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Audiotape: Katie Couric documentary falsely depicts gun supporters as ‘idiots’

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It looks as though Katie Couric stunned her interviewees. Knocked them out with a bombshell inquiry: “Let me ask you another question: If there are no background checks for gun purchasers, how do you prevent felons or terrorists from purchasing a gun?” Now check out the blank stares:

Nearly 10 seconds of silence, as if no one has an answer to Couric’s rather straightforward question. The scene comes from “Under the Gun,” a film written, produced and directed by Stephanie Soechtig and narrated by Couric, the global anchor for Yahoo News; Couric also serves as executive producer. The session depicted in the video above features Couric and members of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a group whose motto is “Defending Your Right to Defend Yourself.”

And to hear the VCDL tell the story, those awkward seconds are a fabrication, a byproduct of deceptive editing. To prove the point, VCDL President Philip Van Cleave has released an audiotape of the session, which is available on the site of the Washington Free Beacon as part of a story by Stephen Gutowski. In that recording, the question from Couric is a bit different from the one in the video. She says, “If there are no background checks, how do you prevent — I know how you all are going to answer this, but I’m going to ask it anyway. If there are no background checks for gun purchasers, how do you prevent felons or terrorists from walking into, say, a licensed gun dealer and purchasing a gun?”

On the audiotape, a reply comes immediately from one of the VCDL members: “Well, one — if you’re not in jail, you should still have your basic rights.” More chatter follows.

In an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog, Van Cleave said, “My teeth fell out of my head when I saw that.” The result of the editing, he says, is that folks who view the documentary are “going to say these people are idiots. It affects all the gun owners.” Other scenes in the documentary, says Van Cleave, “accurately” represent the input of his fellow gun owners. But not the exchange on background checks. “This was beyond the pale.” Van Cleave says he has audio of the entire interview with Couric — a backstop against bogus editing that he learned from his dealings with the media. “I do that as a matter of course when I’m doing things like that,” says Van Cleave. “It has saved me a few times.”

After he saw the finished product, Van Cleave emailed his concerns to Kristin Lazure, a producer at Atlas Films. “Well, that was interesting. So a ‘balanced’ piece gives 15 minutes to the pro-gun side and 1-1/2 hours to the opposition? I had no idea that was the definition of ‘balanced,’ when I was approached about this.”

Then he bored into the integrity matter:

On the question where our members were asked, “So without background checks, how do you keep guns out of the hands of felons?”: it shows our members just sitting there and then one looking down. The editors merged some “b-roll” of our members sitting quietly between questions, followed by Katie asking the felon question. I have the audio of that entire interview and I know for an absolute fact that our members immediately jumped in to answer the question and did NOT just sit there quietly. To the person watching the video, it gave the intentionally false appearance of no one in our group having an answer. Am I supposed to think that is good journalism, Kristin? I hope that in your heart of hearts that you are at least thinking to yourself, “no, it is not.”

Here’s how Lazure handled that concern: “I’m truly sorry to hear you were disappointed with the final product. We knew when we set out to make a film on such a divisive issue that we weren’t going to make everybody happy. However, we have heard from many gun owners following our screenings and the television premiere who felt we gave the issue a balanced look and reflected their views accurately.” That response, of course, doesn’t address the issue raised by Van Cleave, which he noted forcefully in his reply: “It’s not a ‘feeling’ – the 8 seconds of silence from gun owners shown after the question about felons is inexcusable. Within 1 or 2 seconds members responded to that question – like I said I have the proof. That edit actually changed the answer members gave to the question. Worse, that deception was intentional.”

This brand of defensiveness appears widespread among those associated with the documentary. Moments ago, the film’s people released this statement from Soechtig:

“There are a wide range of views expressed in the film. My intention was to provide a pause for the viewer to have a moment to consider this important question before presenting the facts on Americans’ opinions on background checks. I never intended to make anyone look bad and I apologize if anyone felt that way.”

Here the Erik Wemple Blog stroke our gray beard and reflect: In the years we’ve covered and watched media organizations, we’ve scarcely seen a thinner, more weaselly excuse than the one in the block above. For starters, it appears to count as an admission that this segment of the documentary was edited. The artistic “pause” provides the viewer not a “moment to consider this important question”; it provides viewers a moment to lower their estimation of gun owners. That’s it. As far as the rest of the statement, adults in 2016 may no longer write the phrase “apologize if anyone felt that way” and preserve their standing as professionals. To compound matters, here’s the accompanying statement from Couric:

“I support Stephanie’s statement and am very proud of the film.”

That, from the Katie Couric of Yahoo News, of “CBS Evening News,” of “60 Minutes,” of the “Today” show and so on.

Many of those who sampled the discrepancy between the video and the audiotape were already enraged by the depiction of these gun owners. The statements from Soechtig and Couric will surely intensify the backlash, as well they should. An apology, retraction, re-editing, whatever it is that filmmakers do to make amends — all of it needs to happen here.