WASHINGTON – The nation's gun lobby is creating an "NRA news" company that will produce a daily talk show for the Internet, buy a radio station and seek a television deal to spread its gun-rights message nationwide.
Looking for the same legal recognition as mainstream news organizations, the National Rifle Association (search) says it has already hired its first reporter, a conservative talk radio host from Oklahoma. NRANews.com plans to start online broadcasts Friday.
The NRA is taking the step to operate free of political spending limits, hoping to use unlimited donations known as soft money (search) to focus on gun issues and candidates' positions despite the law's restrictions on soft money-financed political ads within days of the election.
"If that's the only way to bring back the First Amendment (search), we're going to bring it back," Wayne LaPierre, NRA executive vice president, told The Associated Press. Under the nation's campaign finance law, he said, "if you own the news operation, you can say whatever you want. If you don't, you're gagged."
LaPierre said the NRA is taking several steps to become a "legitimate packager of news" like newspapers and TV networks, including hiring Cam Edwards, a conservative talk-show host from Oklahoma City.
Started with a $1 million investment, the Internet programming features news briefs in the morning and at noon, followed by a three-hour afternoon "news show/talk show" with Edwards as host.
The group is setting up an NRA news corporation, possibly for profit, to run its new media operations. It is close to acquiring a radio station that will stream video of its NRA broadcasts to the Internet, LaPierre said.
The NRA plans to own a news operation "just as Disney owns ABC, just as GE owns NBC, just as Time Warner AOL owns CNN, and be the broadcast journalist equivalent of those outlets," LaPierre said.
"Who's to say they're any more legitimate on packaging news to the American public on firearms and hunting than the National Rifle Association, when in fact we've been in the news business longer than they have in terms of packaging news on those subjects?" he asked.
Larry Noble, head of the Center for Responsive Politics (search) and former lead attorney for the Federal Election Commission, said that if the NRA operation has the trappings of a press entity -- such as a radio outlet -- it has a strong argument that it is one.
"The law does allow news media to editorialize and do commentary. It's the reason The New York Times can endorse candidates in its editorials," Noble said. "So in one sense they are not blazing new ground, but they are going into an area that's still forming and about which regulations are still being developed."
Whether Webcasts (search) alone would make the NRA a press entity is a harder question, Noble said. Congress and the FEC haven't dealt with the intersection of the Internet and the media, he said, "and the lines are blurring."
The NRA and several other interest groups had sued unsuccessfully to strike down campaign spending limits. The law, upheld in December by the Supreme Court, bans the use of corporate and labor union money for ads targeting congressional and presidential candidates close to elections and bars national party committees and federal candidates from raising so-called "soft money."
The law left political activity on the Internet largely unregulated and maintained a long-standing media exemption from political advertising rules for news and entertainment programming.
News operations have been run with one person, but to become a truly national news organization, the NRA will have to get beyond one reporter and a few hours of airtime, said Gordon "Mac" McKerral, national president of the Society of Professional Journalists.
"Putting together a comprehensive news delivery package isn't an easy endeavor. It's people-intensive, which means it's expensive," McKerral said. "And there's so much out there now that any kind of startup operation like that is a challenge. If the NRA is successful at it, my guess is they'll limit their scope."
On the other hand, "if they think they can get into the game with one guy, maybe they know something the rest of those multibillion-dollar corporations don't," he said.
Mixing an agenda with the news is nothing new, McKerral said. When the nation's press was in its infancy, newspapers were vehicles to promote political agendas.
Now, again, "it's getting awful tough, I think, for people to sort out what's supposed to be objectively reported fact and opinion, someone's opinion," McKerral said.
The NRA has a huge potential audience, with 4 million members, 16 million licensed hunters and 80 million gun owners in the United States, LaPierre said.