The Extreme ‘Centrist’

What Mike Bloomberg has in common with Guns & Ammo.




January 7, 2014
The New York Times has uncovered a journalistic scandal. It seems that–get ready for it–a gun magazine has an editorial policy that is hostile to gun control.

This merited the Times’s attention because the magazine, Guns & Ammo, made a personnel decision on the basis of its editorial views. Dick Metcalf, described by the Times as “one of the country’s pre-eminent gun journalists,” lost his position as a columnist for the magazine after he wrote a column titled “Let’s Talk Limits”: ” ‘The fact is,’ wrote Mr. Metcalf, who has taught history at Cornell and Yale, ‘all constitutional rights are regulated, always have been, and need to be.’ ”

That provoked a “backlash” that “was swift, and fierce.” Readers threatened to cancel their subscriptions, and according to Metcalf (in the Times’s paraphrase), “his editor called to tell him that two major gun manufacturers had said ‘in no uncertain terms’ that they could no longer do business with InterMedia Outdoors,” which publishes the magazine. The company axed him from both the column and a TV show it produced.

According to the Times, the story “sheds light on the close-knit world of gun journalism, where editors and reporters say there is little room for nuance in the debate over gun laws”:

Moderate voices that might broaden the discussion from within are silenced. When writers stray from the party line promoting an absolutist view of an unfettered right to bear arms, their publications–often under pressure from advertisers–excommunicate them.

“We are locked in a struggle with powerful forces in this country who will do anything to destroy the Second Amendment,” said Richard Venola, a former editor of Guns & Ammo. “The time for ceding some rational points is gone.”

Well, this column always has plenty of room for nuance, so here goes.

Assuming that the Times’s account is substantially accurate, it seems to us Metcalf was treated awfully shabbily. His editors “approved the column before it went to press,” according to the Times, and it speaks poorly of them that they did not stand behind it in the absence of any new information calling its credibility into question.

That said, the column itself was not exactly a triumph of logic. Here’s how Metcalf fleshed out his central point:

The fact is, all constitutional rights are regulated, always have been, and need to be. Freedom of speech is regulated. You cannot falsely and deliberately shout, “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Freedom of religion is regulated. A church cannot practice human sacrifice. Freedom of assembly is regulated. People who don’t like you can’t gather an “anti-you” demonstration on your front lawn. And it is illegal for convicted felons or the clinically insane to keep and bear arms.

Every sentence of this is problematic. In the first place, his claim that all constitutional rights are regulated is easily falsifiable. Try to come up with an example of a law or regulation that limits the Third Amendment right against the peacetime quartering of soldiers in private homes without the owner’s consent.

More important, the examples he gives of “regulation” of First Amendment rights are not that at all. They are, instead, generally applicable criminal laws. The “freedom of religion” example illustrates the point most clearly. A murderer who raised a free-exercise defense would be laughed out of court. But a Second Amendment defense would be equally frivolous. No gun-rights absolutist claims that the right to keep and bear arms entails the right to use them to murder others in cold blood.

The denial of gun rights to felons and mental patients, by contrast, can be described as a regulation, and the Supreme Court more or less affirmed its constitutionality in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008). But imagine an equivalent rule applied to First Amendment rights. A blanket ban on speech, worship or public assembly by felons or mental patients would be plainly unconstitutional. Contrary to Metcalf, the Second Amendment right is unique, not typical, in the degree to which it is subject to regulation.

Further, this column generally agrees with Venola’s give-no-ground position, though on pragmatic grounds rather than principled ones. If we thought the antigun side of the debate were interested in good-faith compromise, we’d be all for it. The dishonesty of their debating tactics, their ghoulish and opportunistic use of horrific crimes like the Newtown massacre to advance their agenda, and the onerous (and likely unconstitutional) regulations that exist in places where they hold political sway–such as New York City, where we live–persuade us otherwise.

Anyway, why should gun magazines give voice to “moderate voices that might broaden the discussion from within”? Has the Times editorial page, a leading voice on the other side, done the same?

As we pondered that question, we realized we’d read recently about an actual scenario that posed a similar question in reverse. Last month Laura Bennett had a feature story in The New Republic on Bloomberg View, Michael Bloomberg’s op-ed operation. Bloomberg, in addition to having just stepped down after 12 years as mayor of New York, is one of America’s most fanatical antigun activists.

Shut up, he explained.Associated Press

Last June, Bennett reports, editor David Shipley “hired the popular blogger Megan McArdle even though, in the wake of the Newtown massacre, she had written a controversial op-ed about the impracticality of gun control. According to one columnist, View editors just hoped [Mike] Bloomberg hadn’t read it.”

The parallel isn’t exact. Whereas Metcalf was fired for deviating from the party line on guns, McArdle was hired in spite of it. Then again, evidently her hiring happened without the boss’s knowledge, and as far as we know, she hasn’t written about the topic for Bloomberg View. (Most of her work is on ObamaCare, and it is generally excellent.)

But it turns out that Bloomberg imposes at least one stricture on his columnists that is very similar to Guns & Ammo’s de facto ban on advocacy of gun regulations. Reports Bennett: “At a dinner for columnists at the Palm, the mayor promised not to censor anyone, assuring them that they could, within limits–one of which was advocating against a woman’s right to choose–write whatever they wanted.” The only difference is that unlike “a woman’s right to choose” (a euphemism for abortion), the right to keep and bear arms is in the text of the Constitution.

Actually, there’s one other difference. Bloomberg’s ban would be analogous to Guns & Ammo’s if he were running a special-interest publication for which freedom of abortion was central to its worldview, say Ms.

By contrast, as indicated by the ex-mayor’s promise that in general columnists could “write whatever they wanted,” Bloomberg View is supposed to be general-interest and heterodox. According to Bennett, it falls short of that not because it has a distinct point of view but because it lacks one: “The output of Bloomberg View has been mostly flat–a particularly bloodless kind of centrism.”

But wait. What kind of “centrism” is it that permits the expression of only one side when it comes to the most polarizing and contentious question in politics? (And are Bloomberg View columnists permitted to dissent from left-liberal orthodoxy on gun control, or for that matter global warmism?)

Bloomberg has as much right to dictate editorial policy as Guns & Ammo’s owners do. But his ban is more objectionable than theirs. Whereas the latter are asserting a specific point of view in response to the demands of their particular market, the former seeks to marginalize half the population and decree his own extreme point of view to be the “centrist” one.