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Network Jailbreak

Has America become a police state? 

Just read these ominous words spoken by Brian Williams of NBC Nightly News Feb. 28: “Back in this country, a shocking new number released today and it deserves our undivided attention. One out of every 100 Americans is behind bars, locked up in prison or in jail.”

ABC, NBC and CBS all covered the newly released study by the Pew Center on the States, “One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008.” The Pew report finds that the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. 

All three networks parroted one or more of the liberal think tank's major themes: disparaging comparisons to other countries, higher rates of imprisonment for minorities, and prison spending growing faster than education spending.  Nobody questioned any aspect of the Pew report, and only NBC devoted even a sentence to a defense of America's high rate of imprisonment.

Katie Couric of CBS Evening News seized on spending in her brief, handwringing anchor read: “A report out today says more Americans than ever are behind bars. About one in every 100 adults is in jail or prison, and at a high cost. States are spending nearly 50 billion dollars a year on corrections, up from about 11 billion dollars 20 years ago, an increase of 127 percent [adjusted for inflation]. Over the same period, state spending on higher education increased just 21 percent [adjusted for inflation].”

Couric never explained what higher education spending has to do with corrections spending.  Is Couric suggesting that the U.S. values putting people in prison more than educating them?  Note to Katie: maintaining order and punishing criminals are tasks that only government can perform.  Education is not.

In his own brief anchor read, ABC's Charlie Gibson (World News Tonight) chose to focus on race/class/gender: “The country's surging prison population has reached a milestone. For the first time, more than one in every 100 American adults is behind bars. With 2.3 million adults locked up, a report today shows, 1 in every 99 adults is in prison. For Hispanics, it's 1 in 36. And among African-Americans, the number is 1 in every 15 adults.”

Gibson never explained why different ethnic groups have different incarceration rates.  Might some groups commit more crimes than others?  Or is America simply a racist nation?

NBC devoted more than two minutes to the story, with justice correspondent Pete Williams saying “The U.S. is the world's clear incarceration leader with a bigger prison population than even China or Russia which rank second and third.”  While he also touched on race/class/gender and burgeoning corrections spending, Williams's principal theme was attacking America's popular “tough sentencing laws.”  Williams interviewed an expert from the liberal Sentencing Project who criticized stricter standards for parole.  He also played a clip of Governor Steve Beshear (D-Ky.) pointing out that Kentucky's crime rate had increased just 3 percent, but the state's incarceration rate had increased 600 percent.

How much higher would Kentucky's crime rate have risen if the state hadn't locked up so many of its criminals?

Williams devoted just fifteen words to opposing points of view: “Advocates of tough sentencing, though, say it is one reason for the low crime rate.”  He might have interviewed sociologist James Q. Wilson, author of the “broken windows” theory, which holds that punishing minor crimes deters major crimes.   According to the Feb. 29 Washington Post,Wilson disagreed that the rise in the U.S. prison population should be considered a cause for alarm: 'The fact that we have a large prison population by itself is not a central problem because it has contributed to the extraordinary increase in public safety we have had in this country.'”

Brian Fitzpatrick is senior editor of the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.