The NRA and the Death of the Elite Media

Prof. Brian Patrick introduces and summarizes his years of research into media bias against the National Rifle Association, and NRA’s success in spite of this opposition, and describes what this tells us about the changing world of alternative media and its influence on social movements. He also discusses the trials and tribulations he has faced in being a pro-gun rights scholar in the typically very anti-gun world of academia.

The heart of the book is a quantitative content analysis of a decade of elite news media coverage of the National Rifle Association compared to that of similar American citizen-membership voluntary associations/interest groups.

Content analysis research methodology developed after First World War as a tool for quantifying and measuring propaganda and detecting its sources. It moves beyond the limits of inferences based on mere anecdotal or impressionistic data; content analysis allows for statistical comparisons that are highly reliable. It saw extensive use in the Second World War-era and its aftermath, and was even used as damning evidence in espionage trials of foreign agents that were fronting Nazi propaganda via American newspapers under the guise of news.

Content analysis as applied in this book conclusively shows that major American news media have been fronting anti-gun propaganda under the guise of news. This is done by a variety of standard storytelling and propagandistic techniques that are discussed in the book’s third chapter.

I am not comparing American journalists to Nazis, although I once heard a frustrated NRA official refer to a New York Times reporter as a “jack-booted journalist.” The Times, on its part, has regularly demeaned NRA. A recent Times editorial, for example, refers to NRA’s executive director as “wild-eyed” for his “mendacious, delusional, almost deranged rant.” NRA has long been the boogeyman of choice for elite reporters and editors, who, virtually every time some vicious degenerate uses a firearm to kill innocent people, blame this highly respectable citizen association of more than four million members for crimes against humanity. They dehumanize these citizens by calling them a “lobby.”

Again, based on a reproducible content analysis that has been tested for reliability, elite American journalism under the guise of news, objective reporting or social responsibility journalism, whether knowingly or for other reasons, in good faith or bad, fronts an ideology of hatred and moral disgust concerning millions of citizen gun owners who have organized themselves into gun rights organizations. These citizens have promoted their rights and values as guaranteed under not only the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but also the First. The latter includes the rights of association, peacefully petitioning the government, and publishing ideas and values via communication media, the very same practices that NYT and other elite news media castigate as “lobbying.” For refusing to kowtow to elite interpretations of reality and religious-like beliefs in quasi-scientific sociological theories, NRA and gun culture are denounced as heretics, extremists and deviants.

As is well known, such poisonous language, overt or insidious, accompanies marginalization via deed. Propaganda and hate language helps to dehumanize human targets in order to justify actions directed against them. The diagnosis of legitimate civic gun ownership and citizen gun rights as a social problem or disease is a necessary step in the prescription of the quasi-scientific belief system that insists on misidentifying guns and gun ownership as the cause of American violence. Elite journalism routinely sketches gun owners and American gun culture as a moral failing that begs clinical-style administrative treatment. They interpret legitimate gun ownership as a matter for administrative intervention and proscription and, if this cannot be achieved outright, a policy of incremental obstructionism or taxation. Thus more and more barriers, financial and bureaucratic, and an army of officials harass legitimate gun owners, while virtually none of these barriers seriously hamper the murderous few who exist outside of what is right and reasonable.

My analysis compared NRA coverage with newspaper coverage of the American Civil Liberties Union, American Association of Retired Persons, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Handgun Control, Inc., which has since changed its name to the softer-sounding Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Articles came from nationally influential, so-called elite newspapers, the generative media that set the tone, topics and standards for regional and local news across the country: The New York Times, The Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times. More than 1,400 articles were content-analyzed.

Based on personal, impressionistic observations over the years previous to my dissertation project, and a small pilot study, I had expected to find some degree of bias against NRA and gun culture, but nowhere near the extent revealed by the analysis. My findings astonished me.

The first major finding was that statistics revealed a raw and naked bias of large magnitude. NRA was systematically marginalized compared to other groups. Although occasional articles were balanced, in the long run the bias was anything but subtle when measured along a number of objective measures that included use of mockery in headlines, proportions of quotes, use of personalization and dehumanization rhetorical techniques, use of correct or incorrect titles indicating respect (or lack thereof) for organizational spokespersons, the use of organizationally-created events such as press conferences as sources, the use of organizational actors in photographs, whether the group was shown as being opposed to democracy or to science, and even the verbs of attribution that signify credibility of information sources, for example, the use of “said” instead of “claims.” In the language of liberal humanists who have studied what has been called the language oppression, and who work from the quite reasonable assumption that oppression via language precedes and/or accompanies social oppression via deed, NRA and gun culture people were marginalized into the sub-human category. They became objects of study in a virtually clinical discourse. They were talked about and not allowed to talk. Journalistic treatments of NRA spokespersons commonly read like dark psychological profiles of troubled persons. Treatments of the other groups’ representatives often read like hagiographies (biographies of saints) and stopped just short of attributing halos, for example, a description of an anti-gun spokesperson whose smile would “light up a room.” Meanwhile an NRA spokesperson might be referred to as “sweaty.” Journalists also seemingly preferred their own interpretations of reality to actual political events or trends. For example, throughout the whole ten years of coverage analyzed, NYT and other elite newspapers consistently claimed that NRA was divided, defeated and dwindling when in fact NRA membership grew by more than a million persons over that time. Obviously, NRA was anything but divided, defeated and dwindling. Thus it was often not “news” being presented, but a sort of stock melodrama, wishful thinking, hopes and cheerleading for anti-gun ideologies. NRA was treated negatively in all measures when compared to analogous groups. Again, these differences were both statistically significant and large in magnitude. On average journalists disliked NRA and showed it, as was indicated by more than a dozen measures of bias.

The second major finding was, and continues to be, the mobilization effect of negative coverage. Negative coverage tangibly and substantially benefited NRA and the new American gun culture in terms of membership. More negative coverage equaled more NRA members in a very strong positive correlation. Negative coverage stimulated more and more people to join NRA. Negative coverage penetrates the national media system and reaches virtually everyone as the smaller and less prestigious media outlets imitate the giants. Such coverage offends and politically mobilizes gun owners. Were it not for the informational heavy-handedness of The New York Times and similar news organizations, NRA and American gun culture would not possess the power of numbers they have today. By attacking innocent upstanding gun owners, and in turn mobilizing them, elite media inadvertently helped launch into independent orbit, so to speak, the large-scale social movement that they have dehumanized as “the gun lobby.” This new American gun culture exists now as an autonomous, self-directed social movement. It has its own media of communications. It is organized horizontally into local- and state-level groups and associations, online and actual. It is effective. And it continues to grow. Gun rights expand. Elite media diminish. More people read the anti-media of the new gun culture than the Times. The informational sociology has changed.

A third finding was that journalists, the people who asked the questions, got very uncomfortable and refused to explain themselves when they were asked questions; they seemed to hold themselves above accountability to mere mortals. With but one exception, when reporters who bylined articles were contacted and asked about how they covered interest groups, they refused to cooperate. They withdrew from the interview, irritated and haughty. Their reactions reminded me of the reactions of the priests and nuns who used to populate my childhood elementary school when I questioned their legitimacy in the divine order of things. The journalists seemed to regard themselves as an essential higher calling, light-shedders, and their work beyond doubt. Who was I, or anyone, to question them and their methods?

My original findings have held up over time. If anything, coverage is worse now than at the time of the original content analysis, as in, for example, coverage spurred by the Sandy Hook elementary school murders. Spurred by this deluge of blameful negativism, NRA membership has increased, as have gun sales. Ammunition is widely unavailable due to unprecedented public demand. In just one day recently, according an NRA insider, more than 19,000 new people joined NRA.

On the basis of their inability to come to grips with social and political realities such as these, one might infer that elite media insiders are not only out of touch with reality, but also that their writings on this subject, and presumably others, reflects more their hopes and dreams than any known relationships between facts. They are essentially spinners of yarns, playing a fantasy game of connect-the-dots, wherein connections are drawn as they would like them to be, rather than according to the pattern of how things really are.

Some background. This book flowed out of the fault lines of my character. I am apparently a troublemaker and have seemingly been so for a long time. In elementary school many years ago an aged nun had told me, “Listen buddy, you’re going to Hell, but first you’re going to prison!” Instead, eventually, I became a Professor of Communication at the University of Toledo, after first earning a Ph.D. in Communication Research at the University of Michigan. If this is Hell, it suits me quite well. I love what I do.

Consistent with my early propensities, however, the dissertation, the book and indeed the whole program of study leading up to it were fraught with trouble. Apparently I say and ask things that some authorities do not want said or asked. The world is up for discussion, in my view, but there are many who demand the final say. And this has caused friction in places where I least expected it. Naively, for example, I had thought and looked forward to graduate school as a place for untrammeled discussion and investigation. It was not.

Thus graduate school for me was something like prison in that it seemed more constraining than liberating. It was in large part a process of socialization into certain ways of thinking. But I became, and usefully so, methodologically informed and acquired skills and habits of inquiry necessary to satisfy modern social-scientific conventions. I have tried to put these skills and habits to good use.

I soon learned, however, that my research interests were academically taboo on the whole. The very idea of a powerful antithetic political mobilization of an increasingly successful American gun culture (as represented by its flagship organization NRA) was anathema, if not unthinkable, to many professors and graduate students, who had imbibed so many of their social opinions from elite media. It’s a curious fact, by the way, that the most highly educated people are generally the most susceptible to propaganda, quite contrary to their own beliefs, for they imagine themselves as critical thinkers, and especially as social managers. But they live in streams of information, and hence are exposed to and consume the most propaganda. (For more on this, see my book The Ten Commandments of Propaganda.)

I have been professionally associated, in one way or another, with academics for about 20 years. As a very general rule, they often don’t like guns, gun culture, shooting sports, gun owners, NRA or the people that they seem to associate with such things—which has sometimes been me. I have often been referred to as a “you people.” I have heard outlandish claims made in academic meetings: for example, lumping in the NRA with Nazis and the KKK. I have been told that I am immoral for target shooting.

Especially in graduate school meetings and seminars, academics would often exhibit weird body language when my research topic came up. One senior professor made curdled milk expressions and told me, in high tones, that he had even prevented his children from playing with toy guns. I could go on for some time with anecdotes. Professor Curdled Milk later attempted to rig a dissertation writing fellowship that I was due by changing the guidelines after the fact. I called him on it, and got the fellowship, but he would never talk to me again.

So it seems that I have had a great deal of resistance to my research agenda, much more than colleagues who researched well-worn and politically safe topics. This resistance itself is an interesting secondary finding and indicates something about the manufacture of meaning by our institutions of news and education—namely that they will tell us what things should mean and not the other way around.

Fortunately I have also encountered fair-minded academics, although this sometimes took a bit of searching. Perhaps they are not as rare as I had thought. Maybe some are silent out of fear of attack, or they are just not as aggressive as ideologues and mind their own business (research interests) instead. Quite recently a university committee voted 8-0 to overrule a Dean who tried to bar my promotion to full professor. The Dean, a former Women and Gender Studies faculty member, had argued that she thought I might even be an advocate for gun culture, even though it seemed obvious enough by her comments that she had never actually read any of my books or articles. She also wrote that it was difficult to interpret the meaning of the many answers of “yes” by students to the questions on my teaching evaluations, questions such as, “Did the professor respect students?” and “Did the professor meet the objectives of the class?” and “Was the professor knowledgeable?” and so on. So we have here the phenomenon of the Dean who didn’t know the meaning of “yes” when it indicated something she apparently didn’t want to hear. An amusing aspect of her comments is that in her discipline, advocacy, often called praxis in the Marxist-Leninist sense, in many instances seems to substitute for rigorous intellectual discipline and depth. (A note here: why don’t more feminist-gender scholars welcome the idea of armed women? This seems a way of “taking back the night” in a much more efficient way than a candlelight vigil on the library steps.) Often, however, Women and Gender studies and similar “critical studies” approaches in higher education seem merely variants of agitation propaganda undergirded by dreary Marxist-influenced tracts.

The Dean seemed especially indignant regarding a newspaper interview in which I had stated an interest in writing for real people, not just academics. She warned of academic “consequences” for my preference. It was apparently heresy in her worldview. How dare I try to write clearly in a direct style and, worse yet, not particularly care about the (often) lopsided opinions of academics?

On the larger social level, when the topic of gun rights and the NRA comes up, many social elites are also unable to interpret the meaning of “yes,” especially when it sounds like it is coming from outside their tiny spheres of reference. With this sort of selective perception, it’s no wonder that academics and elite media professionals don’t know how to interpret the meaning of the extraordinary rise in gun sales, concealed weapons license applications and licensees (especially for women and professionals), firearm training classes and membership numbers in state and national gun rights associations including NRA. All of these trends are underway despite decades of vertical top-down anti-gun propaganda and anti-NRA editorializing by elite media. These elite professional interpreters of reality like to be the ones who construct what is meaningful—and circumstances have taken this out of their hands.

The above is excerpted from the Foreword to the revised Arktos edition of Brian Anse Patrick’s The National Rifle Association and the Media: The Motivating Force of Negative Coverage.

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