Should journalists be advocates for tougher gun control measures? It's a question worth asking as more and more reporters, commentators, and TV anchors are openly promoting stringent gun policies in the wake of the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut.
It's not just the ranters on the left, like MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell, who recently called National Rifle Association chief Wayne LaPierre "the lobbyist for mass murderers." O'Donnell is a controversialist who says things like that all the time. So is CNN's Piers Morgan, who told the Gun Owners of America chief Larry Pratt, "You are an unbelievably stupid man" and "You shame your country."
More notable are the ostensibly straight-news journalists who have come down on the side of stronger gun control. For example, when a Republican congressman, Georgia's Jack Kingston, argued on MSNBC recently that tough gun control laws haven't prevented mass shootings in some European countries, the network's anchor, Thomas Roberts, responded, "So, we need to just be complacent in the fact that we can send our children to school to be assassinated?"
Earlier, while reporting from Connecticut, a CNN anchor, Don Lemon, burst into an impromptu appeal for action. "We need to get guns and bullets and automatic weapons off the streets," Lemon said. "They should only be available to police officers and to hunt al-Qaeda and the Taliban and not hunt elementary school children."
Also on CNN, anchor Soledad O'Brien sought a promise from Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott to take action on guns. When Scott declined, a clearly frustrated O'Brien said she hoped the gun conversation would become "meaningful" before she was forced to "cover another tragedy." A few days before, when a conservative academic told O'Brien he believes having more guns among law-abiding citizens would reduce crime, she responded, "I just have to say, your position completely boggles me, honestly."
It's not just television. Twitter conversations among print journalists commonly include passionate denunciations of Second Amendment defenders, especially the NRA.
"Reporters on my Twitter feed seem to hate the NRA more than anything else, ever," Atlantic writer Jeffrey Goldberg noted recently. (In the aftermath of the Aurora, Colorado mass shooting, but before Newtown, Goldberg wrote a balanced assessment of the gun issue in which he advocated both stronger gun controls and more widespread gun ownership.)
When Goldberg made his comment, a writer from The New Republican named Marc Tracy responded, "So either reporters on Twitter are crazy or the NRA is uniquely hateful. Which do you think it is?"
"I think the NRA is ridiculous and horrible, but I think some reporters are fulfilling stereotypes," Goldberg told Tracy.
"What stereotype?" asked Tracy. "That they think they are smarter and better than a retrograde, evil organization? They are! We are!"
At times the stereotype of journalist as anti-gun activist seems institutionally entrenched. For example, Frank Sesno, a former CNN reporter and Washington bureau chief who is now director of George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs, said recently there should be a "media agenda" on guns to push the issue until government action becomes a reality. "The media themselves have a huge opportunity and power and responsibility to channel this," Sesno told CNN's Howard Kurtz.
Not every journalist is on board for the crusade. On Sunday, Kurtz noted that gun control had not been the topic of much conversation before the Newtown shootings, but that now, "President Obama...is talking about it and maybe that makes it easier for journalists to keep it on the front burner." Kurtz's guest, former NBC correspondent Fred Francis, responded: "Well, it's not the journalists' responsibility to keep it on the front burner."
It was an almost jarring thing to say in the current conversation on guns. "Why do you say that?" asked Kurtz.
"It is not our responsibility to keep it up," Francis continued. "We cover the news...I heard anchor people, men and women on the air this week, grilling pro and con gun support. Grilling...to the point of excess, and I'm saying we can't cross the line. We'll cover the story, but we have to stay in the middle."
That's been a lonely point of view in recent weeks. But there's no reason journalists can't stay in the middle. Contrary to some assumptions, neither the NRA nor other Second Amendment advocates are pure evil. 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.
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.