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Propaganda Machinery

How the NRA pioneered the right-wing art of demonizing the media.

Speaking before the Conservative Political Action Conference last week, the National Rifle Association’s executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, denounced the news media’s coverage of the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida, pointing to it as proof that journalists “don’t care about our schoolchildren” and “want to make all of us less free.” Hours later, NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch told the crowd that the news media “love[s] mass shootings,” because “[c]rying white mothers are ratings gold.” Loesch’s comments echoed an NRA video, released earlier in the week, accusing the media of exploiting mass shootings to “juice their ratings and push their agenda.”

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Reports that the NRA is attacking the press are hardly shocking. And the organization, of course, is certainly not alone in blaming the press for what it sees as America’s ills. President Donald J. Trump, for example, derides the press on an almost daily basis and has declared it to be “the enemy of the American people.” Right-wing radio has turned criticizing the news media into an art form.

But the NRA has a little known and unique relationship with encouraging hostility toward the press. In many ways, in fact, it was the organization’s decision more than 50 years ago to embrace a systematic anti-press stance that ultimately shaped the NRA into the powerful nationwide gun lobby we know today

For the first 40 years of its existence, the NRA was generally not known as a lobbying organization but rather as a group that offered firearm-education programs and marksmanship training. At the time, the NRA had what could best be described as a love-hate relationship with the news media. As long as the press’s coverage of guns was about the positive aspects of shooting and hunting, the NRA was satisfied. Yet if the news media reported on gun-related violence or expressed approval of legislative restrictions on firearms, the NRA urged its members into action. Its early tactics were relatively gentle, asking its members to try to educate journalists about the societal benefits of guns. As one NRA publication cautioned: “We are to blame, all of us—all shooters—if this ignorance continues to breed prejudice and fear and opposition to guns and shooting.”

At times, though, the NRA would go further, in one instance accusing a journalist of intentionally disseminating “vicious propaganda aimed at disarming the American citizen.” When sufficiently motivated against the media, the NRA might urge its members to take “aggressive action,” which would usually involve flooding the respective journalist or news organization with degrading letters and telegrams. When, for example, Ralph McGill, a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter, wrote an article in 1962 calling for federal gun control legislation, his office was inundated with antagonistic letters, telegrams, and phone calls. One letter accused McGill of writing a piece that was an “affront to all liberty loving good citizens” and included “Communists [sic] material practically verbatim to take arms away from citizens.”

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It was the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, however, that led the NRA to drop any positive affiliation with the mainstream press. Following the president’s death, investigative journalists began exposing the NRA’s behind-the-scenes practice of pressuring legislatures to vote against firearm regulations. The NRA responded by either denying the truth of the reports, claiming that a given news organization was “anti-gun,” or hinting that anti-gun elites, Communists, or a foreign government seeking to disarm the United States had funded an objectionable story.

The news media’s increased coverage of the NRA’s legislative dealings had two effects that significantly impacted the organization. It forever cemented in the American public’s mind that the NRA was, in effect, the “gun lobby,” and it sparked unparalleled growth. From 1960–67, NRA membership more than doubled from 325,000–805,000.

Many people flocked to join the NRA, because they believed that the negative news-media coverage was part of a larger anti-gun conspiracy. For instance, writing in 1964, NRA member and Wood, Field and Stream columnist Oscar Godbout postulated that the media was targeting the NRA so that its ability “to inform its members of unreasonably restrictive legislation will be impaired with a greater chance for such legislation to pass unnoticed before shooters can make their views known to their legislators.”

Many political conservatives joined the group out of fear that political liberals wanted to destroy the Second Amendment and the Constitution, especially the concept of states’ rights. The NRA did not shy away from amplifying these fears. After the passage of the 1968 Gun Control Act, in an editorial appearing in American Rifleman, the NRA declared that “future Americans” would look back on that moment as a “classic example” of the media pressing the “panic button.” This editorial went on to claim that Congress passed the law because of a “richly-endowed [anti-gun] propaganda machine.”

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The sudden increase in membership in the 1960s would forever change the NRA. For the first time, the NRA was comprised primarily of members who joined for the express purpose of defeating gun control laws. And these new members urged the NRA to embrace its role as the nation’s gun lobby.

But not everyone in the NRA agreed with this new organizational model. From the mid- to late-1970s, the organization was plagued by infighting over its identity as a lobbying group devoted to fighting firearms legislation. At the NRA’s pivotal 1977 annual convention, however, the new wave of NRA members successfully voted out the group’s existing officers and replaced them with new leaders who were staunch opponents of gun control laws.

Thus, whenever the modern NRA attacks the press for its coverage of guns, it’s not just following the crowd but rather continuing a tradition that it pioneered—the tradition of turning the press into the common enemy in order to harness the anger of its supporters for political gain.