National Rifle Association spokeswoman Dana Loesch traveled to Sunrise, Fla., in February 2018 to participate a CNN town-hall event in the aftermath of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. She was not pleased with the proceedings, which highlighted hostility toward the NRA among many in the high school’s community.
At it turns out, a prestigious journalism award bestowed upon CNN for staging the event hasn’t changed Loesch’s mind.
The town hall, which was hosted by CNN’s Jake Tapper, won a Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Television Political Journalism, an honor administered by the University of Southern California’s Norman Lear Center. A news release noted that the Cronkite jury had determined that the event helped “advance the national conversation on gun control and violence.”
Loesch detected no such advance:
And so on. By no means was Loesch the sole detractor of the Cronkite jury. Plenty of conservative commentators criticized the program when it aired and expressed disgust that CNN would score some hardware for having broadcast it.
So the Erik Wemple Blog asked the Cronkite people about the rationale for CNN’s distinction. Marty Kaplan, a professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and the director of the Lear Center, told us the judges in this particular category — national network news program — were unanimous in their conviction that the CNN town hall deserved recognition.
“They thought that it was a terrific example of dealing with an important national event ... bringing in the voices that were immediately affected by it and enabling them to hear each other,” says Kaplan, adding that the judges thought Tapper had done well in allowing people to speak in such a tense environment.
Speaking of the environment, Loesch’s videos show her being heckled by folks at the town hall. Kaplan concedes that the event was "raw and emotional, but that comes with the territory not only of the issue but when you have the people most directly affected, so it was true to life,” he says. Addressing CNN’s work in putting together the two-hour program, Kaplan said, “They built this in the most responsible way they could. That doesn’t mean there was no dissent and no anger — that’s not a requirement of letting the country look at what happens and who was affected and what are we going to do about it.”
It was a large debate raging in a large venue: The BB&T Center holds more than 20,000, and the crowd during the town-hall event roared when the NRA was challenged by participants. There was vigorous applause, for instance, when one student asked Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.): “Sen. Rubio, can you tell me right now that you will not accept a single donation from the NRA?” At one point, student Emma Gonzalez said to Loesch herself: “Dana Loesch, I want you to know that we will support your two children in a way that you will not.”
“The scale of the event was part of its power,” says Kaplan.
A possible explanation for the NRA’s displeasure is that the event accurately portrayed the national mood following the Parkland shooting, when 17 students and staff members were killed. Weeks after, 67 percent of Americans favored tighter regulations on the sale of firearms, according to Gallup, a tally that fell to 61 percent by October of last year. As the New York Times noted, however, the big majorities who tell pollsters they support gun-control measures become smaller groups when specific measures are put forth.
In a Fox News interview, Loesch complained about CNN’s treatment of Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, whose leadership has been very credibly blasted by the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “What CNN didn’t tell people is that they allowed and invited politicians to come up on stage and electioneer,” Loesch said on Fox News. “Scott Israel was able to make a big old electioneering speech before this even began, in which he already started deflecting blame, by putting it on me.” Loesch, however, pressed Israel himself to good effect at the Parkland town hall. Tapper also brought some accountability to Israel in a Feb. 25, 2018, airing of “State of the Union.” (New Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) suspended Israel in January.)
Other complaints from Loesch seem based on a poor comprehension of what it means to be a spokeswoman: “When we found out that the town hall was taking place, I believe it was on a Wednesday. I found out that I was going there Tuesday. I found out that I was going to be asked questions that afternoon while on the plane, and it wasn’t until I got there that I found out that I was going to be on stage and then later, on stage with Scott Israel and they actually queued me to walk out into the arena to a Black Eyed Peas song, and that’s some of the footage.”
A spokeswoman on stage? Answering questions? Who would have thought?
The NRA could have emerged from the CNN Parkland town hall with one of two takeaways. One was that there are people in this country who are steaming mad about gun violence and want to see something done about it. The other was that the convener of this event is corrupt and biased and good for nothing. The NRA opted for Door No. 2. Not long after her appearance at the CNN town hall, Loesch gave a speech before the Conservative Political Action Conference in which she said, “Many in legacy media love mass shootings."
There’s irony in choosing the second door. In the town hall itself, after all, Loesch relied on reporting from mainstream outlets to mount her case that Israel’s fecklessness — and not the failure to regulate firearms — was the real problem in Broward County. “BuzzFeed, AP, Reuters, YahooNews, all reported,” said Loesch, that authorities had been called to the house of accused shooter Nikolas Cruz more than 30 times.