May The False Be With You

Caroline Roddis explores the dark side of American media and its battle with fake news…

How good are we as an industry, as responding to false allegations made in the media? Personally, I don’t think we’re doing a smashing job. On the one hand you have groups such as the Countryside Alliance, You Forgot The Birds and BASC calling out everything from the misuse of statistics to individual presenter bias, and on the other you have the infinitely patient people on social media who continuously tackle the repetition of fake facts and downright stupid comments – albeit with the occasional amount of snark.

Whether or not the media responds by addressing the balance in their articles, or whether people on social media ever learn (ok, I confess to know the answer to that one), the industry can confidently state that it hasn’t sat idly by while the public have been fed misinformation. As ever, more can be done, but that doesn’t mean our group can’t pat itself on the back for its dignified but firm, dynamic yet elegant, approach to the problem. The great British approach, one might say…

Which leads me neatly on to the Americans. I hope that you’ve all seen NRA TV’s video adverts, both tackling the issue of fake news, that they released in February and March, because they are a real treat for connoisseurs of the awful. When it comes to media approach, if BASC is a refined countrywoman in tweed and an elegant hat seeking a quiet word, America’s NRA is a plasticised Texan in a Stetson and stars and stripes bikini who thrusts her cleavage under your eyes in the middle of a dinner party.

The Independent, Guardian and a few others covered the videos, which is unsurprising as a) the videos are hysterical and b) journalism is a brotherhood, and sinister threats against one are perceived as a threat against all.

The February video featured NRA TV host Grant Stinchfield wearing a t-shirt that says ‘socialist tears’ (where do I buy one of those?) and watching news clips containing what is clearly supposed to be ‘fake news’ – although a lot of it is about Donald Trump being childish and racist, so that might be open to interpretation. In reaction to this ‘fake news’, Stinchfield hits the TV with a sledgehammer and then turns to stare intently into the camera, before the video fades to a slide that says ‘NRA – our greatest weapon is truth’.

The Independent’s article garnered quite a few comments, not least because it’s always fun to make fun of Americans, and my favourite was possibly this one: “Brilliant response to gun violence – sledgehammer violence. I suppose even the NRA could see that shooting the TV with an automatic rifle might be an own goal.”

Perhaps encouraged by the large amount of views this video received, and spurred on by the furore caused by the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, NRA TV published another advert just a few weeks later, this one featuring NRA TV star (and Breitbart alum) Dana Loesch, a 39-year-old who has written two books, including the subtly titled Hands off my Gun: Defeating the Plot to Disarm America.

This video was equally theatrical, with a soundtrack of unsettling guitar music and Dana stridently talking to the camera while standing next to an hourglass. “We have had enough of the lies, the sanctimony, the arrogance, the hatred, the pettiness, the fake news…” she says, menacingly. “To those who bring bias and propaganda to CNN, the Washington Post and the New York Times… your time is running out. The clock starts now.” She then manages to turn over the hourglass without looking at it, although what happens when the sand runs out is left to the viewer’s imagination.

Even if the video, whose coverage in the Independent garnered over 1200 comments, didn’t end with an advert for Loesch’s new show on NRA TV that makes it clear this is just a bid for more viewers, this doesn’t seem like a terribly effective message for the media. Are they supposed to infer that they might get shot if they keep writing what the NRA determines to be fake news? Dana strenuously denied this interpretation on Twitter, but in any case anyone who’s read about journalists reporting on cartels in Mexico, or seen the tributes on the wall of London’s Frontline Club for war reporters, might realise the folly of such threats.

A quick perusal of YouTube shows that Dana has form when it comes to vague acts of menace. In August last year she issued a similarly threatening video aimed at the New York Times, which included her memorable gripe at their ‘constant protection of your Democrat overlords’. This is what happens when you get drunk and watch Star Wars the night before you’re supposed to film an ad.

It’s obvious that, in reality, Dana’s threats aren’t designed to stop the publication of anti-NRA and anti-gun sentiment, because these are the things that enable her to make a living. The more outrageous the videos she makes, the bigger and more loyal her audience becomes. Ironically, this is pretty much what Chris Packham does – using a platform to generate further outrage among a sympathetic audience – but on very much the other political wing.

The whole of NRA TV, in fact, has set itself up as the platform that will ‘take back the truth’ in the fight against fake news (not to mention fight for those all-important second amendment rights), which is quite a savvy move given both its Republican-leaning audience and increasingly precarious position on issues such as fully- automatic firearms. Go on to their website and you’ll see that all their latest videos have much the same text in the news-style band underneath the presenter’s face: ‘Mainstream media’s biased coverage’. They’re setting themselves up as the good guys by creating an easily identifiable dark side (the media) to fight against. Which shows, if nothing else, that they all attended the same screening of Star Wars…

Dana, in fact, has similar job to me, in that she regularly pontificates about the evils of the media, stating things such as “they allowed their network to be used as a stage to impugn the characters of millions of law-abiding Americans as murderers and people who like their guns over the lives of children” – though I’d like to think that we’re separated by several degrees of crazy.

She might have a loyal audience, but her approach will not do anything to reach out to non-NRA members or promote a more balanced, respectful response by the media. The videos do, however, provide us with timely warning about the dangers of venting our frustrations – even in moments when that sledgehammer looks really, really tempting.

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