Stephen Gutowski of The Washington Free Beacon had a great story Wednesday. You can read it here. He obtained audio that proves the filmmaker of Katie Couric’s latest politicized documentary, Under the Gun, deceptively edited an interview with gun rights activists to make them look ignorant and ashamed. The evidence he found is clear, it is direct, it is stunning, and it is embarrassing. But it is not nearly as embarrassing as the way in which the filmmaker, Couric, and the New York Times reacted to the Free Beacon’s reporting. They all need to spend some time alone in the corner and think about what they’ve done.
At one point in the film, Couric visits with the Virginia Citizens Defense League, which advocates for the Second Amendment and is the official militia of the Free Beacon. She asks, "If there are no background checks for gun purchasers, how do you prevent felons or terrorists from purchasing a gun?"
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Her question is met with silence. The activists stare blankly into oblivion. Drool collects in the corners of their mouths. The pause is meant to convey the idiocy, the brutishness, the misplaced priorities and hypocritical paranoia of gun owners. Ah hah, the viewer says. Katie Couric—2009 recipient of the Walter E. Cronkite Special Achievement for National Impact award—she sure showed them! Made the yokels face the consequences of their own selfish absolutism. What a hero—a diva! Bravissima!
Yeah, well, it’s all lies. Listen to the audio below.
Couric offered a clichéd argument, and her subjects responded with a rather sophisticated defense of due process and equal protection under the law. The sorts of things that liberals are known for caring about, at least when criminals and terrorist suspects are concerned. What followed is commonly described as an "exchange of views." It lasted for several minutes. But because the conversation played against the unwritten script—in which there can be no answer for Couric’s supposedly devastating observation—the film’s editors replaced the sequence with the awkward b-roll.
This is the sort of dishonesty that gives hacks a bad name. "An apology, retraction, reediting, whatever it is that filmmakers do to make amends—all of it needs to happen here," writes Erik Wemple of the Washington Post. But none of it has. EPIX, the cable channel on which the movie appears, told Stephen Gutowski that it "stands behind Katie Couric, director Stephanie Soechtig, and their creative and editorial judgment. We encourage people to watch the film and decide for themselves."
But you really ought not to watch; in fact this isn’t a question on which people "decide for themselves." To suggest as much is preposterous, insulting to one's intelligence, precisely because the act of watching the film prevents viewers from being able to make such a decision. Because the viewer is being fed, what's the phrase, a pack of lies. Sorry, EPIX, this is open-and-shut. Jerks lied.
The director admits as much. Soechtig would not deign to respond to the Free Beacon, needless to say. But she did release a statement to Wemple of the Post: "My intention was to provide a pause for the viewer to have a moment to consider this important question before presenting the facts on Americans’ opinions on background checks. I never intended to make anyone look bad and I apologize if anyone felt that way."
Read her words closely. They subtly admit guilt, they slyly acknowledge purposeful editing, even as they shirk responsibility for the offense by claiming that there was no intention to "make anyone look bad," and apologizing "if anyone felt that way." How typical of a liberal to respond to an accusation of dishonesty by bringing up subjectivity and feelings. Says Wemple, "In the years we’ve covered and watched media organizations, we’ve scarcely seen a thinner, more weaselly excuse."
He spoke too soon. Soon after the director’s "sorry—not-sorry" moment, Couric issued the following remarks: "I support Stephanie’s statement and am very proud of the film."
Wow. How can one react to the courage, the profundity, the oracular eloquence of Katie Couric’s words? Here she is, approaching 60 years old, an international celebrity, and suddenly her journalistic credibility, such as it is, is not only under attack but defeated, blasted, pounded into rubble. And what happens next? Couric waves a thumb in the direction of the nobody standing beside her and goes, "What she said."
I am unimpressed. But at least I understand where Soechtig and Couric are coming from. They have a film to promote and probably figure, correctly, that the anger and criticism of gun owners—and of believers in, you know, accuracy, fact-checking, and fair play—won’t damage that film’s chances nor their careers.
The behavior of the New York Times, on the other hand, just baffles me. When the Free Beacon story broke, Gutowski took a call from Katie Rogers, a reporter for the Times who follows social media. Rogers wanted to know a little bit more about the story. That’s fine, I guess, even though all of the pertinent information is available on our site for free. There’s not really much to this story, in all honesty. There’s the interview as portrayed in the film and the interview as it actually happened, and both of these things are accessible on The Washington Free Beacon. If the Huffington Post had exposed the deceptive editing of a pro-gun film, I doubt the New York Times would phone Ryan Grim asking about his sources. Most of the time a news story is about what’s being reported on, not who’s doing the reporting.
Except of course when it’s the Washington Free Beacon doing the reporting. "Audio of Katie Couric Interview Shows Editing Slant in Gun Documentary, Site Claims," read the headline on Katie Rogers’s piece. By using the word "claims" instead of "reports," a self-evident fact—that the raw audio differs from the finished film—becomes a "She said, the Free Beacon said" exploration of the nature of truth in our postmodern world. "A conservative news site posted what it said was audio proof that filmmakers behind a documentary about the gun control debate deliberately edited video to portray gun-rights activists as unable to answer questions about background checks," the story begins. That's one way of looking at it. Is the clip really "audio proof," though, or is that just what this "conservative news site" says it is?
Let’s listen to it again:
Seems like proof to me! But be aware: This is what a conservative is saying.
Odder still, Rogers indirectly quotes Gutowski, as though he were part of some plot to portray Katie Couric as a liberal propagandist (she needs no help from us). "In a phone interview, Stephen Gutowski, the reporter for the Free Beacon who posted the audio, said that he had received the clip from The Virginia Citizens Defense League, a gun rights organization whose members were interviewed in Under the Gun."
Why, yes—and this sourcing, I might add, is fairly obvious even from a superficial reading of Gutowski’s article. But why is Gutowski mentioned to begin with? All he did was fulfill his basic responsibilities of keeping up with his sources and breaking news. How would Katie Rogers like it if I had Brent Scher call her and ask how she learned "U.S. agency to investigate killing of Cecil the lion"? Who told you Katie that "‘House of Cards’ Actress shrewdly wins equal pay"? Did you have a prior relationship with the source that pointed out "Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’ Lyrics Entangle Two Rachels," or did you come up with that one on your own? When the site you work for claims "Erin Andrews Says Hotel Could Have Prevented Stalker From Filming Her," can it really be believed? Especially considering its record of fabulism and error?
I know, I know: conservative websites are held to a higher standard, stories should be vetted before they are aggregated and repackaged, it’s better to be talked about than not thought of at all. But it never fails to amuse, how the mainstream media treats the Free Beacon as though it were a swamp creature that periodically emerges from the bog, the carcass of a poor defenseless woodland animal clutched between our fanged and bloody jaws, when actually we spend our days researching stories, communicating with sources, verifying facts, requesting fair comment, and writing as flatly and as fairly as we can. It’s called journalism. Katie Couric might try it sometime.