The Media vs. The
War on Terror
How ABC, CBS, and NBC Attack
Tactics as Dangerous, Abusive and Illegal
By Rich Noyes, MRC
September 11, 2006
Executive Summary |
In the five years since
al-Qaeda terrorists killed nearly 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001,
both international critics and domestic groups such as the American Civil
Liberties Union have suggested that the American government’s tactics in the
War on Terror are as frightening as terrorism itself. These mostly liberal
critics portray the Bush administration as trampling on the civil rights of
ordinary Americans, abusing the human rights of captured terrorists and
acting without regard to the rule of law.
Most conservatives and everyday Americans see it differently. They regard the
terrorists themselves as the most dire threat and expect the entire government —
the Bush administration, the Congress, the courts, the military, and law
enforcement — to use every available means to capture or kill the terrorists and
prevent another attack on the U.S. homeland. Recalling previous wars in American
history, they do not consider the steps taken thus far in the War on Terror to
be injurious to American democracy or the rule of law — but fear that the
continual criticism of the government’s tactics will breed a mindset of timidity
and doubt at a time when circumstances demand clarity, toughness and resolve.
Unfortunately, the broadcast networks have used liberals’ Bush-bashing spin
as the starting point for much of their coverage of the War on Terror. An
analysis by the Media Research Center found network reporters often presumed the
worst about the U.S. government’s anti-terror efforts, and permitted their
coverage to be driven by the agenda of leftist groups such as the ACLU and the
Center for Constitutional Rights. While some on the Left have claimed the media
were enthusiastic boosters of the Bush administration in the days after 9/11,
our analysts found that network reporters began to question the idea of a
vigorous War on Terror within days of the attacks.
"As a result," Jennings wondered, "do you believe that civil liberties have
effectively been suspended in the country?"
This view of an out-of-control government became the standard media template
in the ensuing five years. In coverage of the USA Patriot Act, a law designed to
give federal law enforcement added tools to investigate and thwart the
activities of terrorists inside the U.S., the media cast it as unconstitutional
snooping into the lives of ordinary Americans. After the U.S. military moved
several hundred al-Qaeda and Taliban prisoners to a prison facility in
Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the networks repeatedly broadcast unverified claims that
the detainees had been tortured, and touted a campaign to give those captured on
a foreign battlefield access to U.S. civilian courts. And after the New York
Times revealed the National Security Agency (NSA) was monitoring
international calls to and from the U.S. involving terrorist suspects, the
networks skewed their coverage in favor of critics who painted the surveillance
as an unwarranted breach of Americans’ civil liberties.
come from the Media Research Center’s analysis of 496 stories about the War on
Terror that aired on the ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts from September 11,
2001 through August 31, 2006. Analysts examined all stories about three main
topics in the media’s coverage of the War on Terror: the Patriot Act, which was
the focus of 91 stories, the first of which appeared just a few days after the
terrorist attacks; the Guantanamo Bay prison, which was discussed in 277 stories
beginning just before the first prisoners arrived in January 2002; and the NSA’s
surveillance program, which was not known before the New York Times
published details on December 16, 2005, but has since been featured in 128
network TV stories.
USA Patriot Act: Targeting Suspected Terrorists or Everyday Americans?
Weeks before it was signed into law, the broadcast networks painted the USA
Patriot Act as a threat to the civil liberties of ordinary Americans.
Interestingly, no network evening newscast contained either "Patriot Act" or
"USA Patriot Act" — the latter an acronym for the law’s official name, the
"Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to
Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001" — until months after it was
enacted. Instead, reporters covering the congressional debate over the Patriot
Act adopted less boosterish terminology, as CBS’s Bob Schieffer did on October
2, 2001, when he blandly described "a wide-ranging plan to strengthen the
Contrary to the myth that reporters were little more than cheerleaders for
the Bush administration during those first weeks after 9/11, all three evening
newscasts aired complaints about the Patriot Act. On September 17, 2001, the day
Attorney General John Ashcroft sent his proposal to Congress, ABC reporter
Pierre Thomas was ready with a soundbite from a critic. "Civil libertarians
worry that constitutional rights may be jeopardized," Thomas intoned, before
quoting David Cole, identified on-screen as a professor with the Georgetown
University Law Center.
"What history shows us is that we have responded in times of fear by
overreacting, by giving the government too much power," Cole claimed. Before
becoming a member of Georgetown’s faculty, Cole worked for the far-left Center
for Constitutional Rights, where he continues to serve as a volunteer attorney.
Cole also regularly writes a column for the far-left magazine The Nation,
where he has vociferously attacked the Bush administration’s policies. Yet in
the eight times ABC’s World News Tonight presented Cole to comment on
various aspects of the War on Terror, they merely labeled him as a
"constitutional scholar" or "civil libertarian," never once calling him a
The other networks also emphasized critics. On the October 6, 2001 NBC
Nightly News, reporter Dan Abrams insisted that "while most of the Attorney
General’s proposals will likely be adopted, the debate has led many to
re-examine portions of the Constitution, a document designed to protect even the
most unpopular people and ideas." He ran a soundbite from the ACLU’s Nadine
Strossen suggesting that the law would be a threat not just to aspiring
terrorists, but everybody: "We have real concern that Americans not be panicked
into too quickly giving up precious freedoms."
Ms. Sotirelis was celebrated for "quietly leading a charge against the U.S.
Justice Department." Rather than cooperate with a possible request from the FBI
for records pertaining to a valid terrorism investigation, Cowan saluted how
some libraries were taking "drastic measures, shredding all their check-out
records." He fawningly asked Sotirelis, "Do you feel like you’re on the front
lines of defending democracy?" She replied, "In a way, yes. But librarians
On October 4, 2004, the CBS Evening News promised a story explaining
where candidates George W. Bush and John Kerry stood on the Patriot Act. But
reporter Wyatt Andrews spent most of his time on the story of a woman who
objected when the FBI asked her for records on Iraqi refugees. "Mary Lieberman
saw exactly how the Patriot Act might be abused when she was the director of a
church-based group in Knoxville helping Iraqi refugees," Andrews began. "Under
the Patriot Act, the FBI has broad powers to go after terrorists, but Lieberman
says she felt a chill for Americans."
"It just felt
like this overbroad fishing expedition," Lieberman told CBS. After explaining
that President Bush wanted to keep the law as is, while Kerry was in favor of
letting some parts of it expire, Andrews returned to his "Big Brother" theme:
"What frightens Mary Lieberman is the secrecy the FBI has under the Patriot Act.
When agents want personal records for a certain time, the person being
investigated cannot be told."
"I was really scared, not just for these clients, but just for my country,"
Lieberman professed. After that, were audiences supposed to agree with Bush or
Out of 91 stories on the Patriot Act, only five noted that there have been no
violations of civil liberties in the years since the law was enacted. Citing a
Justice Department memo on the September 18, 2003 World News Tonight,
Peter Jennings revealed that "the FBI has never used a provision of the law
which gives it more power to obtain business records, including credit card
statements and even library records, in terrorism investigations." So much for
the "revolutionary" librarian "leading a charge" against the FBI.
And only NBC’s Pete Williams on September 10, 2003, told viewers that some of
the supposedly controversial elements of the Patriot Act — including the
provision for "delayed notification," where a warrant can be executed to search
a home or business and the subject only told about it after the fact — were
already legally-approved techniques for anti-drug and mob cases prior to the
Patriot Act becoming law.
All of the
networks favored experts, mostly lawyers or law professors, who disapproved of
the Patriot Act. Of 23 soundbites from experts, 61 percent faulted the law as a
threat to privacy rights. ABC’s John Cochran on August 23, 2003 highlighted the
opposition from conservatives, including Larry Pratt, Executive Director of the
Gun Owners of America. "This is an amazingly dictatorial, totalitarian bill,"
Pratt told ABC. "The Attorney General should be ashamed of himself. We’re
fighting terrorism, not the American Constitution."
In the last five years, a Nexis search shows that ABC’s World News Tonight
(World News with Charles Gibson since July) has not given Pratt, who
is primarily an advocate for gun owners, an opportunity to talk about citizens’
right to own firearms or his opposition to gun control.
Of the minority of experts (39%) who praised the Patriot Act on-air, most
called it an effective tool for law enforcement. ABC’s Pierre Thomas filed an
unusually positive story on December 21, 2005, with two former FBI officials
warning of the dangers if the law, whose renewal was then being debated in
Congress, was allowed to lapse.
If the Patriot Act lapsed, "it would be more difficult for intelligence
agents and law enforcement to share information about terrorism suspects without
a court order," Thomas explained, summarizing the views of experts.
Additionally, "FBI agents would lose authority to wiretap every telephone a
terrorism suspect may use, and would have to get a warrant every time a suspect
Thomas then ran a soundbite from former FBI agent Chris Kerr, upset at the
delay in the Patriot Act’s renewal: "Congress is appearing to give far more
protection to terrorists and threats to the American people than small-time drug
Of the 19
ordinary citizens who made it onto the network evening newscasts, all of them
were critics like the librarian and charity worker cited above, even though the
networks’ own polls showed that the public largely approved of the Patriot Act.
On-air stories acknowledging the public’s backing of the Patriot Act were few
and far between. Back on June 9, 2005, ABC anchor Elizabeth Vargas briefly noted
that "a new ABC News/Washington Post poll shows that almost 60 percent of
Americans favor extending the act."
For the July 6, 2003 Evening News, CBS’s Jerry Bowen reported on a
town where an ex-hippie city councilman had pushed through a resolution "that
fines city officials who voluntarily cooperate with federal investigators."
Wrapping up the story, which only included comments from those against the
Patriot Act, Bowen admitted the law’s critics were outnumbered, but tried to
drape them in the cloak of patriotism: "The act is part of the law of the land,
with the vast majority of Americans who support it and the vocal minority who
criticize it both claiming to be patriots in the post 9/11 world."
Only one story, a May 20, 2002 Nightly News report by David Gregory,
suggested that the Patriot Act might be insufficient to combat the actual threat
posed by an enemy like al-Qaeda. Gregory recounted: "Congress passed the
so-called Patriot Act, which gives law enforcement better tools, like the
authority to conduct roving telephone wiretaps to more easily follow suspected
terrorists from city to city. Still, officials warn, it may not be
enough....Critics argue the improvements are dangerously overstated."
If the networks had wished to accurately reflect public opinion, their
coverage would have included more citizens who support the Patriot Act. But by
handing the microphone only to those who charged the Patriot Act was an
unwarranted invasion of privacy, reporters showed they were more interested in
manipulating public opinion than reflecting it.
Guantanamo Bay: Presenting al-Qaeda Prisoners As the Real Victims
military reaction to the terrorism of 9/11 were attacks on al-Qaeda facilities
in Afghanistan and on the extremist Taliban government that hosted Osama bin
Laden’s terrorist network. Within weeks, the Taliban had fled and a new,
pro-American leader had been installed in Kabul, and the U.S. had hundreds of
al-Qaeda and Taliban prisoners who could potentially provide valuable
intelligence about the enemy. On January 10, 2002, less than four months after
September 11, military police began transferring captured enemy combatants to a
newly-established prison facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
For most of 2002, the networks covered Guantanamo as a military story,
largely focusing on the preparations and security measures. Network reporters
frequently stressed the danger posed by the new inmates. On the night the first
plane of prisoners left Afghanistan, CBS’s Lee Cowan reminded viewers: "The last
time this many detainees were together in one place, it was a disaster. In
November, hundreds of al-Qaeda and Taliban members turned on their captors at a
prison in the northern city of Mazer-e Sharif, the same uprising that killed CIA
operative Mike Spann, the first combat casualty of the war in Afghanistan."
After 2002, however, the networks shifted their coverage away from the
challenge the detainees presented to their military guards. Just 39 stories
mentioned the dangers posed by the Guantanamo prisoners (14% of the total). Far
more stories focused on charges that the captured al-Qaeda terrorists were due
additional rights or privileges (100 stories, or 36%) or allegations that
detainees were being mistreated or abused (105 stories, or 38%). (Some stories
included more than one topic.)
The networks passed along unverified complaints of prisoner mistreatment,
casting the American jailors as the real bad guys. Ten months after the prison
opened, ABC’s Peter Jennings introduced a story about "one of the first and only
prisoners released from the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay." This was
important, Jennings insisted, because "human rights organizations have
complained the U.S. is violating the prisoners’ rights and acting without regard
for international law."
Reporter Bob Woodruff narrated the November 19, 2002 segment about the
released prisoner, Mohammed Sagheer who, Woodruff related, "says he had only
gone to Afghanistan last year as part of an Islamic teaching group. But swept up
in the chaos of the war, he was handed over to the U.S. and flown to Cuba,
blindfolded and tied." A translator conveyed the man’s anti-American
allegations: "We once gave a call for prayer, and after that, we were punished.
This was a difficult time. They beat us, they hit us on the head, grabbed us by
the neck. Some people were unconscious, and they were taken to the hospital."
was no proof besides the man’s words, Woodruff betrayed no skepticism. He even
passed along the ex-inmate’s fear of air conditioning: "He says those who defied
the rules were placed in solitary confinement — small, air-conditioned cells.
Sagheer, who had never seen air conditioning before, thought it was a kind of
torture." Sagheer, via the translator, filled in the blanks: "There was a small
window in the roof and a light, and they pumped cold air from a hole in the
ceiling. This was the punishment. The air was very cold." ABC provided no
rebuttal to Sagheer’s claims of harsh treatment.
Only six stories pointed out how some of the Guantanamo detainees had
convinced the U.S. they were no threat, only to rejoin al-Qaeda’s fight. On
October 21, 2004, NBC’s Lisa Myers described the hunt for one of Pakistan’s
"most-wanted militants, this man, Abdullah Mehsud, a feared Taliban commander
allegedly tied to al-Qaeda." Myers reported that Mehsud had taken Pakistani and
Chinese hostages, one of whom was killed in a subsequent gun battle.
"The Mehsud story is more than a bit embarrassing for the United States.
Until last March, Mehsud was in prison in Guantanamo Bay," Myers explained,
adding, "some villagers now consider Mehsud a hero because he seems to have
outwitted the Americans, tricked them into releasing him."
The following month, on the November 8, 2004 CBS Evening News, Sheila
MacVicar reported similar boasting by ex-inmates. Discussing the al-Qaeda
fighters launching attacks on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan,
MacVicar revealed that "at least some of those now fighting have been in U.S.
custody elsewhere, including Guantanamo Bay. One has even bragged he duped U.S.
Despite the knowledge that detainees had used deception to win their way back
into battle against the U.S., network reporters exhibited amazingly little
skepticism of their claims of innocence and torment at the hands of their
American captors. On September 12, 2002, referring to the observance of the 9/11
anniversary, ABC’s Jennings oddly observed: "It was a somber day for U.S.
soldiers at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, obviously. But for nearly 600 prisoners, it
was another day. They have no calendars, and nobody told them it was the first
The following year, ABC’s World News Tonight weirdly chose the second
anniversary of the September 11 attacks to offer a sympathetic view of the
prisoners. "There have been 31 suicide attempts to date," reporter Claire
Shipman fretted. "Letters home obtained by ABC News show despair. One Kuwaiti
prisoner writes [that] he wants, quote, ‘to die, as I cannot stand this
place.’...Prison guards have told us that it’s the uncertainty of their fate
that is the worst punishment for prisoners here."
Lawyers for the Guantanamo inmates were frequently invited to make their case
against the Bush administration and the military’s handling of the prisoners.
Anchoring the June 10, 2006 CBS Evening News, Mika Brzezinski interviewed
a lawyer for the prisoners, Joshua Denbeaux. No one from the other side appeared
on CBS, and Brzezinski mainly lobbed softballs, such as, "You were there as
recently as last week. Is the situation getting worse, or is the mentality
changing among the prisoners?"
portrayed the prison as a desperate place. "Four and a half years of
incarceration, most of the time usually solitary incarceration, without any
contact with your loved ones, your family, your friends or the outside world
whatsover, your mentality is changing," he argued. "It’s a miserable place. It’s
the stench of human despair. There is no hope. One of my clients would rather
die than stay there." But a British reporter found two ex-detainees who enjoyed
their stay at Guantanamo Bay. (See text box.)
On a few occasions, prisoners were able to use the networks to get their
anti-American message out. "For the first time today, we heard the voice of a
prisoner from Afghanistan being held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. He yelled out to
a Canadian radio reporter who was on a Pentagon bus tour," ABC’s Peter Jennings
relayed on March 12, 2002. He then played the man’s claims, which were yelled in
broken English: "We are in a hunger strike. We been on a hunger strike for
fourteen days and nobody care. We need the world to know about us. We are
innocent here in this camp. We got no legal rights, nothing. So can somebody
know about us? Can you tell the world about us?"
Eight days later, ABC’s Martha Raddatz filed another report about the prison.
"The only real connection between the outside world and the prisoners: one
voice," she suggested, then ran a portion of the same clip: "We are innocent
here in this camp. We got no legal rights, nothing."
Detainees, their families, and lawyers accounted for 46 evening news
soundbites. Discussing the Guantanamo prisoners, attorney Bill Goodman of the
Center for Constitutional Rights complained on the June 11, 2006 NBC Nightly
News: "These people’s rights are being violated in the grossest way
imaginable, in that they are being held — they have been taken from their
families, they have been taken from their countries, they’ve been drugged, put
on planes, and held without real charges." None of the networks sought out
survivors or family members of those killed on September 11 to lend their voices
to the debate about Guantanamo Bay.
One of the key
arguments of the inmates’ lawyers was that justice and fairness required that
the detainees be granted access to U.S. civilian courts. The networks implicitly
bolstered this claim by focusing far more heavily on the legal issues related to
Guantanamo than the military or security issues related to the detainees. Of the
79 soundbites from independent experts (not including lawyers identified as
working for the detainees or representatives of the government), 65 were from
law professors or other legal experts (82%). Just seven were retired military or
other anti-terrorism or security experts, a nine-to-one disparity.
A few of the legal experts argued that al-Qaeda terrorists operated outside
of the recognized rules of war and had thus sacrificed their rights. The June
15, 2005 CBS Evening News ran a clip of former Attorney General William
Barr at an earlier Senate hearing: "I hear a lot of pontificating about the
Geneva Convention, but I don’t see what the issue is. The Geneva Convention
applies to signatory powers. Al-Qaeda hasn’t signed it. They’re not covered by
the Geneva Convention. Period."
While 13 of the
legal expert talking heads, like Barr, agreed with the Bush administration’s
handling of Guantanamo, nearly three times that number (38) attacked the
legality of the detainees’ treatment. Among all 79 expert talking heads, the
percentage was nearly identical — 19 percent supported the handling of
Guantanamo, 58 percent opposed, with another 23 percent offering neutral
Besides lawyers for the detainees, the networks highlighted international
critics who claimed the U.S. military was abusing the prisoners’ human rights.
On NBC’s Nightly News, June 9, 2006, anchor Brian Williams argued that
"the prison has become symbolic, and it’s considered a problem for the U.S. Very
few know what goes on inside the place they call ‘Gitmo.’ There have been
allegations of torture and abuse of the holy Koran, and prisoners who have been
there for years face an unclear future."
The subsequent report from Pentagon reporter Jim Miklaszewski highlighted a
hostile report from the group Amnesty International: "Opened in January 2002 to
hold al-Qaeda and Taliban prisoners from the war in Afghanistan, Guantanamo has
since become a symbol of prisoner abuse....The heat was turned up recently when
Amnesty International compared Guantanamo, where detainees have no legal rights,
to Soviet concentration camps." He then ran a soundbite from Irene Khan, the
group’s General Secretary: "Guantanamo has become the gulag of our times."
While NBC took Amnesty International’s report as a serious repudiation of
America’s human rights record, even the liberal Washington Post had to
scoff at the group’s claim of an American "gulag." In a May 26, 2005 editorial,
the Post declared: "It’s always sad when a solid, trustworthy institution
loses its bearings and joins in the partisan fracas that nowadays passes for
political discourse....Turning a report on prisoner detention into another
excuse for Bush-bashing or America-bashing undermines Amnesty’s legitimate
criticisms of U.S. policies and weakens the force of its investigations of
prison systems in closed societies."
On the February 16, 2006 CBS Evening News, anchor Bob Schieffer
suggested a report by the United Nations was another damning indictment: "Today,
United Nations investigators leveled the most withering criticism yet of the
U.S. prison for terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The UN
Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, said eventually the United States should just
shut it down."
Reporter David Martin quoted from the report: "Inmates are held under
conditions that violate international law and are subjected to interrogation
techniques that, quote, ‘amount to torture.’" Only later in Martin’s story did
the U.S. get to respond, in a pair of soundbites from White House Press
Secretary Scott McClellan: "The UN team that was looking into this issue did not
even visit Guantanamo Bay. They did not go down and see the facilities." Martin
then returned to Kofi Annan demanding that the prisoners be either charged with
a crime or released.
Three days before Martin’s story aired, NBC’s Lisa Myers covered the same
story, but was noticeably more skeptical of the UN accusers. Like Martin, she
cited the report’s anti-American conclusions and noted that the investigators
had not visited the prison. Unlike Martin, she introduced a soundbite from
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham: "A senator who once criticized abuses at
Gitmo says there have been significant reforms." Senator Graham had nothing but
praise for the U.S. military’s effort: "Our treatment of detainees is a model
for running a military prison."
Then Myers ran a soundbite from an NBC military expert, retired General Barry
McCaffrey, who argued that the inmates are exactly where they belong: "Many of
them are extremely dangerous people. More than a dozen that we’ve released
already have gone back to attacking U.S. forces."
And Myers herself concluded with a jab at the UN’s record on human rights:
"This report now must be considered by the UN Commission on Human Rights, which
critics say has a questionable track record. They know that three years ago, the
commission was chaired by Libya, long accused of abusing human rights."
While the networks ran numerous stories recounting the supposed maltreatment
of the detainees at the hands of their American guards, none of the networks
bothered to mention news that there have been "hundreds" of instances when the
detainees attacked U.S. military guards, using everything from rocks, utensils
and even a bloody lizard tail.
Legal Foundation used the Freedom of Information Act to get the Pentagon to
release hundreds of incident reports, which were summarized by the AP’s John
Solomon in a July 31 dispatch (see text box).
"Lawyers for the detainees have done a great job painting their clients as
innocent victims of U.S. abuse when the fact is that these detainees, as a
group, are barbaric and extremely dangerous," Landmark President Mark Levin told
the Associated Press. "They are using their terrorist training on the
battlefield to abuse our guards and manipulate our Congress and our court
It is unfortunate that the networks gave no airtime to the Pentagon reports
made public by Landmark’s efforts. It would have added some balance to five
years of coverage that was too often tilted in favor of those who would paint
the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay as the victims of the War on Terror, not among
The NSA Surveillance Program: "Big Brother" Strikes Again
three broadcast networks jumped on the December 16, 2005 revelations in the
New York Times that the National Security Agency (NSA) had been monitoring
suspicious phone calls and e-mails to and from the United States. That night,
ABC’s World News Tonight began their broadcast with the words "Big
Brother" beside a picture of President Bush; anchor Bob Woodruff teased, "Big
Brother, the uproar over a secret presidential order giving the government
unprecedented powers to spy on Americans."
CBS anchor Bob Schieffer began the Evening News by presenting the
President as tilting toward criminality: "It is against the law to wiretap or
eavesdrop on the conversations of Americans in this country without a warrant
from a judge, but the New York Times says that is exactly what the
President secretly ordered the National Security Agency to do in the months
The NSA program that the Times disclosed is aimed at uncovering plots
similar to 9/11, where terrorist operatives were present in the United States
weeks and months before the actual attack. The program only focused on calls in
which one party was outside the U.S. As General Michael Hayden, director of the
NSA when the program began, explained at a January 23 National Press Club
speech: "This is hot pursuit of communications entering or leaving America
involving someone we believe is associated with al-Qaeda."
The networks were far less interested in the program’s value to disrupting
potential terror plots than stressing the hypothetical dangers to Americans’
privacy. Most stories stressed topics that troubled liberals: the potential for
violating Americans’ civil liberties (64 stories, or 50% of the total) and
questions about whether the President had exceeded his constitutional powers
(38, or 30%). Relatively few stories (21, or 16%) discussed the value of the
surveillance program in the overall War on Terror.
the program, reporters presented it as affecting nearly everybody. ABC’s Dan
Harris began the December 24, 2005 World News Tonight by hyping how "the
spying was much more widespread, with millions of calls and e-mails tracked —
perhaps even yours." When they described the program, reporters most often said
it targeted "Americans" or "U.S. citizens" (phrasing used 82 times, or 37% of
all descriptions), or used terms such as "domestic" or "communications inside
the U.S." (113 times, or 50% of all descriptions).
Much more rarely, reporters explained that the NSA’s goal was to monitor
terrorists (11 descriptions, or 5% of the total) or those suspected of being in
league with potential terrorists (18, or 8%). For example, NBC’s Pete Williams
described monitoring "suspected al-Qaeda members" on the December 29, 2005
Nightly News, while over on CBS on February 2, 2006, reporter David Martin
similarly described the NSA’s targets as "suspected al-Qaeda operatives inside
The network coverage, particularly during the first few days, portrayed the
NSA revelations as a Bush administration scandal. In the seven days after the
New York Times revealed its existence, the three networks ran a combined 23
stories about the NSA program, more than one story per night. Reporters
portrayed the program as evidence of transgression, not an effort at protection.
"Tonight, President Bush [is]...under fire for authorizing the National Security
Agency to spy on Americans," CBS’s John Roberts claimed on the December 18, 2005
"The revelations about spying have overshadowed the President’s recent
efforts to explain his Iraq strategy," ABC’s Martha Raddatz asserted on the
December 19, 2005 World News Tonight, leaving aside the fact that it was
the media who opted to focus on the NSA program and thus "overshadow" the other
news. "You can expect the White House to continue to try and get the message out
about Iraq," Raddatz told anchor Elizabeth Vargas, "but this spying story is not
Most (59%) of the networks’ NSA stories cast the program as either legally
dubious or outright illegal. On the December 19, 2005 World News Tonight,
ABC’s Pierre Thomas cast the President as acting unlawfully: "The Constitution
grants the President the powers of Commander-in-Chief, but scholars argue it
says nothing about unbridled presidential power to eavesdrop."
That same night, CBS’s John Roberts noted, "President Bush insists both the
Constitution and congressional authorization for the war on terror give him the
power to circumvent the courts when eavesdropping on suspected terrorists, and
he is determined to keep doing that. But many legal scholars believe the program
is utterly and completely illegal." Roberts then quoted the ubiquitous
Georgetown law professor David Cole, who again was not identified as a liberal.
"I think their opinion is ludicrous," Cole told CBS.
independent experts cited in NSA stories were as lopsided as those found in the
networks’ coverage of the Patriot Act and Guantanamo Bay. More than half (55%)
echoed Cole, arguing against either the ethics or legality of the NSA program,
compared with just 11 percent who defended the program. (The remaining 34%
conveyed neutral information.)
The NBC Nightly News was the most balanced, airing six soundbites from
pro-NSA experts, including two clips from federal judge Richard Posner arguing
the surveillance was constitutionally reasonable. Nevertheless, NBC’s experts
still tilted three-to-one against the NSA program. ABC ran just two soundbites
from pro-NSA experts, compared to 13 that faulted the program, while the CBS
Evening News failed to show any pro-NSA experts.
story entered a new phase on May 11, 2006, after USA Today ran a lengthy
front-page story claiming three major phone companies had supposedly turned over
huge volumes of customer billing records so that the NSA could construct a
computerized database to track which numbers a terrorist suspect might be
calling. As with the New York Times revelations in December, all of the
broadcast networks led their evening newscasts with the story, portrayed it as a
scandal for the administration, and again suggested that ordinary Americans were
"Does the government need to know who you’ve been talking to on the phone?"
CBS anchor Bob Schieffer asked on the May 11 Evening News. "Then why is
it collecting millions of our phone records?" CBS’s on-screen graphic read "Your
ABC anchor Elizabeth Vargas suggested the disclosures should make Americans
doubt the War on Terror: "We begin with a revelation that may change the way
Americans think about phone calls and about the war on terrorism. Today we
learned that since the attacks of September 11, the government has been
collecting tens of millions of phone records. This includes phone calls to and
from citizens who are not suspects in any crimes."
NBC’s Brian Williams highlighted the "outrage" at the NSA database: "Just
hours after critics started to roar in outrage, by mid-day the President himself
felt the need to defend his government’s policy."
next five days, ABC, CBS, and NBC ran 17 stories on the database aspect of the
NSA’s surveillance program. ABC actually aired the least coverage,
cutting back after the network’s own polling found strong support for the
program. On the May 12, 2006 World News Tonight, anchor Elizabeth Vargas
explained, "An ABC News/ Washington Post poll finds that Americans
overwhelmingly support the surveillance of phone records as a way to protect
them against a potential terrorist strike. They’re in favor of it by a margin of
nearly two to one."
ABC’s chief Washington correspondent George Stephanopoulos told Vargas that
the results were astounding: "When I was speaking to opponents of the program
today, they were really surprised that more Americans didn’t share their
outrage. But our poll shows that two-thirds of Americans [66%] wouldn’t be
bothered even if the NSA was collecting their own phone records. And it also
shows that a majority of Americans, 51 percent [versus 47%], think that
President Bush has done a good job of protecting privacy rights over these four
After all the sound and fury, USA Today eventually confessed in a June
30 "Note to Readers" that they "cannot confirm that BellSouth or Verizon
contracted with the NSA to provide bulk calling records to that database." (See
text box.) While all three networks touted the paper’s May 11 front-page story,
none bothered to note how the newspaper had to backpedal on a key fact.
While the networks presented the actual NSA program as of dubious legality,
they had almost nothing to say about the legality of the leaks to the New
York Times and USA Today that exposed the classified information.
Just five network stories (4%) focused on the potential illegality of the leaks
to the media, or the decisions of the two newspapers to publish government
Indeed, when network reporters mentioned the leak investigations, they
portrayed it as part of an attack on the news media. "A federal probe of a
New York Times report threatens to further chill the President’s
relationship with the news media," CBS’s Joie Chen argued on the December 31,
2005 Evening News.
In contrast to the skeptical approach CBS took with the NSA program, Chen
sought an expert to assure viewers that the media were on solid ground. "Some
legal experts question whether the leakers did anything wrong," she suggested,
followed by a soundbite from attorney Floyd Abrams, who often argues on behalf
of news media clients: "I think it is patriotic at the end of the day to expose
potential wrongdoing, even if it’s by our own government."
Chen asserted: "The Justice Department probe is already raising hackles with
critics, who charge the administration is just following its usual strategy,
that is, ‘attack the messenger.’ In addition, there’s some concern that going
after and trying to expose whistleblowers and reporters they tell stories to is
actually going to keep others from coming forward."
Apparently, the possible illegality of divulging government secrets to the
New York Times does not trouble network reporters. But those same
journalists seem to regard the government’s monitoring of overseas phone calls
involving potentially dangerous terrorists as a great threat to the public —
greater, presumably, than the danger posed by damaging the government’s
anti-terrorism efforts by disclosing them to the world.
Conclusion: It’s Not the Criticism, It’s the Biased Agenda
Network reporters know well that they have great influence over the daily
dynamic of national politics. That’s not to suggest a dark conspiracy, but to
recognize a fact. The questions that reporters ask government spokesmen in
briefings, or ask themselves in editorial meetings, suggest the topics for that
night’s evening newscast, or the next morning’s newspapers. Once published, news
stories evoke reactions from both politicians and the public, reactions which
can — if reporters are still interested — keep the cycle alive for another 24
Journalists can be more influential than any government official in setting
the political agenda. Reporters recognize this when they congratulate themselves
for performing their "watchdog" function, forcing issues into the public
discussion when politicians or officeholders would prefer otherwise.
As it relates to the War on Terror, the networks have certainly not shrunk
from their role as watchdogs, as their newscasts frequently highlighted critics
of the U.S. government’s terror-fighting tactics, criticism which reporters
themselves have sometimes joined. But as this report has demonstrated, the
agenda of that criticism has been dominated by the complaints of liberals and
civil libertarians who argue that the government has been too heavy-handed.
Pointing out that TV’s news agenda is biased is not the same as suggesting
that network reporters must not criticize the President or government during
wartime. But when the networks favor critics of a certain ideological flavor,
that bias will inevitably tug the public debate in the direction of those
critics. In coverage of the Patriot Act, the Guantanamo Bay prison, and the NSA
surveillance program, the networks all highlighted critics who argued that the
government’s tactics went too far. Indeed, many civil libertarians have
complaints about the government’s anti-terror tactics. It’s fair enough to
include that point of view in the coverage.
But there is also a broad swath of Americans, as the polls cited in this
report indicate, whose primary concern is not that the pre-9/11 concept of civil
liberties are perfectly preserved, but rather that the War on Terror is fought
effectively and successfully. An impartial news media would spend at least as
much time confronting government officials about whether domestic law
enforcement or the military and intelligence services abroad were using all of
the available tools to disrupt dangerous terrorist networks and prevent another
attack on the homeland.
This report found some possible avenues for reporters to explore. A handful
of network stories mentioned that inmates who had been released from the
Guantanamo Bay prison had resumed committing acts of terrorism, even boasting
about how they had duped the U.S. military. Reporters could challenge government
officials about whether their process for evaluating the detainees was too
lenient, and ask what steps would be taken to ensure that any inmates released
in the future would not pose a danger. That’s at least as important as exploring
whether inmates deserve a chance to make their case in a U.S. civilian court.
When its role in the War on Terror was mentioned in news stories (which
wasn’t often), the NSA’s terrorist surveillance program was portrayed as a
crucial method of detecting future threats. But the great majority of network
coverage focused on complaints it violated everyday citizens’ right to privacy,
and perhaps exceeded the President’s constitutional authority. Yet none of the
networks made much of an effort to inform viewers of the progress of
congressional action aimed at resolving those constitutional and civil liberties
questions so that the NSA could continue to keep tabs on suspected terrorists.
Since the networks spent so much airtime on charges that the NSA program was
flawed, wouldn’t it be equally important to hold Congress accountable for
finding a way to ensure that the program remained in America’s terror-fighting
The debate is not about whether reporters can challenge a president and his
policies during a time of war. Of course they can. But the networks have chosen
to highlight the complaints of those who paint the Bush administration as a
danger equal to or greater than the terrorists themselves. Reporters could have
spent the past five years challenging the administration with an agenda most
Americans share, demanding that the government do everything within its lawful
powers to protect the public and prevent another attack. Instead, liberal
reporters have opted to join the ACLU in fretting that the War on Terror has
already gone too far.
The Media Research Center325 South Patrick Street •
Alexandria, Virginia, 22314
(703) 683-9733 • www.mediaresearch.org
L. Brent Bozell III, President
Brent H. Baker, Vice President for Research and Publications
Richard Noyes, Research Director • Tim Graham, Director of Media
Michael Chapman, Director of Communications
Geoff Dickens, Brad Wilmouth, Megan McCormack,
Michael Rule, Scott Whitlock and Justin McCarthy, News Division Analysts
Michelle Humphrey, Research Associate
Karen Hanna, Media Archivist • Kristine Looney, Assistant Media
Michael Gibbons, MRC Webmaster
The Media Research Center
325 South Patrick Street • Alexandria, Virginia, 22314
(703) 683-9733 • www.mediaresearch.org
an interview with an MRC Spokesman, please contact Tim Scheiderer at (703)
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