CNN's Parkland Townhall Sought to Inflame, Not Inform
When I was told over a year ago that I would be attending CNN’s “townhall” on the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, I knew it would neither be a journalistic endeavor nor a genuine townhall meeting where anyone would be permitted to speak. CNN’s own title said it all: “Stand Up: The Students of Stoneman Douglas Demand Action.” So this was an advocacy event, not a journalistic undertaking, which makes the Walter Cronkite Award the news channel received last week for the program utterly undeserved.
Yet millions of everyday Americans, many of them parents of school-age children themselves, were concerned how gun owners would be portrayed. Many of them burned up the phone lines at the National Rifle Association headquarters, and requested that their viewpoint be represented at CNN’s event.
This is how I was sent to Parkland. I knew what I was walking into: An emotional assembly held days after an insurmountable loss of innocent life, many of them children the same ages as my own. CNN’s event was held on a Wednesday; I was informed that I would be attending on Tuesday. I learned only upon arriving in Florida that I would be on stage with Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel.
The producers, a couple of whom I’ve known from other networks, seemed nervous. So did Jake Tapper, who approached me in the greenroom to thank me for participating – but who also seemed sheepish about the format, which unfolded with Scott Israel speaking onstage for about a half-hour before the televised event began.
Before the sheriff spoke, I had introduced myself to him and said I was fervently praying for his community.
“Oh, very nice to meet you, yeah,” he responded. “I appreciate that. No hard feelings or anything.”
This warning gave me a sinking feeling that CNN was pitting us against each other for a spectacular show and he was perfectly willing to play along. As he warmed up the crowd, the sheriff referred to me as “the NRA lady” while deflecting as much blame onto innocent NRA members as he could to hide his own cowardice and incompetence.
While he was on stage blaming and electioneering, several of his own deputies, whom I have promised I would not name, quietly stole into the greenroom where I was held to say hello and get a couple of photos.
“We agree with you, by the way,” one confided, giving me a small glimpse into the turmoil roiling the department and the lack of trust the deputies had for their leader. Months later, 85 percent of their deputies’ union voted “no confidence” in Israel’s leadership.
Yet as the event unfolded, those responsible for Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ fateful security deficiencies were celebrated while people like Sen. Marco Rubio were scapegoated for the school officials’ failures. When it was my turn to go onstage, I was cued to walk into the center of the arena to the Black Eyed Peas’ “Let’s Get It Started,” an odd choice, considering the somber tone and grieving family members present.
The arena was packed: 7,000 people, some from the community (including grieving families and students), some from outside it. People booed me immediately. The last friendly face I saw was that of student Jalen Martin, who ran up the aisle. Bracing myself for the worse, Jalen instead implored me to say something to stem the tide. He smiled encouragingly; in the middle of the overwhelming boos and epithets yelled I noticed he was wearing an USAF shirt. I asked him if someone in his family was serving.
“Yes, ma’am -- my brother,” he replied above the boos and shouts of “Murderer!” I grasped his hand and said thank you.
During the broadcast Scott Israel tried to play the hero and CNN encouraged it, even though the network’s own reporting revealed that his department had received 39 calls about the 19-year-old murderer – and did nothing to stop him. Prior to his Feb. 14, 2018 rampage, Nikolas Cruz had beaten his adoptive mother so badly she lost several of her teeth, had taken knives and bullets to school, and had threatened to kill his fellow students (they reported him to school officials on numerous occasions). School counselors wanted him forcibly committed, and he had even called the police on himself (in addition to his own family calling them, begging for his weapons to be removed). Although Sheriff Israel knew all these things prior to the CNN event, it was made clear that the carnage at that school was my responsibility.
If CNN was practicing journalism instead of advocacy that day, the sheriff would have been held to account. We’ve learned more since the shooting as well. In the weeks following, I spoke with one MSD teacher on NRATV who informed me that the school had no security plan in place for what had happened. I discussed on my radio program that a Secret Service agent had performed a risk assessment months before the massacre and none of his recommendations were put into effect.
If I could discover this kind of information, CNN, with its vast editorial resources, easily could have as well. There was no discussion about mental health awareness. No discussion about school security procedures. Instead, the discussion focused entirely on blaming Republican lawmakers, the Second Amendment, the NRA, and law-abiding gun owners. I watched from the stage as one camera focused on the pained face of a mother in agony, a mother mourning the loss of her child. She read a statement, pausing to compose herself as best she could, tears streaming down her face, while the camera zoomed in to capture her suffering. I don’t think some of those who attended realized that the network intended for this to be a spectacle.
When the event ended, I stood to leave and a woman in front of the stage attempted to rush forward and jump on the stage, presumably to attack me. She was physically stopped by a member of my three-person detail. I’d be interested to know if CNN has footage of this. The other two, stationed on the left side of the stage, had to lift me off the stairs as another woman had angrily grabbed my arm and would not let go, making it awkward for me to step down from the last step onto the floor to exit.
Meanwhile, many of the thousands in the arena hugged, shook hands, and took photos with Scott Israel and Robert Runcie, the local school superintendent whose policies of not arresting students who committed crimes made it possible for Cruz to legally purchase firearms.
I hadn’t gone to argue with anyone, I was simply there to be a voice for millions of people who choose to associate as NRA members, many of whom were watching the CNN event with their own children at home. We are just as concerned with school security, which is why we support NRA’s School Shield program to improve security and training within schools across the country, free of charge. Our support for Second Amendment rights doesn’t make us complicit in crimes we didn’t commit nor responsible for failing to prevent these crimes — not any more than Scott Israel and Robert Runcie, who had years’ worth of advance knowledge and tips that we did not.
In the days following the event, CNN allowed to air unchallenged accusation that I owned Congress, that gun owners are monsters, that any lawmaker who supports the Second Amendment is complicit in mass murder.
That CNN celebrates winning an award for this event demonstrates that the network cannot distinguish between political activism and reporting. At best, its event was network-organized tragedy voyeurism, a selfish intrusion into a community’s fresh, days-old pain, with the purpose of settling political scores and dividing the country instead of fostering genuine discussion on solutions and practical means of school security. If anyone should have won an award, it should be the local media in Florida, particularly the reporters at the Sun-Sentinel, the Fort Lauderdale daily newspaper whose original, dedicated focus on the truth exposed much of what we now know about the missed warnings leading up to the massacre and the corruption of the school board. (The board even threatened legal action against reporters for accurate reporting.)
CNN should give its award to the Sun-Sentinel -- and to everyone else, an apology.