Recent Pittsburgh Tribune-Review coverage of the electoral defeat of two Pennsylvania mayors who were members of gun violence prevention group Mayors Against Illegal Guns (MAIG) demonstrates how media cherry-pick data to falsely suggest mayors risk losing their jobs by joining the group.
MAIG, a coalition of more than 1,000 mayors, is best known for its Demand Action campaign in support of expanded background checks on gun sales and recent partnership with the 130,000 member grassroots organization Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.
In recent months the Tribune-Review has suggested that Chambersburg Mayor Pete Lagiovane and Butler Mayor Maggie Stock lost their re-election campaigns because of their MAIG memberships. The paper hasn't mentioned the MAIG memberships of any of the mayors who won reelection in 2013; 95 percent of Pennsylvania MAIG members were reelected.
After Lagiovane was defeated in November, the National Rifle Association immediately attributed the outcome to Lagiovane's MAIG membership in a November 6 press release that claimed the result "marks a huge victory for Second Amendment supporters and sportsmen in Chambersburg." Tribune-Review columnist Salena Zito followed the NRA's lead with a November 16 column that claimed Lagiovane lost "in part because he signed up Chambersburg as one of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's anti-gun cities." Bloomberg, who co-chairs MAIG, is the former mayor of New York City.
But other factors including a seven point Republican voter registration advantage and low voter turnout in the election more plausibly explain Lagiovane's defeat by 167 votes. In fact, election winner Darren Brown credited a spending advantage for his victory, not the gun issue or MAIG membership.
The Tribune-Review acted as a stenographer for the NRA again with a January 25 article that discussed and quoted at length from an NRA News special about the mayoral election that claimed Stock was defeated because of her affiliation with MAIG. Like the Chambersburg election, the NRA issued a press release highlighting Stock's membership in MAIG and claimed that her defeat by challenger Tom Donaldson "marks a huge victory for Second Amendment supporters and sportsmen."
Also as they did with the Chambersburg race, the Tribune-Review is credulously adopting the NRA's self-serving theory of the election outcome while ignoring other electoral factors. For example, Donaldson, who was interviewed for the NRA News special, made drugs and a false claim that crime was increasing in Butler the centerpiece of his campaign, not guns or Stock's MAIG membership. In an interview with local newspaper the Butler Eagle Donaldson "wouldn't comment on what impact" the gun issue "had on the election" (subscription required):
While Donaldson said gun rights was an important factor with many residents, he wouldn't comment on what impact it had on the election. "I think everything I did and anything others did combined to help me win," he said. Stock said while some residents were against her joining the coalition, others praised her for it. "Many people thanked me for being a member," she said. Donaldson also wouldn't comment on whether he thought Stock had any intention of trying to limit gun rights in the city. "I won't speculate on that," he said.
In the final paragraph of its article on the Butler mayor race the Tribune-Review quotes MAIG's executive director Mark Glaze explaining that 95 percent of Pennsylvania MAIG members were reelected in 2013, a statistic that seems to call into question the purpose of an article highlighting the NRA News special about a single mayoral race. Indeed, the Tribune-Review doesn't appear to have mentioned MAIG membership in discussing any of the members who won 2013 elections.
Conservative media and the NRA frequently promote individual cases of mayors leaving the MAIG coalition in attempt to suggest the group is shrinking and therefore losing influence, but in fact a July 2013 Media Matters review of MAIG's website indicated a roughly 17 percent increase in membership in the first half of 2013 alone.
It is also common for the NRA to seize on individual electoral victories that are actually exceptions to the rule. Indeed after the 2012 elections where 95 percent of the money spent on federal elections by the NRA went to losing candidates, including $12 million spent against President Obama, the NRA pointed to the success of three non-controversial state ballot initiatives that protected hunting as evidence of success in the 2012 elections.
According to an analysis of NRA endorsements and spending over several federal election cycles by The American Prospect contributing editor Paul Waldman, the NRA has little influence on the outcomes of elections. Waldman, who previously worked at Media Matters, found that the NRA also inflates the number of "victories" it claims by endorsing candidates in safe districts.