Incendiary NRATV videos face scrutiny from the gun rights organization itself
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.”