoughts on each.

1.  Counting sources

We reject the NRA’s count; it is inaccurate and it does not speak to the program’s fairness, despite being shut out by all NRA officialdom. In order to come up with “twice” as many “pro-gun control” sources as “pro-Second Amendment” sources as they state, it seems you’d have to count the journalists interviewed as gun control advocates. We don’t believe that is a reasonable way to look at these journalists who work for established media outlets with the highest journalistic standards. Not only have they done substantive reporting on this subject but the way they were used in the film was to tell what happened behind the scenes, not to advocate one way or the other. When you set the journalists aside, the count of on-camera interviewees is roughly the same. But even here one has to be careful. It’s true that Senator Manchin, for example, supported a bill to require background checks at gun shows, but it is also true that he was a member of the NRA in good standing. So, the simplistic labels used by the NRA to try to ascribe balance are misleading and a disservice to any real understanding of the issues.

2. Manchin-Toomey bill

As we did with the NRA, our producers requested interviews from the five key senators who voted against the Manchin-Toomey bill. Not one of them would speak with us about why they voted against the bill.

3. Anti-gun newspapers

As mentioned above, we featured reporters from major news organizations, who have solid journalistic credentials in writing about gun control issues and the politics and legislative battles around the NRA. Whether the editorial sides of their publications have over time taken positions on guns is irrelevant.

4. Newtown families

Our information is that 18 out of the 26 families who lost loved ones at Sandy Hook lobbied to close the gun show loophole. We did not suggest that every family was calling for new legislation or went to Washington. We stand by our focus on the families who did take action.

5. Polling

The percentages cited by Vice President Biden are consistent with a widely used body of polling on the subject. Among others, Republican pollster Frank Luntz found that the vast majority of NRA members support background checks at retail sales. However, had the NRA agreed to be interviewed, we would have welcomed their perspective on why they think these polls are the result of “misleading questions.”

6. Positive, lawful use of firearms

Even though our focus was on the politics around gun control, the film did reference the early history of the NRA as an organization devoted to sport and hunting and showed images of the group’s role in gun safety instruction. It is also worth noting again that we featured Charlton Heston describing NRA members as the “victims” because they get blamed for the actions of crazies. And in another clip, Wayne LaPierre says that the only answer to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. More examples of our film finding ways to include NRA voices, despite being shut out by the organization. Clearly, we were not making a film about hunting, competitive shooting, gun collecting, or the many other aspects of gun ownership.

7. Editorial music

Having refused to participate in our film, now comes a critique of how we used music. Bottom line, we demand fairness at every level of our productions – including music. People often hear what they want to hear, and the NRA had made up its mind before they heard a single note.

In a larger sense as was noted in your [Jan. 21] column, the film sparked heated reaction on all sides of the issue. As you know, some viewers complained the film was a “paean” to the NRA. Divisive subjects like this are often seen through the lens of the politics of the viewer, but sometimes complaints aren’t even a reflection of an honest difference of opinion, rather they are ginned up for political purposes to try to discredit the messenger, in this case FRONTLINE. We see the NRA’s letter in just such terms.

Posted on March 4, 2015 at 3:11 p.m.

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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 >

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