On December 21, 2012, the National Rifle Association called a rare press conference to respond to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, which happened seven days earlier. The killing left twenty young children and six of their educators dead.
“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun,” said NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, who took no questions afterward. Critics at the time derided his remarks as “tone-deaf,” but five years on, the NRA has still managed to defeat every subsequent attempt at gun reform in Congress.
What is the secret of the NRA’s success? It may involve the NRA’s ability to speak to and write for media outlets without being questioned, like it did after the Sandy Hook tragedy. Key to this strategy is the use of alleged “independent” experts who spread its pro-gun views throughout the press.
Take, for example, the pro-gun scholar, David Kopel. Today the news and opinion sections at both The New York Times and The Washington Post are out of sync over whether to disclose his receipt of NRA funding, while The Wall Street Journal misleads readers by never disclosing it.
“Writers and editors make their own decisions, which I don’t second-guess,” said Kopel in an email to The Progressive.
“I think most credible news organizations are pretty good about disclosing relevant information about those who write guest columns or op-ed pieces, and it is always best to provide similar disclosures about experts quoted in news stories,” Jane Kirtley, who teaches media ethics at the University of Minnesota, said in an email.
“The news people should not obey different rules from the opinion people,” said Ed Wasserman, a journalism ethics expert and Dean of the University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, in a telephone interview.
Washington Post editors disagree.
“The news department was not involved in how the opinion section chose to identify Mr. Kopel,” the Post’s Communications Manager Molly Gannon Conway said in an email. She was referring to how the paper’s opinion section discloses Kopel’s NRA funding while the news section does not.
Gannon Conway defended the news editors’ decisions, writing, “At times, Kopel’s positions have not been in sync with the NRA, even though one organization he is affiliated with gets some NRA funding. We don’t see a reason at this time to single out the NRA in referring to Mr. Kopel, given his affiliation with multiple entities, with varied sources of funding.”
Key to the NRA’s strategy is the use of alleged “independent” experts who spread its pro-gun views throughout the press.
David Kopel’s pro-gun positions rarely, if ever, seem out of sync with the NRA. It’s true, he does wear several hats. Mr. Kopel is an associate policy analyst at the libertarian CATO Institute in Washington, D.C., and an adjunct professor teaching one elective course a year at the Denver University law school.
Kopel’s main job is research director and Second Amendment project director at the Denver-based Independence Institute. A self-described “action tank,” the institute has received more than $2 million from the NRA’s Civil Rights Defense Fund since 2004, according to its publicly available tax filings. David Kopel is mentioned by name. He earns $194,258 per year from the Independence Institute, and has also long been its highest paid employee.
“If he is financially dependent on the NRA, you do have to point out that there is a relationship,” said Dean Wasserman of Berkeley.
Last month the Times ran a news story about “Ghost Guns,” homemade firearms that are hard to track. The story quoted David Kopel, describing him as “the research director of the Independence Institute, a libertarian think tank, who is also an adjunct professor of law at the University of Denver.”
In the story, Kopel compared the nation’s current level of gun regulation to “prohibition or quasi-prohibition,” adding that the nation’s allegedly restrictive gun laws are “the lever that pushes up homemade production.” That seems odd considering that gun laws have only grown more lax across the nation over the past twenty years. But, knowing that his Independence Institute has received NRA funding, his comments make a lot more sense.
The New York Times’s assistant managing editor for standards, Philip B. Corbett, declined to comment.
Three years earlier, Times’s opinion editors ran an online column by Kopel where he complained about, “Bloomberg’s Gun Control That Goes Too Far for the Average Citizen.” Might readers have looked at it differently had they known that the author was the top-paid employee at an NRA-funded think tank? I brought the matter to Times’ online opinion editors, and as previously reported in The Progressive, they “updated” Kopel’s author identification and changed the wording to note that his Independence Institute “has received NRA funding.”
Back in 2013, the paper still had a public editor, Margaret Sullivan, who is now a media columnist at the Post. She commented back then about the lack of disclosure in Kopel’s Times opinion pieces.
“The more readers know about the background of an opinion writer, the better they are served. And that applies here,” Sullivan told me after I pointed out to her that the paper had failed to disclose Kopel’s NRA funding with his 2013 article, “The N.R.A. Is Still Vital, Because the 2nd Amendment Is.” That piece ran little more than two weeks after the Sandy Hook tragedy in Newtown.
The Washington Post’s news and opinion sections are similarly out of sync. Only four days after the Sandy Hook shooting, the Postquoted Kopel in a news story saying that the AR-15 rifle used by the shooter was “the best-selling rifle in the country,” and that it would meet a future Supreme Court standard for being in common use.
A central goal of the NRA has been to normalize the use of military-style, semi-automatic rifles, some of whose models were outlawed for 10 years due to a now-expired federal ban on “assault weapons.” Yet the Post identified Kopel only as an independent scholar without mentioning his NRA funding.
This year in October, in another news story that ran three days after America’s largest modern mass shooting at a country music festival in Las Vegas, the Post similarly identified Kopel as “an adjunct professor at Denver University’s Sturm College of Law and an analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute,” never mentioning either his main position as Research Director of the Independence Institute or its steady receipt over more than a decade of annual six-figure NRA foundation grants, according to the foundation’s tax filings.
The Post’s online opinion section has done better. The paper runs Kopel’s opinion columns as part of The Volokh Conspiracy, a consortium of conservative-leaning legal scholars hosted by the Postonline. But for years, the Post ran Kopel’s columns without identifying his NRA funding.
The Post finally began noting Kopel’s NRA financial ties after a critical post by the liberal group Media Matters. The paper’s opinion editors quietly changed his identification retroactively in all his columns. Editors call that a “rowback,” as if to row backwards over water and then forward again to smooth any ripple of an error. On this point Post spokeswoman Gannon Conway declined to comment.
This incongruity among America’s top newspapers misleads readers. An easy online search of his name locates a “Supported Research” page (now outdated) on the NRA’s Civil Rights Defense Fund website with Kopel’s name listed multiple times.
Frank Smyth has written on the gun movement for The Progressive, MSNBC, and The Washington Post. His Mother Jones story after Sandy Hook, “Unmasking the NRA’s Inner Circle,” won the Society of Professional Journalists Delta Sigma Chi award for National Magazine Investigative Reporting.