Z on TV Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV

The NRA is getting trounced by Stoneman Douglas students in the PR battle over gun control

The National Rifle Association, long considered one of the most powerful and professional lobbying groups in the world, is losing a crucial public relations battle to a bunch of teenagers from Florida.

And the PR victories by the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas have translated into concrete change in recent days — more change than we have seen in the wake of any other mass school shooting of the last few years.

On Wednesday, Dick’s Sporting Goods, one of the nation’s most popular sports retailing chains, announced that it would no longer sell assault rifles like the AR-15 that left 17 dead at the high school in Parkland, Fla., Feb. 14. Nor will Dick’s sell any guns at all to buyers under the age of 21. Wal-Mart raised its purchase age to 21, too.

"We concluded if these kids are brave enough to organize and do what they're doing, we should be brave enough to take this stand," Edward Stack, CEO of Dick’s, said of the Stoneman Douglas students and his company’s decision on CNN Wednesday. In interview after interview, Stack spoke of the decision in moral terms.

The move by Dick’s comes in the wake of such giant corporations as Hertz car rental, MetLife insurance and Delta Airlines ending NRA discounts.

I have been writing since the shooting about the media power of the student survivors. It is built on the combination of strong social-media skills and moral authority — two things the NRA seems woefully deficient in.

That moral authority derives in part from the pain the students suffered in coming under fire from a former student and seeing classmates and teachers die. But that traumatic event also seems to have left them with a moral clarity that is the very opposite of politicians like Sen. Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, who take money from the NRA and then try to complicate and confuse the issue of military-style weapons.

But as much as the students have to do with the early success of their campaign to get tougher gun laws onto the books, the other half of the story is how badly the NRA and elements on the right have stumbled coming out of the gate in opposing the teens.

By far the worst decision was to let g Dana Loesch, spokeswoman for the NRA, be the face of the organization in this battle.

After a day and night of powerful appearances by Stoneman Douglas students Feb. 21 at a White House “listening” session and then a CNN town hall hosted by Jake Tapper, the NRA blasted back the next day, with Loesch strutting around the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference, a portrait of bombast, in-your-face defiance and reckless rhetoric.

As I watched Loesch at CPAC, the image that came to mind was that of former Breitbart executive chairman Steve Bannon strutting around a stage in Alabama defending Senate candidate Roy Moore and denouncing candidates who didn’t hew as far to the alt-right as he in the coming midterm election.

How did that work out, Steve?

The new narrative Loesch wanted to sell at CPAC: Blame the FBI, which admitted that it failed to investigate a tip about the Florida shooting suspect, and other law enforcement agencies for the slaughter at Stoneman Douglas. And blame the media for wallowing in sensationalistic coverage of this tragedy. But, whatever you do, don’t blame guns.

"My condemnation is for those folks at the FBI — I know there are some good agents there — for those at the FBI that dropped the ball eight separate times with catastrophic consequences," she said, attempting to plug her narrative into the one the right-wing messaging machine has been sounding for months in an attempt to discredit the investigation of Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

But Loesch’s big moment came when she leaned into the microphones and did a Donald Trump-wannabe attack on the media covering CPAC.

“Now I’m going to say something that some people are going to say is controversial, so I’m going to say it really slowly so that all of you people on the platform in the back can hear me loud and clear:

“Many in the legacy media love mass shootings,” she said moving back and forth between two microphones on the podium to drag out the statement and accentuate each of the words of her reckless claim. “You guys love it.”

I am not going to respond to such an off-the-wall, baseless claim. If it was said against a specific person, it could constitute slander. But you can say anything you want about the press at a right-wing rally, and it is OK, I guess, because that’s what our president does time and time again.

But forget Loesch’s words — if you can.

TV is a visual medium, and Loesch’s sneering image — as it was multiplied exponentially in video replays throughout social media — became the NRA’s response in the minds of many to the earnestness and pain etched by tragedy on the faces of some of the Florida students.

Bad optics doesn’t start to describe Loesch’s performance. And I cannot start to estimate how much ground the NRA lost in this war thanks to her grandstanding and hotdogging at CPAC.

And Loesch only compounded the sneering persona in subsequent appearances straight through to Sunday shows like ABC’s “This Week.”

While Loesch took her act to all those legacy media stops, the teens of Stoneman Douglas were shredding the NRA on social media.

This fact tells you most of what you need to know about that battleground: Emma Gonzalez, a student with one of the most compelling media personas, joined Twitter less than two weeks ago and already has 1.16 million followers as of Thursday, versus the NRA, which joined in 2009, and has 606,000 followers.

That’s not so surprising given the rigid, institutional voice the NRA has on Twitter with tweets like this one Monday, referring to the news that major companies like Delta, United, Avis and Hertz were ending discount relationship with the gun organization: “Let it be absolutely clear. The loss of a discount will neither scare nor distract one single NRA member from our mission to stand and defend the individual freedoms that have always made America the greatest nation in the world.”

None of this is to say the students are going to ultimately succeed in getting assault weapons banned anywhere except at Dick’s. There seems to be no limit to the hold the NRA has on some legislators who care more about money than anything else — especially Republican ones. And forget about any real help from the White House, despite the bipartisan meeting on gun reform that Team Trump staged for the cameras with a supporting cast of legislators Wednesday. The president doesn’t seem to know where he stands on this issue, but the Wednesday event indicates he is feeling the winds of change and the power of the students in a debate that seems to have only gone around and around the NRA axis for decades until Parkland.

The students of Stoneman Douglas are already winning on several fronts.

Cable news almost always moves on from an event like a mass shooting in a week to 10 days. But we are now 16 days out with a major march for gun law reform on the horizon, and no part of legacy or social media seems anywhere near leaving the students and their crusade behind.

The return of the students to school Wednesday morning for the first time since the shooting led many of the morning newscasts from CNN to NPR. “New Day,” CNN’s morning show, featured co-host Alisyn Camerota and several reporters and camera crews in the school parking lot starting at 6 a.m. — with coverage of the returning students dominating the show.

And coverage is expanding beyond straight news.

“The Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon announced on-air Tuesday that he, his wife and two children would join the Stoneman Douglas students in their “March for Our Lives” in Washington March 24. Friday night, Bill Maher will be joined by two lof the school’s students, David Hogg and Cameron Kasky, on his HBO show, “Real Time with Bill Maher.”

“I think what the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are doing is unbelievable,” Fallon told viewers. “They’re speaking out with more guts, passion, conviction and common sense than most adults.”

George and Amal Clooney, who donated $500,000 to the students’ campaign, said they also will be marching.

On the legislative front, a package of gun reform laws was speeding through committees in the Florida House and Senate, which would raise the minimum age to buy a firearm from 18 to 21 in the state and require a three-day waiting period on most gun purchases. That’s not the ban on assault rifles that the students wanted, but it’s real progress in a state that houses major gun manufacturers.

Sneer on, Dana. Sneer on.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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