The NRA And The Press: A Case Study In Media Bias

Originally published at
By K. Daniel Glover

Any scribe with more than a few bylines under his journalistic belt quickly grows cynical of the in-your-face rants about media bias so common these days. How could he not when the less-than-objective objects of his coverage lodge so many of the complaints, or when agenda-laden laymen on the political extremes attack so blindly and relentlessly?

My own experience at IC demonstrates the point. Few of the pieces I write here espouse a personal viewpoint, yet our readers periodically guess at my political leanings based on rather innocuous language. Depending on whom you ask any given week, I am either a flaming liberal or a right-wing conspirator. Others have insinuated, or flat-out stated, that I am a self-righteous blowhard.

Such tongue-lashings may be justified at times. But simplistic labeling — a la “the liberal media crucified Newt Gingrich” or “the right-wing press is out to get President Clinton” — misses the point. Readily apparent media bias is not the problem; even casual readers recognize it and filter it as they see fit. The subtle partiality that lurks beneath the journalistic surface is far more dangerous.

The subtleties of bias
University of Michigan graduate Brian A. Patrick made those dangers abundantly clear earlier this year in an intriguing, albeit dry, doctoral dissertation examining coverage of the National Rifle Association.

The underlying point of Patrick’s thesis, which examined NRA coverage in what he called “the elite press of the nation” — The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor and the Los Angeles Times — is that the NRA actually benefits from bias against it by gaining new members. But to get to that conclusion, he first had to prove that the bias exists, and the journey is more interesting than the destination itself.

The study encompassed nearly 1,500 newspaper articles from Jan. 1, 1990, to July 15, 1998. It contrasts coverage of the NRA to that of the gun-control group Handgun Control Inc., and of three other large lobbying groups: the American Association of Retired Persons, the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.


Gunfight In The Capital Corral

Originally published at
By K. Daniel Glover

A familiar scene will unfold today in a Washington, D.C., federal courtroom. One well-funded legal team will portray guns as the gravest criminal menace in the nation and the folks who would dare oppose reasonable controls on weapons as fanatics. An equally moneyed bunch of lawyers will counter that law-abiding citizens use most guns and that the worrywarts who want to restrict gun sales have violated gun owners’ constitutional rights.

The issue before the court: whether the FBI has the right to maintain, if only temporarily, the information it collects on the backgrounds of Americans who buy guns.

The case, filed by the National Rifle Association against the Justice Department, is the latest salvo in a gun-control debate that stretches back to the 1981 assassination attempt on then-President Ronald Reagan and, more recently, to the enactment of the so-called Brady Bill. President Clinton signed the Brady bill, which imposed a waiting period on the purchase of handguns and background checks on gun buyers, into law in the pre-Thanksgiving rush to congressional adjournment in 1993, and the acrimonious debate over the merits of the law has continued ever since.

Closing the ‘loopholes’
Much of the squabbling has occurred in the background. With the crime rate on a six-year decline and gun-related crimes on an even steeper decline than overall crime, gun foes have struggled to win the attention of lawmakers and a public tuned to other issues — Social Security, health care, tobacco and, of course, impeachment.

But the battle moved to the fore again Nov. 30, the five-year anniversary of the Brady bill’s enactment. Until then, the law required that handgun buyers wait five days to get their weapons. Now, as stipulated by the law, buyers no longer must wait five days, but most buyers, including those who purchase rifles and shotguns, must undergo a background check via the new National Instant Check System.