Gun rights advocates don’t enjoy being falsely depicted as dimwits who can’t answer the most basic of questions about their No. 1 public policy issue.
That’s the takeaway from a defamation lawsuit filed today against Katie Couric and the producers of “Under the Gun,” a documentary about gun violence in the United States. Having debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January, the documentary itself came under the gun in May, when members of the Virginia Citizens Defense League (VCDL) claimed that it slighted them by mal-editing an interview in which they’d participated. In response to a question from Couric, the film’s narrator, the gun rights advocates were depicted as sitting in baffled silence for nearly 10 seconds.
In fact, they had supplied an extensive response to Couric’s question.
Many onlookers, including the Erik Wemple Blog, blasted the film for this portrayal. Couric, the global anchor of Yahoo News, initially stood by the product but ultimately apologized for the “misleading” edit. The film’s director, Stephanie Soechtig, wasn’t so contrite. “I think it’s sad to say that these eight seconds didn’t give the VCDL a platform to speak. Their views are expressed repeatedly throughout the film; we know how they feel about background checks. They said it earlier in the film,” said Soechtig in an interview after the furor.
Intransigence of that sort may bedevil Soechtig in a legal action filed by the VCDL and two gun rights defenders in the film — Daniel Hawes and Patricia Webb — against Couric, Soechtig, Atlas Films and Epix, the documentary’s distributor. Filed in a Virginia federal court by Elizabeth Locke of Clare Locke LLP, the complaint states, “The Defendants manipulated the footage in service of an agenda: they wanted to establish that there is no basis for opposing background checks, by fooling viewers into believing that even a panel of pro-Second Amendment advocates could not provide one.” It seeks compensatory damages of $12 million, and punitive damages of $350,000 per plaintiff.
The filmmakers gave this particular lawsuit a galloping start, with a dreadful sequence that comes less than a half-hour into the one-hour-and-45-minute documentary. Seated in a circle are members of the VCDL against a dark backdrop. Couric asks this question: “If there are no background checks for gun purchasers, how do you prevent felons or terrorists from purchasing a gun?” In response, the VCDL members say precisely nothing. They stare into space, or at the floor. Brain-freeze appears to have enveloped them.
As the suit notes, this depiction is a “work of fiction.” The VCDL members actually filled Couric’s ear; Hawes, for example, said this:
The fact is we do have statutes, both at the federal and state level that prohibit classes of people from being in possession of firearms. If you’re under 18, in Virginia, you can’t walk around with a gun. If you’re an illegal immigrant, if you’re a convicted felon, if you’ve been adjudicated insane, these things are already illegal. So, what we’re really asking about is a question of prior restraint. How can we prevent future crime by identifying bad guys before they do anything bad? And, the simple answer is you can’t. And, particularly, under the legal system we have in the United States, there are a lot of Supreme Court opinions that say, “No, prior restraint is something that the government does not have the authority to do.” Until there is an overt act that allows us to say, “That’s a bad guy,” then you can’t punish him.
That argument, notes the complaint, is part of the six minutes that the gun rights advocates spent answering Couric’s question. Showing the VCDL as dumbfounded required some work on the part of the filmmakers. In coordinating the interview with the VCDL advocates, Couric and a cameraman from Atlas Films told them that they needed to sit in silence for 10 seconds so that the crew could calibrate the “recording equipment.” It was this passage that “Under the Gun” placed in the film instead of the actual answers supplied to the question about background checks. The suit alleges that this moment carried particular implications for each of the named plaintiffs in the case. Webb is a licensed firearms dealer (Gadsden Guns Inc.), and the edits indicate that “she lacks knowledge regarding background checks — a requirement for every gun sale she does,” argues the complaint. Hawes is an attorney who handles cases involving firearms, and the film suggests that “he lacks the legal expertise and oral advocacy skills required to perform his duties.”
After folks objected to the treatment, Soechtig issued a statement stunning in its implausibility: “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.”
Fact-checking of the documentary was facilitated by VCDL President Philip Van Cleave, who wisely recorded audio of the session. Careful comparison of the conversation and the resulting film yielded another consequential discrepancy for the suit against “Under the Gun”: In the session, Couric’s question verily conceded that the members of the VCDL had answers for the question she was about to pose. Here it is: “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?”
Bolding inserted to highlight a key point. In the film, that part about knowing how they’ll answer — it’s not in there. Couric and Soechtig, claims the suit, set out to “create an advocacy film supporting more restrictive anti-gun legislation and background checks.”
Right after showing the VCDL members sitting in stumped silence, the film shows a revolver’s cylinder getting slammed shut, “driving home the point that the exchange was over,” says the complaint. Such ham-handed imagery left a clear impression that the VCDL people had been recruited for the film for ridicule. And even though Couric initially proclaimed that she was “proud” of the product, the unmistakable slime forced her to later issue an apology steeped in detail:
As Executive Producer of ‘Under the Gun,’ a documentary film that explores the epidemic of gun violence, I take responsibility for a decision that misrepresented an exchange I had with members of the Virginia Citizens Defense League (VCDL). When I screened an early version of the film with the director, Stephanie Soechtig, I questioned her and the editor about the pause and was told that a “beat” was added for, as she described it, “dramatic effect,” to give the audience a moment to consider the question. When VCDL members recently pointed out that they had in fact immediately answered this question, I went back and reviewed it and agree that those eight seconds do not accurately represent their response.
VCDL members have a right for their answers to be shared and so we have posted a transcript of their responses here. I regret that those eight seconds were misleading and that I did not raise my initial concerns more vigorously.
The lawsuit uses those details against Couric & Co.: “Although the Defendants knew that their intentional edits were misleading and misrepresented Couric’s exchange with the VCDL, they refused to remove the manipulated footage or to present the footage of what had actually taken place. Instead, they promoted and released the film including the fictional exchange.”
The Erik Wemple Blog recently downloaded “Under the Gun,” only to find that it still casts the VCDL members as clueless about background checks. “The Defendants have not removed the manipulated footage from the film or replaced it with non-manipulated footage of the exchange that actually took place. To this day, the Defendants continue to promote and publish the film,” reads the complaint.
In an interview about the blowup, Soechtig claimed that Couric labors under requirements separate from hers. “I also think Katie is held to a journalistic standard, but this is a film, and I’m a filmmaker and it was my decision to do so,” argued Soechtig. The problem here is that honesty isn’t a requirement exclusive to journalism. It’s required, too, of accountants, cobblers, filmmakers and the rest.
UPDATE: Through spokesman Stefan Friedman, the following statement came from the Soechtig camp: “It’s ironic that people who so passionately defend the Second Amendment want to trample the rights guaranteed to a filmmaker under the First. Stephanie stands by UNDER THE GUN, and will not stop her work on behalf of victims of gun violence.”