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The glaring omission in the New York Times' gun debate coverage

The Grey Lady downplays Congress' chances of passing reform with nary a mention of the GOP's radical obstructionism


Eric Boehlert
June 21, 2016 12:30PM (UTC)
This article originally appeared on Media Matters.

Trying to jump-start the gun debate in America, Democrats last week, led by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), were forced to stage a nearly 15-hour talking filibuster in the wake of the Orlando gun rampage that left 49 people dead at a gay nightclub. The marathon event was held in order to champion two gun measures. One would give the Justice Department authority to block gun sales to people on the  terror watch list (the "terror gap"), and the other would require background checks on nearly all gun sales.

Those votes are scheduled for Monday evening as amendments to a DOJ spending bill. Republicans will also put forward two measures; one purports to straighten the background check system while actually weakening it, and the other purports to block sales to suspected terrorists but has "an unworkable standard" in actually stopping any sales.

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But The New York Times has already been downplaying any chance of Congress passing the Democrats' proposals. “Why the Orlando Shooting Is Unlikely to Lead to Major New Gun Laws,” read a June 16 headline.

Why were the background check and terror gap efforts supposedly doomed? “Largely because of hotly contested Senate races in a bitter election year,” the newspaper reported. “Election-year politics will make a bill to expand background checks an uphill climb,” the Times stressed.

For readers, the storyline was clear: The two sides simply can’t agree on this one. Maybe next year -- because for now, Republicans just don’t see eye-to-eye with Democrats on gun legislation.

But none of that glossed-over analysis is applicable to what’s happening today. And the framing the Times uses -- which was also employed by other news organizations -- categorically ignores what’s been unfolding in American politics since President Obama was elected, and specifically it ignores how the Republican Party has tried its best, via radical obstructionism, to thwart Obama in every conceivable way. And Republicans are doing it in a manner that’s unprecedented in modern American politics.

Here’s the political context that’s been flushed down the memory hole since the Orlando massacre: Republicans don’t simply disagree with Obama on gun legislation; they disagree with him on everything. ("If he was for it, we had to be against it," former Republican Ohio Sen. George Voinovich once explained.) Yet too many in the press still downplay that central fact.

Indeed, so much of the congressional gun coverage last week glossed over the fact that Democrats had to stage a nearly 15-hour filibuster just to get Republicans to allow votes on gun legislation in the wake of another gun massacre. And these were gun amendments whose measures enjoy overwhelming, bipartisan support among voters.

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Media Matters has been documenting this journalism shortcoming for a very long time. Here was a recent thumbnail sketch of what blanketed GOP obstruction has looked like under Obama:

Today's Republican Party is acting in a way that defies all historic norms. We saw it with the GOP's gun law obstruction, the Violence Against Women Act obstruction, the sequester obstruction, Supreme Court obstruction, minimum wage obstruction, 9/11 first responder obstruction, government shutdown obstruction, immigration reform obstruction, Chuck Hagel's confirmation obstruction, Susan Rice secretary of state obstruction, paid leave obstruction, Hurricane Sandy emergency relief obstruction, the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act obstruction, and the consistent obstruction of judicial nominees.

Good luck finding any of that context in the current coverage about the congressional gun votes. Instead, news consumers are supposed to pretend the last eight years of GOP obstruction never happened and that the gun votes this week are taking place in a vacuum.

They’re also supposed to pretend one party in particular doesn’t sponsor obstructionism. Look at this June 14 Times article about the Orlando shooting and gunman Omar Mateen (emphasis added):

Even if Mr. Mateen had remained on the watch list, it would not have stopped him from buying a gun. Congress blocked an attempt last year to give the F.B.I. the power to block gun sales to people on terrorism watch lists.

But of course, “Congress” didn’t block the attempt in 2015; Republicans did.

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If you’re sensing déjà vu about gun massacres and jockeying over congressional votes, that’s because following the deadly rampage at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, CT, Republicans, at the urging of the National Rifle Association, blocked any attempt to vote on a gun safety bill to strengthen background checks.

At the time, Sen. Patrick Toomey (R-PA) was among the few Republicans who tried to fashion together a compromise. In the end, the GOP abandoned that effort. Pressed to address the failure, Toomey explained:

In the end, it didn't pass because we're so politicized. There were some on my side who did not want to be seen helping the president do something he wanted to get done, just because the president wanted to do it.

Three years ago, Toomey revealed the underlying truth; he articulated his own party’s obstructionist blueprint. But most journalists politely filed that quote away, and they certainly haven’t dwelled on it in recent days as new gun votes loom.

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Meanwhile, back to the Times coverage. You know what would have provided additional context for the Times article, which chose to view the pending gun votes through the narrow prism of a soda straw? Polling data. The same day of the Times piece, new polling information showed that 86 percent of Americans support denying gun sales to anybody who’s on the government’s terror watch list, including 87 percent of Republicans. Numerous polls over the past few years have indicated that around 90 percent of Americans favor a background check for every gun sale.

As for the idea that Republicans can’t find common ground with Democrats on gun legislation because this year is an election year? That just defies logic and whitewashes what’s transpired for the last eight years.

How do we know current Republican obstruction isn’t about election year positioning? We know because Republicans have been radically obstructing Obama every year he’s been in office, regardless of balloting.

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Remember these two initiatives that the GOP bizarrely blocked when no significant elections were pending:

*Disaster relief for Hurricane Sandy victims (January 2013)

*The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act (December 2014)

And don’t forget about the GOP’s illogical government shutdown of 2013 and the equally loopy sequestration that same year.

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It’s simply not credible to blame possible failed gun votes this week on “election year” politics. After eight years, we know the Republican Party’s radical obstructionist streak pays no attention to the calendar.


Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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