In­cen­di­ary NRATV videos face scru­tiny from the gun rights or­ga­ni­za­tion it­self

The Buffalo News - - NATIONAL NEWS - By Danny Hakim

The flash point was Thomas the Tank En­gine. In Septem­ber, the Na­tional Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion’s fa­mously com­bat­ive spokes­woman, Dana Loesch, pro­voked widespread out­rage when she took to the gun group’s stream­ing ser­vice to mock eth­nic di­ver­sity on the pop­u­lar chil­dren’s pro­gram “Thomas & Friends,” por­tray­ing the show’s talk­ing trains in Ku Klux Klan hoods. Now, grow­ing un­ease over the site’s in­flam­ma­tory rhetoric, and whether it has strayed too far from the NRA’s core gun-rights mis­sion, has put its fu­ture in doubt.

The site, NRATV, is a cen­tral part of the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s mes­sag­ing ap­pa­ra­tus. Since its cre­ation in 2016, it has adopted an in­creas­ingly apoc­a­lyp­tic, hard-right tone, warn­ing of race wars, de­scrib­ing Barack Obama as a “fresh­faced flower-child pres­i­dent,” call­ing for a march on the FBI and com­par­ing jour­nal­ists to ro­dents.

In re­cent weeks, in a rare air­ing of in­ter­nal de­bate at the NRA, two prom­i­nent board mem­bers ex­pressed con­cerns about NRATV to the New York Times. Their state­ments were re­leased through the NRA it­self, amid what was de­scribed as an in­ter­nal re­view of NRATV and its fu­ture.

“Since the found­ing of NRATV, some, in­clud­ing my­self and other board mem­bers, have ques­tioned the value of it,” Mar­ion Ham­mer, the group’s most formidable lob­by­ist and a key adviser to its chief ex­ec­u­tive, Wayne LaPierre, said in a state­ment. “Wayne has told me and oth­ers that NRATV is be­ing con­stantly eval­u­ated – to make sure it works in the best in­ter­est of the or­ga­ni­za­tion and pro­vides an ap­pro­pri­ate re­turn on in­vest­ment.”

The re­assess­ment un­der­scores a de­bate within the NRA over how broad its ac­tivism should be. And it comes as the or­ga­ni­za­tion faces a storm of chal­lenges, in­clud­ing a se­ries of mass shoot­ings that has cre­ated a new gen­er­a­tion of gun-con­trol ac­tivists.

Con­gres­sional in­ves­ti­ga­tions into the NRA’s pos­si­ble Rus­sia ties were en­er­gized after Maria Butina, a sus­pected Rus­sian agent, pleaded guilty in December to us­ing the NRA in a po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence op­er­a­tion. And the or­ga­ni­za­tion, in­cor­po­rated in New York, may have a po­tent foe in Leti­tia James, the state’s re­cently elected at­tor­ney gen­eral, who has vowed to in­ves­ti­gate the NRA’s tax-ex­empt sta­tus.

As fall­ing mem­ber­ship dues put the NRA un­der fur­ther strain, board mem­bers have also ex­pressed con­cern about the size of pay­ments to the ad firm that pro­duces NRATV, Ack­er­man McQueen. The firm and its af­fil­i­ates pock­eted $40 mil­lion from the NRA in 2017; billings di­rectly to Ack­er­man have in­creased nearly 50 per­cent since 2015. One prom­i­nent host, Dan Bongino, left amid cut­backs at NRATV, but he said the site had tried to re­tain him.

Ack­er­man, a part­ner to the gun group since the “I’m the NRA” cam­paign of the 1980s, runs the NRATV Twit­ter ac­count, has done polling work for the or­ga­ni­za­tion and re­vamped its gun safety pro­gram for chil­dren. It has also been cred­ited with a slick makeover of LaPierre.

LaPierre’s wife, Su­san, has worked for an Ack­er­man sub­sidiary, and there has come to be a re­volv­ing door be­tween the two com­pa­nies.

Oliver North, the NRA pres­i­dent, has a con­tract with Ack­er­man, though the NRA would not dis­close its size. As part of the re­la­tion­ship, North, a for­mer Fox News pun­dit, hosts me­dia pro­gram­ming and spe­cial events, like the show “Amer­i­can He­roes,” which re­cently be­gan air­ing on NRATV.

The NRA, a non­profit, has also di­rected $18 mil­lion since 2010 to a pri­vate com­pany jointly owned by ex­ec­u­tives of Ack­er­man and the NRA, ac­cord­ing to records and in­ter­views.

“It is clear to me that NRATV is an ex­per­i­ment and Wayne is eval­u­at­ing the fu­ture of the en­ter­prise,” Willes K. Lee, a board mem­ber who leads the NRA Outreach Com­mit­tee, said in a state­ment to the Times.

After the Thomas the Tank En­gine video, he said, Wayne LaPierre ap­peared “livid and em­bar­rassed” in a meet­ing with the outreach group. “He apol­o­gized to the en­tire com­mit­tee and spent hours lis­ten­ing to our con­cerns.”

Loesch has emerged as NRATV’s most vis­i­ble host, de­rid­ing gun-con­trol ad­vo­cates as “tragedy-dry-hump­ing whores” and vow­ing to com­bat the left with what she called the “clenched fist of truth.”

Chuck Holton, an NRATV cor­re­spon­dent, at­trib­uted ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­ity in Europe to “the broader prob­lem of mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism and so­cial­ism.”

Grant St­inch­field, a host, claimed that “all rad­i­cal­ized ter­ror­ists are Mus­lims,” over­look­ing mass shoot­ers like Dy­lann Roof in Charleston, S.C.

Such commentary has raised ques­tions among some NRA mem­bers.

“The NRA shouldn’t be put­ting this out,” said Jeff Knox, an NRA mem­ber who runs the Firearms Coali­tion. “It’s not gun rights; it’s red meat for the hard right.”

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