The shock of self-censorship in US news media’s coverage of ‘gun debate’


Television personality Piers Morgan speaks at a Children's Hospital Los Angeles benefit on May 4, 2012, in Beverly Hills, California.


Frazer Harrison

LONDON — As an American working and living in London, I regularly watch a large amount of US and British television news and read newspapers published on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s a habit that allows me, in the words of the poet Robert Burns, “to see ourselves as others see us.”

It’s interesting and sometimes informative to be able to see my native country from a different perspective. But the coverage of the gun “debate” in America has simply left me stunned.

What shocks me is the American media’s timidity and self-censorship. The US printed press and broadcast news act as if there were two reasonable sides to the issue and that they both deserve a fair hearing.

Big mainstream newspapers like The Washington Post and New York Times have confined much of their criticism to peripheral issues such as America’s gun culture, the availability of rapid-fire assault weapons or mental health care.

Most television news reporters and commentators have been even more guarded in their remarks. You get the impression that many of them would like to say more but don’t want to become targets of the National Rifle Association lobby and its supporters in the blogosphere. Look what happened when CNN’s British host Piers Morgan bad-mouthed his guests in a debate on guns. The bloggers called for him to be deported.

The reticence of the American media to face the gun issue squarely may be understandable, since even the candidates in the presidential election ducked the issue. But it is regrettable. And unnecessary. What the American press should do is present the facts and let the public draw its own conclusions – you know, the Fox News formula.

The simple fact is that America has too many guns. Period.

That’s the approach much of the British press has taken. This is how the left wing Guardian newspaper makes the case on December 21:

“To outsiders, the point seems so blindingly obvious: more guns equal more death. In Britain, where gun laws are strict, the annual number of gun-related murders stood, at last count, at 41. In the US, the equivalent figure is just short of 10,000.”

The Economist, a conservative British weekly, put it more bluntly on December 22:

“America’s murder rate is four times higher than Britain’s and six times higher than Germany’s. Only an idiot, or an anti-American bigot prepared to maintain that Americans are four times more murderous than Britons, could possibly pretend that no connection exists between those figures and the fact that 300,000,000 guns are out there in the United States, more than one for every adult.”

The British clearly think we are loony when it comes to guns. I found it hard to disagree when I heard a resident of Idaho explain to an interviewer from the BBC World Service Radio that of course he has 15 hand guns and automatic rifles – for hunting, for sport, to protect himself, and to shoot “varmints.” I had the same reaction when I saw an American advertisement for high capacity ammunition magazines as Christmas “stocking stuffers.”

In all fairness, I should state that I have an interest in gun control. I have a nephew who was shot point blank in the head by a mugger on a street in Baltimore. The weapon was not an assault rifle. It was a simple handgun, a “Saturday night special.” It was a miracle that my nephew survived.

I suppose the NRA would like to see ordinary citizens carry concealed weapons to protect themselves. But my nephew, who is neither an idiot nor a bigot, became an outspoken advocate for gun control.