I’d thought we might have heard the last of the Katie Couric infomercial posing as an examination of gun rights issues. After all, there was public outrage aplenty and even Couric herself finally admitted that the editing of the piece “might have been misleading.” (Really? You think so?) But the group which was the victim of the insulting and misleading editing, the Virginia Citizens Defense League, is bringing the GunGate story back into the news this week. Our colleagues at Bearing Arms have obtained documents confirming that the group is seeking to take Couric to court over the slanderous piece of pseudojournalism.
Second Amendment rights advocacy organization the Virginia Citizens Defense League (VCDL), along with two of its members, today filed a $12 million defamation lawsuit against Katie Couric, director Stephanie Soechtig, Atlas Films, and Studio 3 Partners LLC d/b/a Epix for false and defamatory footage featured in the 2016 documentary film Under the Gun. The film portrays a fictional exchange in which members of the VCDL appear silent, stumped, and avoiding eye contact for nearly nine seconds after Katie Couric asks a question about background checks. An unedited audio recording of the interview reveals that—contrary to the portrayal in the film—the VCDL members had immediately begun responding to Couric’s question.
Can such a lawsuit succeed? Traditionally it’s pretty hard to sue both journalists and satirists who release the typical pablum we’ve grown used to on television. If someone is made to look foolish on television in programs such as The Daily Show or Saturday Night Live they generally won’t find much sympathy in the courts. It’s satire, particularly if the subject is a public figure in the government and political arena. Such programs generally fall under the category of protected speech. Alternately, when actual news programs engage in slanted or misleading coverage which winds up being favorable to one side of a debate, it’s equally difficult to hold them accountable beyond the level of issuing the occasional apology. Getting the courts to stifle the Fourth Estate is nigh onto impossible.
But in this case we saw a weird hybrid of these two worlds colliding. Couric’s “Under the Gun” program was ostensibly a news oriented documentary, not an intentionally created piece of satire. But the producers chose to edit the folks from VCDL the same way that The Daily Show does, to not only black out the answers they provided to the questions under discussion but to make them appear stupid and lacking in any response. That does seem like intentional defamation along with completely warping the debate over gun rights.
If the VCDL prevails in this effort it won’t just hit Couric in the purse. It just might prompt other producers of “news” programs to think twice before engaging in this sort of journalistic malpractice.