From the July 1997 MediaWatch

Networks Use First Amendment Rights to Promote Opponents of Second Amendment Rights
Gun Rights Forces Outgunned on TV

Network reporters feared a wave of criminals storming gun stores when the Supreme Court struck down portions of the Brady Bill as unconstitutional. On the June 27 CBS Evening News, Jim Stewart left viewers with this fearful conclusion: "No matter who does the checking, supporters of the Brady law say one lesson from this is very clear. If no background check is done anyone can walk into a gun store and purchase a weapon, including the nearly quarter of a million felons who tried to and were turned away the four years the Brady law was in effect."

Stewart neglected the National Rifle Association's view that the 250,000 number is completely exaggerated, especially considering that only 20 states are still subject to the Brady law, and there are only "three individuals who've seen the inside of a prison cell under the Brady Act."

To examine if CBS's tone reflected how the networks covered the gun control debate, MediaWatch analysts reviewed every gun control policy story on four evening shows (ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, CNN's The World Today, and NBC Nightly News) and three morning broadcasts (ABC's Good Morning America, CBS This Morning, and NBC's Today) from July 1, 1995 through June 30, 1997. In 244 gun policy stories, those favoring gun control outnumbered stories opposing gun control by 157 to 10, or a ratio of almost 16 to 1 (77 were neutral). Talking heads were slightly more balanced: gun control advocates outumbered gun-rights spokesmen 165 to 110 (40 were neutral).

Story Angle. Analysts counted the number of pro- and anti- gun control statements by reporters in each story. Pieces with a disparity of greater than 1.5 to 1 were categorized as either for or against gun control. Stories closer than the ratio were deemed neutral. Among statements recorded as pro-gun control: violent crime occurs because of guns, not criminals, and gun control prevents crime. Categorized as arguments against gun control: gun control would not reduce crime; that criminals, not guns are the problem; Americans have a constitutional right to keep and bear arms; right-to-carry concealed weapons laws caused a drop in crime. The finding that the story-angle numbers are much more lopsided than the talking-head contrast reveals that the reporters' own statements have a demonstrable pro-gun control spin.

Evening News. Gun rights advocates were treated like clay pigeons in a skeet-shooting contest. Out of 103 evening news segments, pro-gun control stories outnumbered anti-gun control stories by 70 to 6, along with 27 neutral reports. ABC was the most slanted (29 pro-gun control to five anti-, only six neutral), followed by CNN (17-1, and only six neutral). NBC reporters promoted gun control in 13 (60 percent) of 22 gun segments. CBS had the highest percentage of balanced stories but still advocated gun control in 11 (65 percent) of 17 gun control-related segments, to six neutral stories and zero opposing segments.

Pro-gun control talking heads were televised 99 times on evening shows, to just 67 anti-gun control spokesmen and 24 neutral soundbites. Once again ABC (35-20, five neutral) led the way in pushing for gun control, followed by CBS (24-13, six neutral). CNN (16-13, four neutral) NBC (24-21, and nine neutral) came closest to balance.

Morning Shows. In 141 morning-show gun policy segments, stories loaded in favor of gun control outnumbered stories opposing gun control 87 to 4. (Fifty were neutral.) ABC's advocacy against gun owners carried over to Good Morning America (36 pro-gun control stories, zero opposed, 16 neutral). NBC came next (35-3, with 20 neutral). CBS set their sights against gun owners in 16 stories, but came closest to balance with 14 neutral segments (but only one story favoring gun rights).

The talking head count on morning shows also followed the pro-gun control trend: 66 pro-gun control to 43 against and 16 neutral. Again, ABC had the largest slant (26-15, and eight neutral), followed by NBC (23-12, six neutral). CBS's talking heads came out almost even: 17 in favor of gun control, 16 opposed and two neutral.

Guests. The morning shows were also far more likely to invite gun control spokesmen like Sarah Brady than 2nd Amendment defenders like the NRA's Tanya Metaksa. Pro-gun control spokesmen were able to advocate their side three times more than the anti-gun control speakers: 37 to just 12 opponents, and four neutral spokesmen. On NBC, advocates overwhelmed opponents 19 to 3, with no neutral observers, followed by ABC (6-3, one neutral) and CBS (12-6, three neutral).

Network guest bookers and reporters fell over themselves to feature anti-gun rights Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.). On the November 6, 1996 Today Katie Couric asked: "What do you think the lesson is for the National Rifle Association? Of course, one of the cornerstones of your campaign was to maintain the ban on assault weapons in this country."

That same day on Good Morning America, Joan Lunden also enthusiastically welcomed the gun rights opponent: "McCarthy turned her rage over the availability of assault weapons into political activism and last night this ultimate outsider, a former nurse and homemaker, defeated incumbent Daniel Frisa and Carolyn McCarthy joins me now. Good morning. Congratulations! What are your thoughts as you sit there? I mean, a little fear, excitement? Hopes? What are your thoughts?" She added: "Sounds like you really educated yourself, too. Are you at all daunted by this task that lies before you?"

At the end of the interview, Lunden cheered on McCarthy's anti- gun crusade: Well, we wish you the very, very best of luck and congratulations to you." Would Lunden and Couric have wished luck to a Congressman desiring to place restrictions on the First Amendment? Apparently network reporters regard some constitutional rights as more sacred than others.

Other features in the July MediaWatch

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