TCS Daily

Bypassing - or Becoming - the Media?

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - April 21, 2004 12:00 AM

The NRA isn't happy. Most Big Media outfits are strongly anti-gun, and they tend to exaggerate bad news relating to guns (like their use by criminals) and to ignore the good news about honest people using guns to defend themselves, or for sports and recreation. Sure, there are blogs that track things like that, but they don't have full-time staff, budgets, or the power of TV.

But now the NRA is getting even. It's setting up its own Web TV channel called NRA News that will provide several hours a day of programming from a pro-gun perspective.

Of course, there's another agenda, too. Campaign finance laws let media organizations -- even those with strong opinions on the issues, like, say, the New York Times' pronounced hostility to gun ownership -- express their opinions free of spending limits. And that's pretty clearly a major driver behind the NRA's strategy:

Looking for the same legal recognition as mainstream news organizations, the National Rifle Association says it has already hired its first reporter, a conservative talk radio host from Oklahoma. plans to start online broadcasts today. The NRA is taking the step to operate free of political spending limits, hoping to use unlimited donations known as ``soft money'' to focus on gun issues and candidates' positions despite the law's restrictions on soft money-financed political ads within days of the election.

``If that's the only way to bring back the First Amendment, we're going to bring it back,'' said Wayne LaPierre, NRA executive vice president. Under the nation's campaign finance law, he said, ``if you own the news operation, you can say whatever you want. If you don't, you're gagged.'' . . .

The group is setting up an NRA news corporation, possibly for profit, to run its new media operations. It is close to acquiring a radio station that will stream video of its NRA broadcasts to the Internet, LaPierre said.

The NRA plans to own a news operation ``just as Disney owns ABC, just as GE owns NBC, just as Time Warner AOL owns CNN, and be the broadcast journalist equivalent of those outlets,'' LaPierre said.

Some may see this as a simple effort to exploit a loophole -- but given media organizations' crusading on various ideological issues, it's hard to argue that the NRA channel will be any less fair and balanced than many traditional outlets' reporting. And for the federal government to choose which among competing media outlets is "legitimate" would likely be a First Amendment violation, and to arouse fears of censorship even among media outlets that don't like the NRA. And it's certainly no more partisan a venture than "Air America," the liberal talk-radio network set up by Democrats hoping to defeat George W. Bush.

What lets the NRA go into this business is technology -- setting up a nationwide TV network via the Web is a lot cheaper than relying on broadcasting or even cable, and with the growing penetration of high-speed internet services, NRA News may reach as many people as some cable channels. (In this, NRA is following in the footsteps of pioneers like Evan Coyne Maloney.) And given that it's easy to enter the media, and that the law treats media organizations more favorably than non-media organizations, we're likely to see a lot more people following the NRA's lead.

In law, we talk about exceptions swallowing the rule. I suspect that's what's happening here, as a "media exception" encourages all sorts of people to become the media, instead of criticizing them. That seems like a good thing to me, though I suspect not everyone will agree.


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