According to a number of erroneous reports, when the mother of one of the victims of the Aurora, Colorado shooting asked Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) about regulating assault weapons, he curtly responded, “I can tell you right now you need some straight talk. That assault weapons ban will not pass the Congress of the United States. It won’t.” These reports were apparently based on a heavily edited video clip broadcast on Phoenix television station KTVK. (See Talking Points Memo‘s article.)
As you can see on YouTube, the mother in question, Caren Teves, read a statement about military-style assault weapons and then asked the senator whether he supported a ban on assault weapons and on high-capacity magazines. He began by saying,
Well first of all could I say thank you, and God bless, and thank you for your service and sacrifice you’ve made. Our hearts and our prayers go out to you and your family. And I just had a town hall meeting yesterday in Tucson, and there were people there who were affected by this terrible tragedy of the shooting there. I met with Mark Kelly and Gabby Giffords in my office last week on this issue. As you know, they are becoming, understandably, great advocates on this issue. And I will continue that conversation. I can tell you right now you need some straight talk. That assault weapons ban will not pass the Congress of the United States. It won’t.
When several people at once asked why not, McCain said that a majority of members on Congress would not vote for it. He also noted that there are elections every two years, implying things could well be different in the future. He went on to say, “I will continue to work with a bipartisan group on both sides of the aisle representing all of America, not just California, and we will try to come up with ways to prevent this from happening again. If that means increased background checks, closing loopholes, other things like that, that’s fine.” He went on to say that banning assault weapons and large “clips” (meaning magazines) would not make much difference in reducing the kind of gun violence in Chicago, for example, where handguns are the main weapon used.
McCain is in fact correct about that last point. Mass shootings do often involve military-style rifles, but mass shootings account for a tiny fraction of the huge number of gun deaths in the U.S. Logically, however, that’s not necessarily an argument against regulating magazine capacity and some types of long guns, only for recognizing that at best it might reduce some types of mass killings. Then again, in some cases something designated an assault weapon might not be as deadly as a shotgun. The whole issue is a lot more complex than people on both sides try to make it.
What we possibly can agree on, however, is that selective editing should not misrepresent what people are saying, something that happens depressingly often. An NBC producer was fired for a report that edited George Zimmerman’s call to a police number (not 911, incidentally, as many reports in correctly say) to make it sounds as if he had said, “This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black.” In fact, Zimmerman actually said, “This guy looks like he’s up to no good. Or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about.” The dispatcher then asked Zimmerman, “O.K., and this guy — is he white, black or Hispanic?” and Zimmerman answered, “He looks black.”
(Lest someone misconstrue this as a general defense of Zimmerman, it’s not. It seems clear from the weight of the evidence that Zimmerman unnecessarily confronted Trayvon Martin and probably tried to detain him, leading to a fight that Zimmerman was losing when he drew his gun and shot Martin dead. Zimmerman’s claim that Martin attacked him unprovoked does not seem credible. But none of that justifies editing a video to give a wildly false impression of what he told the police dispatcher. By the way, contrary to some accounts, Zimmerman was not a “watchman,” nor was he involved in some kind of security patrol. He was a volunteer Neighborhood Watch coordinator — a position that involves acting as a point of contact between other neighborhood residents and the police — and happened to be going to buy groceries on the night in question. Neighborhood Watch is the name of a program that encourages people to keep an eye out for suspicious activity in their neighborhood and report it to the police. It is not a security patrol.)
Another example is the editing of President Obama’s comment about small businesses that depend on government services (streets, highways, fire and police protection, etc) as well as their own hard work and inventiveness. The line “You didn’t build that” (clearly referring to infrastructure) was not merely edited out of context to misrepresent what he was saying, the Republican National Convention devoted an entire day of its programming to what was by that point an outright lie (since the full recording had by that point come out and demonstrated what Obama had actually said, so no one could credibly claim to have been simply mistaken).
In yet another case, severely dishonest editing of a speech by Shirley Sherrod, in a video clip posted by the late Andrew Breitbart, completely reversed the point she was making about racism and led to her firing from a regional position in the Department of Agriculture, a move that made the Obama administration look seriously gullible.
Update: Much more recently, a television station apologized for editing and reporting that gave a false impression that demonstrators protesting police shootings of unarmed African Americans were chanting that police officers should be shot. In fact, they were calling for the police in question to be jailed.
And right-wind activist James O’Keefe has of course built a career out of deceptive editing and other sleazy tactics.
It’s particularly outrageous when journalists do it (as with the McCain video and the Zimmerman audio), but others at least deserve to be sued for it. And bloggers, news media, and the general public should be a lot more skeptical and not gullibly pass on these misrepresentations.