Gun control: Is David Gregory’s on-air stunt proof of media bias?

Washington police are investigating ‘Meet the Press’ host David Gregory for holding up a rifle clip on air. Gun control opponents see the incident as proof the media are biased against them.

Meet the Press/AP
'Meet the Press' host David Gregory holds what he described as a high-capacity ammunition magazine during Sunday's program. Washington police say they are investigating an incident in which Gregory displayed the magazine on "Meet the Press."

When NBC News reporter David Gregory held up a high-capacity rifle magazine during a “Meet the Press” interview with National Rifle Association chief lobbyist Wayne LaPierre on Sunday, he not only got himself in trouble with Washington, D.C., police, he ignited a firestorm of criticism from gun owners decrying what they see as a double standard, even bias.

Mr. Gregory displayed the clip on air even though laws in Washington, where the interview took place, expressly forbid the carry and transport of such firearm accessories.

Washington police have opened an investigation into Gregory’s decision. The matter should be more bureaucratic than shoe leather since the evidence is there for all to see, but there is apparently confusion about whether NBC got permission for the stunt.

The ATF says it OK’d it, while local police say they declined the request.

“NBC was informed that possession of a high capacity magazine is not permissible, and their request was denied,” according to a police statement.

But whether or not Gregory is charged with a crime, opponents of gun control see the episode as further evidence that the cards are stacked against them in the US media, which they see as part of an urban power elite.

In addition to the Gregory incident, a New York newspaper stirred outrage this week by publishing the names and addresses of local gun owners, while a petition on a White House website is calling for deportation proceedings to begin against CNN’s British talk show host Piers Morgan, who has made gun-control activism a cause célèbre in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shootings.

On Gregory’s behalf, many say he was simply committing “an act of journalism” protected by the First Amendment: providing viewers with a powerful and relevant image.

Yet the idea that a reporter could potentially get away with something that could land an average American in jail for the night, at least, plays into what gun owners say has become a one-sided, and thus largely unproductive, debate.

It is also fueling the perception by some gun owners of a divide between them and an urban elite, which has become all the more pointed in the wake of the Newtown school massacre of 20 small children and six staff, the result of which has been renewed calls to ban assault rifles and high-capacity magazines of the kind Gregory displayed on air.

John Hayward of the conservative-leaning Human Events website, frames it as a “Ruling Class” versus “Little People” divide, pointing out that "David Gregory is ... a highly-paid, high-profile employee of a high-powered news network – in other words, a member of the Ruling Class. It’s supposed to be tastefully understood that most of the little rules for Little People don’t apply to him, any more than demands for a helpless and disarmed citizenry mean the Ruling Class will disarm its own bodyguards."

The incident is also fueling allegations of media bias.

“There's no reason journalists can't stay in the middle,” writes columnist Byron York of the Washington Examiner in a piece that pointed to a Twitter conversation in which a reporter noted that journalists are “smarter and better” than the NRA.

“Contrary to some assumptions, neither the NRA nor other Second Amendment advocates are pure evil,” Mr. York continued. “They even have some entirely reasonable points to make. And so do the advocates of greater controls on guns. If journalists could somehow control their emotions and their biases, there might be a far more reasoned debate in the press.”

In the on-air interview Sunday, Gregory, holding up the clip, asked Mr. LaPierre, “Now, isn't it possible that if we got rid of these, isn't it just possible that we could reduce the carnage in a situation like Newtown?"

"I don't believe that's going to make one difference," LaPierre responded. "There are so many different ways to evade" a ban.

With police expecting to make some kind of announcement about the Gregory investigation by the end of the week, fellow reporters have largely rallied to his defense.

"Was it a stunt? Yep, and an eye-catching one," writes media critic Howard Kurtz, of Newsweek. "Was Gregory being aggressive with the NRA chief, or seeming to push gun control in a confrontational interview? All that is up for debate. But a police probe over what I assume was an empty ammo clip is a total waste of time."

There is of course inherent danger in big-name representatives of the news media being perceived as taking sides on a fundamental constitutional debate. “Don’t be surprised, journalists, if many Americans view you as the enemy as a result,” writes University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds. “Don’t blame them. You’ve taken sides. When you act as agents for the apparat, don’t be shocked when people think of you as apparatchiks.”

To others, the investigation into Gregory’s decision to hold up the disputed magazine clip on national TV points out how a byzantine web of local, state, and national gun laws can catch gun owners unaware.

“One of the problems with the ever expanding gun laws advocated by Gregory and others is that otherwise law-abiding citizens get caught up inadvertently violating the law,” writes William Jacobson, a Cornell University law professor who blogs at Legal Insurrection.

“What [reporters defending Gregory don’t] understand is that David Gregory isn’t being investigated because he’s David Gregory; if he were anyone else, he’d already be in jail.”

Possessing a high-capacity clip in the District is a misdemeanor crime punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

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