Tuesday, May 20, 2014
Good Writing, Bad News
Reality Versus News Coverage at the 2014 NRA Meeting
Brian Anse Patrick
I came. I saw. I listened. So did about 75,000 other persons from just about everywhere in America: Ohio, Texas and even the wild reaches of the Bronx. Some attendees even reported on the event. Quirkily.
The Guardian’s Ana Marie Cox in her column of April 28 summed up NRA’s annual meeting: “NRA is at war with America.” Her April 25th column had noted four gun-related deaths in the Indianapolis area around the time of the convention. So what was NRA doing about criminal violence among black urban youths? There it was in black and white—that evil NRA gun lobby, the boogeyman of a thousand media reports. Drawing yet another connection, Ms. Cox reported that a local gun dealer, just a few miles from the NRA meeting, “supplies criminals with weapons.” So it’s like that? Really Ms. Cox? What penetrating reportorial vision!
How profound. How ironic. How silly.
Ms. Cox’s columns on the NRA meeting may titillate suburban British audiences who presumably have derived their knowledge of America, and their vicarious thrills as well, from GP- and R-rated gangsta movies. Snugly cocooned New York apartment dwellers on the upper west side may also find the reports compelling. I would guess that the imagined verisimilitude of such reporting depends on the degree of mediation of the experiences of the audience. Cox produces excellent market-ready commercial journalism in the sense of a well-crafted more or less seamless product that conveys cartoon-like explanations to a mass urban market that is in need of easily digestible interpretations of the meaning of distant, inexplicable events in that curious country called America. In this sense the news consumers of NYC’s upper west side and London are probably little different.
But isn’t this sort of journalism really no more than a creative game of connect-the-dots? Depending on which dots are connected, and which are ignored, the picture changes. Junk food journalism for shut-ins or the socially insulated may be good business, but is it “news” in the sense of a fairly reliable report of an event?
While I understand how it might be possible to form such an initial impression of a “War with America” in a mere few hurried and confused days at the jam-packed NRA convention, I cannot fathom how it would be possible to maintain it.
The annual NRA meeting is a huge event, actually a collection of many events. Thousands of people move about. Multiple sessions and seminars take place simultaneously. NRA officials do indeed rally the troops, as there are about five million NRA members. Cheerleading, as such, tends to lack nuance, for cheerleaders are not known for asking the faithful, “How do you feel about this?” My experience is that once you have heard one NRA convention speech, allowing for minor variations concerning trending political events, you have pretty much heard them all. They are a genre produced by the occasion, and consist of what used to be known as the epideictic style of rhetoric that celebrates and censures, e.g., the speeches of Martin Luther King, that celebrated a vision for America. Such rhetoric may also call people onto the carpet.
Unfortunately, however, only by the wildest straining of disconnected logic and the use of imaginative connotations is it possible to link NRA with a cluster of gun deaths in Indianapolis. And Cox’s notion of NRA being at war with America, or fellow Americans, is even more fanciful. I’ll gladly wager that none of the guns in the Indianapolis area shootings were owned or operated by NRA members, who were not slipping out of the convention to do “drive-by” shootings. The urban black youths that Ms. Cox symbolically brandishes are probably not NRA members, neither victims nor shooters. Young American black men kill one another at rates almost 10 times higher than the general population. Additionally, criminologists know that murders overwhelmingly tend to be committed by previously convicted felons, with histories of violence, who are barred from purchasing from the dealer to which Ms. Cox refers. Nor is NRA providing the guns. More, it is a federal felony for a felon to possess or attempt to buy a gun. It is also a federal felony to knowingly sell or provide a firearm to a felon. She casts upon her dealer what is known as “a false light,” which is defensible only in the legalistic sense that her claim may technically be true. But it seems a misleading equivocation. A person who originally legally bought a firearm from the dealer may have been later convicted of a crime, or an illegal “straw sale” may have taken place wherein a legally qualified person bought the gun, passed the mandatory FBI computerized background check, and then illegally transferred the gun to a felon. Or legally purchased guns may have been stolen, shown up at a crime scene and/or were confiscated by police (and not necessarily used in a crime) and traced by the same federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms that monitors and regulates dealers. But no dealer stays in business who in any sense directly “supplies guns to criminals” –such dealers go to jail. And in all my many years of researching and hanging around American gun culture, I have yet to see an illegal arms dealer of the sort shown commonly in the action movies. I also suspect that Ms. Cox had no idea how many of the NRA members at the convention were “packing.” Ten of thousands I would guess, with no murders, shootings or even threats. They were a civil and gracious crowd of unusually friendly people, and much better behaved than any sports crowd that I ever saw.
Noting another significant myth perpetuated by the column, NRA is not “the gun lobby.” Among many other functions, too many to list here but which include safety training and civil rights legal defense issues, NRA does indeed lobby on behalf of gun owners. But the gun manufacturers have their own exclusive trade associations and lobbies. NRA represents the interests of a people, not an industry. These members pay the dues that support NRA’s manifold operations; no shadowy corporations front the money. As such, NRA members assemble in voluntary association; they converse among themselves and with others by means of various print, broadcast and computer-based media; and they peaceably petition government entities. When the NRA does all this, organs such as The Guardian and The New York Times call it “lobbying,” but more accurately, it should be described as a principled application of the First Amendment. Such “lobbying” is merely the First Amendment put into practice. I notice that many reporters seem to have little sympathy for the First Amendment as it may apply to people other than themselves.
Ms. Cox struck me as a smart and dedicated writer. She also had a totally cool business card with a cat on the back. (Or was that the front?) She exhibited a wry sense of humor and a lively interest in story angles and oddities. Stories, though, have a way of taking on lives of their own, for the dots of our experiences will somehow get connected one way or another, for it is deep in our deep human nature to do so. We are story-telling animals. Ana Marie Cox tells a great tale. I like her and her writing. Her tales of the NRA, however, are every bit as sensationalistic, combative and tendentious as the epideictic NRA speechifying to which she reacts. Brothers Grimm, move over, you have been outclassed. But other pictures can indeed be drawn, pictures perhaps more representative of events on the ground during those days. More I cannot say, but perhaps we should designate this emergent market for interpretive style reporting as epideictic journalism. It’s no wonder, however, that Aristotle, who first catalogued epideictic rhetoric, dismissed some writers and satirists as “evil speakers and tell tales.”
But as far as perceptive reporting goes concerning substantive events surrounding NRA at Indianapolis, I would be more inclined to accept the words of the busy young woman who was operating the strategically located shoeshine stand at the JW Marriot Hotel concourse to the giant Convention Center. I asked her what the many people tended to be like who belonged to the different associations that passed by and frequented her business each week. And this she told me, “The cops are jerks, and the teachers—well, they don’t shine their shoes—but the NRA, these are nice people.” She also thought highly of the firefighters. I value her opinions. In fact I would like to read her regular columns on Americana, for she actually appears to be in a position to make some reliable, well grounded observations on the subject.
Good writing may equate with bad news.