Media milestone: NBC viewers learn about Fast & Furious for the first time

Tuesday night must have been a terrible shock for loyal viewers of NBC News, because they just learned about Operation Fast and Furious for the very first time.  That’s right – according to Mary Chastain at, “In the eighteen months since the Operation Fast & Furious investigation began, Brian Williams and NBC Nightly News have never mentioned the Department of Justice’s gunwalking controversy.  Every single time Mr. Holder has testified or a major development happened, NBC Nightly News ignored it.”

Even at that, NBC was careful to create a misleading impression of Holder’s combative appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee.  “While the majority of the testimony covered Operation Fast & Furious, NBC made it appear that the hearing was mainly over the national security leaks.  The segment even made it appear that Senator John Cornyn called for Mr. Holder to resign over said leaks when, in fact, he expressed his greatest frustration with Mr. Holder over Fast & Furious,” writes Chastain.

The poorly informed viewers of NBC got 30 seconds of chatter about Fast and Furious, including ten seconds explaining what it was.   After spending a minute talking about the national security leaks emanating from somewhere within the Administration, and the Republicans’ lack of confidence that Holder’s Justice Department can be trusted to investigate them, NBC continued: “Another controversy?  Republicans claim Holder has misled, and refused to cooperate with Congress’ investigation of a failed operation that sent U.S. guns into Mexico.  Code name: Fast and Furious.”

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That’s it.  That is the sum total of an NBC viewer’s knowledge of the biggest scandal ever to hit Washington, a deadly disaster that killed over 300 Mexicans – something the Mexican government is entirely justified in considering an act of war.  U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was also killed, but NBC viewers remain totally in the dark about his connection to Fast and Furious.

NBC also saw fit to mention that Holder might be able to get Congress off his back by providing “more documents” pertaining to Fast and Furious, but did not think its viewers needed to know that Holder is defying lawful subpoenas, and has refused to hand over 130,000 documents thus far.

This is an excellent demonstration of why Fast and Furious hasn’t boiled over into widespread national outrage.  There’s no “drumbeat,” no wall-to-wall coverage putting the scandal into the atmosphere around water coolers across America.  Because the story is so incredible – I didn’t really believe it the first time I heard rumors about it, right after Agent Terry was murdered – people who hear casual references to the Fast and Furious outrage are inclined to dismiss it as a paranoid fantasy or exaggeration.  If the U.S. government really created a stack of corpses by pushing guns into the hands of Mexican drug cartel killers, and a thousand guns were still unaccounted for, that would be all over the news, right?

Compare this with the way something like Iran-Contra was treated.  Saturation coverage created an impression among casual news consumers that was far more powerful than their detailed knowledge of the actual events.  To this day, people who are too young to remember Iran-Contra will tell you it was outrageous, without actually knowing what happened.

That’s why the upcoming battle over citing Attorney General Holder for contempt of Congress is important.  News outlets that have barely mentioned Fast and Furious, or ignored it completely, will be obliged to report on it.  They won’t be able to tuck it safely behind another issue, as NBC News did.  If Holder is successfully cited for contempt, the media system shock will be even more pronounced.

Not everyone in the mainstream press has been ignoring Operation Fast and Furious, however.  Sharyl Attkisson of CBS News just won the Edward R. Murrow Award for Investigative Reporting, for her landmark “Gunwalker” report.  NBC News viewers must find this award very puzzling.