It was not a good week for Katie Couric. Her new anti-gun documentary (which she also executive produced) Under The Gun, was literally put in the crosshairs after Stephen Gutowski of the Washington Free Beacon discovered that an interview with members of the Virginia Citizens Defense League was deceptively edited to make them look like idiots. Luckily, Philip Van Cleave, president of the VCDL, released a copy of the audio showing that there was no pause, as depicted in the film. His members did give responses to her questions concerning background checks.
It’s drawn considerable criticism on social media and some online publications. The film’s director, Stephanie Soechtig, gave this weak sauce explanation for the pause:
“There are a wide range of views expressed in the film. 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.”
Even Erik Wemple of The Washington Post found this to be utterly ridiculous:
…[W]e’ve scarcely seen a thinner, more weaselly excuse than the one in the block above. For starters, it appears to count as an admission that this segment of the documentary was edited. The artistic “pause” provides the viewer not a “moment to consider this important question”; it provides viewers a moment to lower their estimation of gun owners. That’s it.
Many of those who sampled the discrepancy between the video and the audiotape were already enraged by the depiction of these gun owners. The statements from Soechtig and Couric will surely intensify the backlash, as well they should. An apology, retraction, re-editing, whatever it is that filmmakers do to make amends — all of it needs to happen here.
Couric had gone on the record saying, “I support Stephanie’s statement and am very proud of the film.”
Now, we have National Public Radio tearing into the “manipulation” of this interview, noting that it would fall way short of its standards regarding interviewing practices. When you lose NPR, you know you’ve seriously messed up. It was a completely avoidable disaster:
This manipulation — and that's what it was — would not pass muster at NPR under its principles for fairness in handling interviews.
It should be noted that documentaries operate with a different ethos than straight news. Under the Gun has a take, strongly suggesting there is a quiet consensus in favor of background checks among gun owners, aside from gun rights advocacy groups. This is not deception on a grand scale, but this handling of the interviews with the Virginia gun owners group is clearly unfair and unwarranted. People deserve to recognize themselves in how they appear in interviews.
This wound was both self-inflicted and rhetorically unnecessary — the director simply could have cut away after Couric asked the question and returned to it later. (Which the movie does in fact do, posing much the same question to Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who supports gun ownership rights.)
To show the gun owners blank-faced for an extended time didn't provide a pause for the viewer — it wiped away the notion these people had an answer to hear.
The deception reflects poorly on Couric, too. She conducted the interviews, serves as the movie's executive producer and has promoted it extensively. She saw a polished cut of the documentary before its release. She apparently expressed doubt about the insertion of the pause but failed to get it removed from the film.
Regardless, those nine seconds — fleeting moments for the film — amount to a team loss on an unforced error.
Van Cleave, the head of the Virginia gun owners group, said he came away from the interview with a largely favorable impression of Couric. He said that her questions were tough but fair, and that she played the devil's advocate but never attacked.
"Nothing in the interview made me think she would do what she did," Van Cleave told NPR. "We've got to be able to trust the press."
Pavlich added that since Couric’s documentary has been exposed for its selective editing, ABC, CBS, NBC, MSNBC, and CNN have ignored the story.