January 30, 2013

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MSNBC is reviewing its portrayal of the testimony of Neil Heslin, the father of a Sandy Hook victim, at a legislative hearing in Hartford on Monday. The 33-second video clip in question, embedded above, features a graphics box saying “Mocked and Loaded. Sandy Hook Victim’s Father Heckled by Gun Rights Advocates.”

“We’re reviewing the video in question,” says an MSNBC source.

Smart move, considering that Heslin wasn’t, in fact, heckled. Audience members merely answered a challenge that Heslin posed from the microphone. Here’s a transcript of how things unfolded:

Heslin: I don’t know how many people have young children or children. But just try putting yourself in the place that I’m in or these other parents that are here. Having a child that you lost. It’s not a good feeling; not a good feeling to look at your child laying in a casket or looking at your child with a bullet wound to the forehead. I ask if there’s anybody in this room that can give me one reason or challenge this question: Why anybody in this room needs to have an, one of these assault-style weapons or military weapons or high-capacity clips…..Not one person can answer that question.”

Crowd/Alleged Hecklers: “Second Amendment shall not be infringed”

Public official: “Please no comments while Mr. Heslin is speaking. Or we’ll clear the room. Mr. Heslin, please continue.”

That transcript comes from a look at the session’s full, 17-minute video, which is below. MSNBC excerpted a short bite that starts with Heslin saying, “Why anybody in this room…” and ends with the appeal from officialdom to “clear the room.” Accordingly, it skips over Heslin’s initial challenge to the public seated behind him: “I ask if there’s anybody in this room that can give me one reason or challenge this question…”

Those 18 words of context are crucial to the alleged heckling. They show that Heslin made a pointed attempt to rope in members of the Hartford crowd. His was apparently not an idle or rhetorical question.

MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell votes in favor of the “heckling” interpretation. He said on last night’s show, “Heckling’s when you say something stupid from the audience. And when a speaker rhetorically or directly asks an audience why you need 30-round magazines and assault weapons, and you yell a response which is basically ‘I think the Second Amendment says I can have them,’ you have not answered the question about why you need them.”

Clever thing that O’Donnell has done here — redefine the term “heckling” to apply narrowly to what happened in that hearing room. In doing so, he bypasses a more common definition, one that doesn’t help his case quite as much.

Another consideration that doesn’t help his case too much: Heslin’s reflections on the moment. In a chat last night on CNN with Piers Morgan, Heslin reports that he wasn’t “fazed” by the episode. “It wasn’t the answer to my question. It was a response,” he said.

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