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May 20, 2003

IS THE GLASS HALF-EMPTY? OR HALF-FULL? I guess that depends on whether you're pouring, or drinking. But to its credit, CNN has admitted it was wrong, and run a correction regarding an assault-weapon related story that falsely suggested that "assault weapons" are more powerful than other guns (they're not), and that the assault weapon ban had to do with machine guns (it doesn't). On the other hand, the errors fall into the "unforgivable" category.

So was CNN incredibly ignorant and gullible here, or was it deliberately passing along anti-gun propaganda that it knew to be false?

I'm going with explanation one -- if journalists can go to cover a war without knowing that there's no such thing as a 300 millimeter pistol then they can make this kind of idiotic mistake honestly, I suppose, though it is a bit suspicious that these mistakes tend to wind up supporting gun control every time. And this part is harder to explain away:

In the first of the two segments that aired Thursday, a Broward County detective fired the AK-47 in semiautomatic mode, and the camera showed bullets hitting a cinder-block target. The detective then fired a legal semiautomatic weapon, and CNN showed a cinder-block target with no apparent damage. On Friday, CNN admitted that the detective had not been firing at the cinder block.

Didn't an L.A. Times photographer lose his job over misleading images? Why is this different? Was it just an accident? Conceivably, I suppose, but why is someone who can make that sort of a mistake working for CNN?

But if they really are that sloppy and ignorant, maybe they shouldn't do gun stories without knowing enough to get it right. And parroting the latest press release from the Brady Campaign or the Violence Policy Center doesn't count as research.

The big victim here isn't gun rights, though. It's CNN's already damaged credibility. Because if they make mistakes like this, why should we trust them on anything else? CNN's final comment was this: "we all stick by John Zarrella and how credible of a reporter he is."

Uh huh.

UPDATE: A reader who says he used to work at CNN writes:

I've worked in news research at CNN. I'm certainly no gun expert, or even a gun fan, having fired weapons only a handful of times in my life. But I can say with absolute certainty that I know more about guns than 99.9% of people working in the newsroom, so it's not surprising that a reporter or bureau chief would fall into the "incredibly ignorant" category.

However, the cinder block "demonstration" strikes me as nothing more than a willful intent to deceive - by Zarella, by his producer and by the producers of the shows the segments ran on. Someone should have caught this, and Zarella should be asked to step down from his position as bureau chief. Won't happen, but it should.

CNN's credibility has taken a well-deserved beating this year, and this particular instance isn't even explainable by the need to "maintain access" in a closed nation -- it looks to be an effort to influence domestic politics, pure and simple.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Reader Hugh Myers emails:

I guess it's the better part of valor to credit CNN with ignorance of basic firearms terchnology. However, as one who has been following this issue very closely for decades I can tell you that every time I've seen or heard the "major media" talk about "assault" rifles, they distort facts. The most egregious cases occurred during the debates in the mid-nineties when EVERY major media outlet ran stories about semi-automatics accompanied by films of rifles firing in full automatic mode.

It is disingenuous in the extreme for CNN to claim ignorance at this late date.

Well, even if it's true, it's no excuse. With CNN, it seems that the question is becoming "are they lying, on the take, or just stupid?" far too often. And while "stupid" is the best of those three, that the question keeps being raised is devastating.