On June 17, NPR’s Chris Arnold turned in a seven-minute feature story on the evolution of a “powerful new gun control group,” Everytown for Gun Safety. The organization is the result of a merger between Mayors Against Illegal Guns — founded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, among other mayors — and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a group launched by Shannon Watts in the aftermath of the Newtown massacre.
Just who is Shannon Watts? That’s where the controversy seeped into an otherwise fine story.
Here’s how Arnold portrayed her:
“Much of the groundswell behind this crusade comes from just regular people pulled into it for their own reasons. For a woman named Shannon Watts, she was drawn in by another mass shooting — the murder of 20 schoolchildren 6- and 7-year-olds in Newtown, Connecticut. Watts wasn’t there: She lived 800 miles away in Zionsville, Indiana. She was folding her kids’ laundry, actually, when the news broke. And she wanted to do something. ‘I was obviously devastated but I was also angry and I went online and I thought, ‘Surely there is a Mothers Against Drunk Driving for gun safety.’ And I couldn’t find anything. Watts had never done anything political before but she made a Facebook page and she called it One Million Moms for Gun Control [now Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America].”
A rather windy correction is now appended to the online write-up of Arnold’s story on Everytown. Here it is in full:
June 21, 2016
This report refers to Shannon Watts as one in a group of “regular people” who began advocating for stricter gun control measures in recent years. After the December 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., she created the “One Million Moms for Gun Control” Facebook page. It later became “Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.” We should have noted that Watts has a background in corporate communications. From 1998 to mid-2012, she was a corporate communications executive or consultant at such companies as Monsanto and FleishmanHillard. Before that, Watts had what she says was a nonpolitical job as a public affairs officer in the Missouri state government.
Our report also states that Watts had never “done anything political” before the shootings at Sandy Hook. We should have noted that Federal Election Commission records show she began contributing money to Democratic campaigns and political action committees earlier in 2012. According to those records, she has made about $10,000 in such contributions, and about one-third were made before the Sandy Hook shootings.
NewsBusters, the very vigilant group that monitors the mainstream media for lefty bias, appears to have pushed NPR toward this step. Executive Editor Tim Graham blasted the organization earlier this week in a post titled, “Dishonest NPR Tells of ‘Regular’ Mom Who Put the Con in Gun Control.”
All of this bothers Watts herself. “Here’s what happens: There’s a story about me and then immediately the gun lobby and the trolls, they try to pick apart who I am,” says Watts. As evidence, she cites a 2014 article in the National Rifle Association publication, America’s 1st Freedom. In addition to slamming Watts’s various statements on gun violence in the United States, the piece challenges the authenticity of her stay-at-home motherhood. How could Watts be a true stay-at-home mom, asks the article, when she started her own PR firm and worked as a consultant and did other professional things? “There’s nothing wrong with that, except ‘running a streetfront art gallery plus public relations business from my house’ is not the impression conveyed by ‘stay-at-home mom.'”
For the NRA, apparently, a stay-at-home mom takes care of the kids and does housework and other such stuff. And that’s about it. In deference to the gun-rights organization, there’s some backup for its interpretation. Pew Research Center, for example, defines a stay-at-home mom as someone “not employed for pay outside the home at all in the prior year.” And the Census Bureau defines the term as someone who’s been out of the labor force for an entire year to manage “home and family.” Meanwhile, a recent survey by Redbook magazine found that 62 percent of mothers who call themselves stay-at-home moms bring in some cash. “Our most striking finding far and away was the blurred line between staying at home and working. Many women called themselves stay-at-home mothers, but their time logs showed them working for pay,” says the magazine.
As for her specifics, Watts left office life behind in late 2008 after serving as vice president of communications at WellPoint — a posting that followed PR jobs at GE Healthcare, Monsanto, FleishmanHillard and offices within the Missouri state government. Once at home, she launched her own shop, VoxPop Public Relations, and did some consulting for FleishmanHillard, though she says she’d stopped all outside engagements by June 2012 — bringing her closer to the Pew-Census Bureau conception of a stay-at-home parent. Like many mothers who abandoned corporate towers, Watts came home with no small degree of sophistication. “I brought a unique skill set to this movement. I knew how to craft a message just like the NRA had done,” she says.
The gun lobby, says Watts, is “trying to define what a stay-at-home mom is and what makes an activist. Someone who has a college degree and is successful is not considered a regular woman. Why are we letting the gun lobby and extremists define what a stay-at-home mom is?”
Regarding the accuracy of NPR’s statement that she’d never done “anything political” before Newtown, Watts tells the Erik Wemple Blog that she’d told NPR that she hadn’t been “politically active.” Though she’d made a few thousand dollars of contributions before Newtown, a lot of them were “trying to win contests to meet the president.”
NPR’s embarrassing brush with both sides of the gun debate should provide a bit of ammunition to journalism professors and editors around the country: Warn your people off the use of terms such as “regular people” or “average Americans.” No one knows what those terms mean — and when they come from news outlets lodged in large metropolises, it’s a fair bet that they’re laced with condescension. As a motivated and educated woman who stays at home while performing chores, contract work or activism, yes, Shannon Watts has thousands and thousands of peers across the country. In its correction, NPR very nearly suggests that Watts’ professional and family pursuits somehow place her outside of the pool of “regular people.” Bag that term, and just explain who she is and what she has done.
“I disagree with this idea that I’m not a regular person,” says Watts. “Regular men have looked like this for a long time.” As for the NRA’s attempt to elevate her CV, Watts says, “They want me to not be a stay-at-home mom, they want me to not be a regular person. They want me to be some kind of PR master. I was a stay-at-home mom in the Midwest who was angry, like millions of other moms.”