December 24, 2012

(Scott Olson / Getty Images)

At his much-commented-upon news conference on Friday, National Rifle Association (NRA) Executive Vice President and CEO Wayne LaPierre ripped the media for overblowing incidents of mass murder, thus allegedly inspiring copycat crimes. On the particulars of gun coverage, too, LaPierre argued that the media can’t report straight:

The media calls semi-automatic fire arms, machine guns. They claim these civilian semi-automatic fire arms are used by the military. They tell us that the .223 is one of the most powerful rifle calibers, when all of these claims are factually untrue, they don’t know what they’re talking about.

LaPierre refrained on Friday from citing any specific media outlets as conveying bad information about guns, a sense of restraint that he abandoned yesterday in a gripping appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” with David Gregory. Here’s how he rolled on this talking point:

I mean I worked in a CNN studio, and they started running this footage of somebody shooting Dianne Feinstein’s guns and saying, “These are the guns that N.R.A. wants to put back on the street,” and showing them all doing all — I said, “I challenge the men from CNN to defend this story because you fake a story.” They went to the range the following Monday. They showed the firearms that were on Dianne Feinstein’s ban list shoot no different and perform no different than the ones she doesn’t want to –

When asked about that critique from LaPierre, a CNN spokeswoman issued this statement:

“The incident Mr. LaPierre referenced happened nine years ago. CNN didn’t fake anything. We made a mistake in a live shot and when alerted to the error, we followed up with a thorough report to set the record straight.”

The error was a rather colossal one. The goal of a May 15, 2003, segment by CNN’s Miami bureau chief John Zarrella was to tee up the coming year’s debate over the possible renewal of the ban on assault weapons. Some visuals were in order, CNN decided. So Zarrella and Broward County Sheriff Ken Jenne ventured out to a shooting range to demonstrate the varying impacts of banned assault weapons vs. legal assault weapons. A deputy fired a banned weapon at a cinder block; injured cinder block resulted. Then said deputy fired a legal one; pretty much nothing happened.
Following the demonstration, Zarrella said to anchor Kyra Phillips: “Kyra, a pretty powerful demonstration of the firepower of these weapons that police, at least Sheriff Ken Jenne and the Broward sheriff’s office, want to see kept off the streets.”
‘Cept it wasn’t a powerful demonstration of anything aside from bad reporting. The discrepancy in results between the two weapons, as it later turned out, owed to a mistake in execution. The bullets from the legal weapon had actually hit the ground instead of the target. As the Miami Herald reported at the time, “CNN spokesman Matthew Furman said the camera operator didn’t realize the sheriff’s employee had switched targets and was firing into the ground. ‘When we learned that the demonstration was less than clear, we told our viewers that,’ Furman said.” CNN later followed up with a report stating that the force of the two guns was the same.

The battle between CNN and LaPierre over whether the report represented “fake” journalism dates to the day after the Zarrella story. On May 16, 2003, LaPierre went on CNN’s air to talk things over with Phillips:

LAPIERRE: Kyra, let me say this to start: I’m glad you ran the story because apparently the only difference between The New York Times and CNN is that when a reporter for The New York Times fakes a story, he’s fired, and at CNN he’s not.

Your bureau chief, John Zarrella, deliberately faked the story yesterday and intending to show that the performance characteristics of banned firearms on the list are somehow different from the performance characteristics of firearms not on the banned list. He was — he was implying that these were machine guns or fully automatic guns. That’s not true.

PHILLIPS: Mr. LaPierre, I have to stop you there. No one fakes stories at CNN, and John Zarrella definitely did not fake a story at CNN. You’re very off base. I’m going to let you say your opinion, and let’s have a conversation, but don’t accuse our reporter of faking any stories, sir.

LAPIERRE: Let me say it again. In front of the whole country, your reporter faked that story yesterday. It deliberately misread …

PHILLIPS: All right, we’re going …

LAPIERRE: There’s no way it could be true, and I challenge CNN to defend it.

PHILLIPS: Well, we’re not going to continue this interview because our reporter did not fake …

LAPIERRE: Because you don’t want the truth. The truth you don’t want out there.

PHILLIPS: OK, that is not true. We did not a fake a story.

LAPIERRE: You ought to register your — you ought to fill out a lobby form and register.

Great cable-news repartee. Whatever the intent of Zarrella and CNN, the original shooting-range story certainly cast a false impression regarding the respective destructive force of banned and legal weapons. That makes it an ideal reference point for LaPierre and the NRA in their media-criticism campaign. The Erik Wemple Blog reached out to the NRA today, in part to ask whether it has a list highlighting more recent examples of such media malpractice. No response yet.

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Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.