2. Hyping "Big Brother" Bombshell: AM TV Jumps on Stale NSA Story
3. "Wisdom" from Cafferty: Specter Blocking Bush "Dictatorship"
4. ABC Catches Up, Looks at Tax Cuts Through Liberal Prism
5. Top Ten Left Wing Scenes on NBC's The West Wing: Videos Online
Matching the agenda of the morning shows, Thursday's network evening newscasts led with USA Today's front page story, "NSA has massive database of Americans' phone calls," with none noting how the New York Times reported the same information back on December 24. Unlike CBS, however, both ABC and NBC at least pointed out how many Members of Congress were aware of how Verizon, AT&T and Bell South were providing the NSA with the numbers called by their customers, but didn't complain. Didn't complain, that is, until the news media decided to make it a big issue on which they could rail, thus providing the news media with material for further coverage.
For the May 11 front page USA Today article: www.usatoday.com
CBS anchor Bob Schieffer demanded: "Does the government need to know who you've been talking to on the phone? Then why is it collecting millions of our phone records?" Schieffer led with how the phone companies "have been turning over the telephone records of tens of millions of their customers to a government spy agency. The overriding question is why and who has access to them. And it set off a storm on Capitol Hill where Republicans and Democrats alike are demanding answers." Well, one liberal Republican, Senator Arlen Specter, who Schieffer interviewed. ABC's Elizabeth Vargas announced: "We begin with a revelation that may change the way Americans think about phone calls" because "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."
On World News Tonight, ABC's George Stephanopoulos pointed out: "Core members of both the Senate and House intelligence committee were fully brief on this, including the details of the program described in USA Today. And one source in the Senate says that no Senator raised any legal objections to the program."
Over on the NBC Nightly News, Lisa Myers was even more direct and named names: "House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi pounced on the headline even though she had been briefed long ago." Myers concluded her piece on reaction to the story: "One intelligence source tells NBC News that two dozen members of Congress have known about this program for years and have been completely uninterested until today."
[This item was posted Thursday night on the MRC's blog, NewsBusters.org: newsbusters.org ]
For a rundown of the hyperbolic Thursday morning show coverage by the broadcast networks, see item #2 below which includes an excerpt from the December 24 New York Times story which reported the same thing.
On Thursday night, ABC, CBS and NBC all led with multiple stories on the NSA collecting records of phone numbers dialed. The MRC's Brad Wilmouth took down how the networks opened their newscasts and I caught a few more noteworthy sentences from the May 11 programs:
# CBS Evening News. Bob Schieffer, in opening teaser: "I'm Bob Schieffer. Does the government need to know who you've been talking to on the phone? Then why is it collecting millions of our phone records? We'll start there, but those questions lead to this question:"
With "Your Phone Records" as the on-screen graphic, Schieffer began: "Good evening. The newspaper USA Today broke the story. Three of the biggest telephone companies -- AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth -- have been turning over the telephone records of tens of millions of their customers to a government spy agency. The overriding question is why and who has access to them. And it set off a storm on Capitol Hill where Republicans and Democrats alike are demanding answers. The President wouldn't comment on the program, but he said everything the government is doing is legal. So we go first to the White House and Jim Axelrod. Jim?"
Axelrod ran soundbites from "outraged Senators," and Bob Schieffer cued up Senator Specter from Capitol Hill to say why he's upset and to recite the questions he wants to ask the phone companies, yet neither bothered to inform CBS viewers of how the House and Senate leadership, as well as those on the intelligence committees, had long ago been made aware of the program. Following Schieffer's session with Specter, Anthony Mason looked at how the law compelled the phone companies to cooperate.
Following Ross, Vargas turned to Martha Raddatz and George Stephanopoulos in Washington, DC. Vargas set up Stephanopoulos:
Lisa Myers began her story: "Even though key members of Congress had been briefed on this secret program, there was a firestorm today on Capitol Hill. Members of both parties demanded information..."
Myers later observed: "House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi pounced on the headline even though she had been briefed long ago."
Myers subsequently concluded: "One intelligence source tells NBC News that two dozen members of Congress have known about this program for years and have been completely uninterested until today."
After Myers, Andrea Mitchell looked at all the surveillance endured by Americans before Williams talked with Tim Russert about the impact on the nomination of Michael Hayden to lead the CIA.
Seismic! Shocking! Startling! A bombshell!! That's how the ABC, CBS and NBC morning shows described a front-page story in Thursday's USA Today that breathlessly touted how "NSA has massive database of Americans' phone calls." Like the TV coverage, USA Today's story insinuated that the existence of the database was a major violation of Americans' privacy rights and evidence that the President was lying last December when he described the NSA's eavesdropping on suspected terrorist communications as limited and targeted.
ABC's Diane Sawyer breathlessly opened GMA: "New this morning: NSA bombshell. A new report that the government is secretly tracking your phone calls, seeking information on every call made in the U.S. The war on terror versus your privacy." With "Big Brother" on screen, NBC's Matt Lauer warned: "This morning a shocking new report that the National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone records of tens of millions of Americans?" CBS's Hannah Storm cited "a stunning report" on how "the National Security Agency has collected the phone records of tens of millions of ordinary Americans as part of its program to eavesdrop on suspected terrorists."
(Friday's ABC, CBS and NBC morning shows led with nearly as hyperbolic coverage of the same topic.)
Thursday's article did not allege that any calls are listened in on. Indeed, as USA Today describes it, the program seems like a thoroughly innocuous database of the same information that appears on your phone bill, but with your name, address and other personal information removed. Given that another government agency -- the IRS -- maintains information on American citizens' employment, banking, investments, mortgages, charitable contributions and even any declared medical expenses, this hardly seems like a major assault on personal liberty.
And for all of the hype, there may not even be much "news" here. Last December 24, a few days after they spilled the beans about the NSA terrorist surveillance program, New York Times reporters Eric Lichtblau and James Risen disclosed how U.S. phone companies were helping the NSA by giving them "access to streams of domestic and international communications."
I've included a longer excerpt from December's Times story, plus a long piece from today's USA Today item, but first here's some of this morning's hype, as collected by MRC analysts Geoff Dickens, Brian Boyd and Mike Rule.
# ABC's Good Morning America's was the most over-the-top, as co-host Diane Sawyer breathlessly began the program: "New this morning: NSA bombshell. A new report that the government is secretly tracking your phone calls, seeking information on every call made in the U.S. The war on terror versus your privacy."
In her story, reporter Jessica Yellin blurred the collection of phone numbers with actual eavesdropping: "The story in today's USA Today reveals another secret piece of the President's domestic spying program. It says that in addition to those warrantless wiretaps that have stirred so much controversy, according to the paper the government has also been collecting information on every phone call placed in the United States. It's an issue that could stir yet more trouble for the White House.
"It's the second major revelation about domestic surveillance. This time not wiretapping some calls but collecting the phone records of Americans and documenting every call we make. USA Today reports three of the nation's largest phone companies: AT&T, Verizon and Bell South have been turning over detailed call histories of all their customers ever since 9/11, helping the NSA compile what they hope will be the largest database ever assembled in the world. And it's all without a court warrant."
Sawyer then interviewed Leslie Cauley, the USA Today reporter, with a "Big Brother: Why is NSA Tracking Your Calls?" headline on screen for much of the interview: "We want to turn now to the reporter who broke this story in USA Today. She is Leslie Cauley and joining us this morning from Washington. Good to have you with us, Leslie. Let me get this straight. What are the odds that every person watching this show this morning has had the records of their phone calls turned over to the government?"
A few minutes later, Katie Couric explained the hype: "USA Today is breaking the story this morning, reporting that the NSA has been secretly given records from three top phone companies since 9/11. They're reportedly trying to see if there's any calling patterns or there are any calling patterns that might indicate some kind of terrorist plot."
Lauer suggested a "firestorm" would ensue: "And according to the paper the NSA isn't actually listening to the calls but this is sure to set off a real firestorm in Washington today." The full story by NBC's Lisa Myers was carefully couched: "This is very different but in, in that case you were talking about phone calls which are monitored. This is apparently just the collection of the information about the call, the phone numbers and those numbers are analyzed by a computer so it's a little bit different in that it's not actual wiretapping."
Her co-host Julie Chen claimed Americans were "under the scrutiny" of the NSA: "First we want to get right to our top story this morning, a startling new report that millions of Americans are under the scrutiny of the National Security Agency."
Like NBC's Myers, White House reporter Bill Plante also said that this particular program did not involve listening to people's calls, but he also suggested that the news would hurt CIA nominee Michael Hayden, the former head of the NSA:
Now to the USA Today story itself, which strained to paint the data collection as sinister. For a newspaper known for running relatively brief items, the NSA story was enormous: a large, two-line headline on the front page, with two columns of text wrapping around a graphic of phone company logos and a summary quote. Inside, readers were treated to another full page of coverage, including quotes from Hayden and Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez from early in the year talking about the NSA's eavesdropping operation, not the database. An excerpt from the story:
The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans '€" most of whom aren't suspected of any crime. This program does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations. But the spy agency is using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity, sources said in separate interviews.
"It's the largest database ever assembled in the world," said one person, who, like the others who agreed to talk about the NSA's activities, declined to be identified by name or affiliation. The agency's goal is "to create a database of every call ever made" within the nation's borders, this person added.
For the customers of these companies, it means that the government has detailed records of calls they made -- across town or across the country -- to family members, co-workers, business contacts and others.
The three telecommunications companies are working under contract with the NSA, which launched the program in 2001 shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the sources said. The program is aimed at identifying and tracking suspected terrorists, they said.
The sources would talk only under a guarantee of anonymity because the NSA program is secret....
The NSA's domestic program, as described by sources, is far more expansive than what the White House has acknowledged. Last year, Bush said he had authorized the NSA to eavesdrop -- without warrants -- on international calls and international e-mails of people suspected of having links to terrorists when one party to the communication is in the USA. Warrants have also not been used in the NSA's efforts to create a national call database.
In defending the previously disclosed program, Bush insisted that the NSA was focused exclusively on international calls. "In other words," Bush explained, "one end of the communication must be outside the United States."
As a result, domestic call records -- those of calls that originate and terminate within U.S. borders -- were believed to be private.
Sources, however, say that is not the case. With access to records of billions of domestic calls, the NSA has gained a secret window into the communications habits of millions of Americans. Customers' names, street addresses and other personal information are not being handed over as part of NSA's domestic program, the sources said. But the phone numbers the NSA collects can easily be cross-checked with other databases to obtain that information.
Don Weber, a senior spokesman for the NSA, declined to discuss the agency's operations. "Given the nature of the work we do, it would be irresponsible to comment on actual or alleged operational issues; therefore, we have no information to provide," he said. "However, it is important to note that NSA takes its legal responsibilities seriously and operates within the law."
END of Excerpt
For the USA Today story in full: www.usatoday.com
But is this even news? Here's an excerpt from Lichtblau and Risen's December 24, 2005 New York Times story on the NSA, which seemed to reveal the same "stunning" "seismic" information:
As part of the program approved by President Bush for domestic surveillance without warrants, the N.S.A. has gained the cooperation of American telecommunications companies to obtain backdoor access to streams of domestic and international communications, the officials said....
What has not been publicly acknowledged is that N.S.A. technicians, besides actually eavesdropping on specific conversations, have combed through large volumes of phone and Internet traffic in search of patterns that might point to terrorism suspects. Some officials describe the program as a large data-mining operation.
The current and former government officials who discussed the program were granted anonymity because it remains classified....
END of Excerpt
Back then, every network took note of the New York Times story and portrayed it much as they are today's USA Today story, as a huge infringement on individuals' civil liberties. As NBC's John Seigenthaler announced at the top of the December 24 Nightly News:
Jordan began her story: "Security experts call it data mining, looking for a needle in a massive electronic haystack. In this case, suspicious patterns of terrorist activity lurking in millions of phone calls and e-mails. According to today's New York Times, the National Security Agency used its computers to gather and analyze information, and not all of it came from suspected terrorists. What's more, the Times says several unnamed US telecommunications companies cooperated with the NSA, making it easy for the agency to gain access to that data."
Even though it's largely been reported before, today's USA Today "bombshell" seems too good for the Bush-bashing networks to ignore.
[This item, adopted from a Thursday afternoon posting by the MRC's Megan McCormack on our NewsBusters blog, was posted with a video/audio clip which will be added to the online version of this CyberAlert article. To watch the Real or Windows Media video, or MP3 audio, in the meantime, go to: newsbusters.org ]
Blitzer set up Cafferty's first May 11 commentary: "Let's get some words of wisdom from Jack Cafferty. He's in New York right now. Jack?"
ABC on Thursday night caught up with CBS and NBC from the night before and assessed the tax cut extensions through the hostile liberal prism of measuring them by the dollar amount of the cuts for various income levels, instead of the more relevant percentage cuts. Without labeling the liberal group, Betsy Stark relayed how "according to the Tax Policy Center" the tax level "clearly favors the wealthy." Without irony, she noted that "if you earn $0 to $14,000 a year, you probably have no investments. You may also pay no taxes. Your savings on average, zero." As if not getting a tax cut when you don't pay any tax in some way reflects unfairness. "More affluent Americans, earning $82,000 and up," Stark pointed out, "save over $2,000 a year. And if you're a millionaire, in the top 0.1 percent of earners in the country, the tax savings for you is $82,000 a year. You can see why this bill's so controversial." Anchor Elizabeth Vargas agreed: "Indeed you can." She then assumed no economic stimulation as she asked: "What does this do to the deficit? $70 billion less collected in taxes."
The May 11 CyberAlert recounted: CBS and NBC on Wednesday night painted the tax cut extensions passed by the House through a liberal prism, relaying liberal spin meant to portray the cuts as unfair by citing the dollar amounts of expected cuts for the rich versus those earning lower incomes, without any regard for how an incredible 41 percent pay no income tax and so can't get a tax cut while the wealthier pay huge dollar amounts and so even a small percentage reduction represents a big dollar number. CBS's Sharyl Attkisson put on screen, without any attribution, how "for incomes of $50,000 or less, you'll average no more than $46 in savings. Up to $100,000, average is no more than 400 bucks saved. $100,000 to a million saves anywhere from about $1,300 to a little more than $5,500. Over a million, your savings will average nearly $42,000 a year." On the NBC Nightly News, Chip Reid recounted how Republicans claimed tax cuts have helped the economy before he picked up the left-wing numbers without offering any context about the dollar amounts of the cuts compared to the rate paid at various income levels, but at least he identified the source as "liberal." See: www.mediaresearch.org
On the May 11 World News Tonight, ABC anchor Elizabeth Vargas announced: "To news back in this country and the big tax bill on Capitol Hill today. The Senate approved $70 billion in tax cuts and sent it to the President for him to sign. It was a party-line vote. Republicans say the cuts will help stimulate the economy. The Democrats argue the benefits will go largely to the rich. ABC's Betsy Stark joins us now. So tell us what you think looking at all these benefits. Where do they fall?"
Of course, it's the wealthier, who pay virtually all the taxes and pay enough to get a significant cut, who can then spend and invest to fuel the economy.
As noted in the May 11 CyberAlert, fewer than six in ten Americans actually pays any income tax. As Scott Hodge recounted in a March 30 Tax Foundation report: "During 2006, Tax Foundation economists estimate that roughly 43.4 million tax returns, representing 91 million individuals, will face a zero or negative tax liability. That's out of a total of 136 million federal tax returns that will be filed. Adding to this figure the 15 million households and individuals who file no tax return at all, roughly 121 million Americans -- or 41 percent of the U.S. population -- will be completely outside the federal income tax system in 2006. This total includes those who pay no tax, and those who pay some tax upfront and are later refunded the full amount of the tax paid or more....
For the full report: www.taxfoundation.org
In an October Tax Foundation report, William Ahern and Gerald Prante looked at the latest numbers from the IRS, from the 2003 tax year, and observed the greater burden on the wealthier: "The top-earning 25 percent of taxpayers (AGI over $57,343) earned 64.9 percent of nation's income, but they paid more than four out of every five dollars collected by the federal income tax (83.9 percent)." See: www.taxfoundation.org
Indeed, the bottom 50 percent, those earning below $29,000, represented 14 percent of all reported income but paid a piddling 3.46 percent of all income taxes collected. Those making more than $95,000 earned 42 percent of the income, yet paid 64 percent of all taxes collected and those earning more than $295,000 paid an average 24.3 percent tax rate, eight times the minimal 2.95 percent rate paid by those making under $29,000. We have a Marxist tax system.
On Sunday night, May 14, 2006, NBC aired the final episode of The West Wing. Since its debut in September of 1999 when Democratic "President Josiah Bartlet," played by Martin Sheen, told some cartoon-ish conservative religious leaders to "get your fat asses out of my White House," as ratings fell over the years the prime time drama regularly advocated liberal policies and showcased liberal causes. From oldest to newest, a just-posted MRC Web compilation provides text and video/audio for a "Top Ten" presentation of some of the program's most notorious liberal moments and crusades. Actually, you'll find nine scenes pushing liberal ideas followed by one unusual scene which mocked liberal opposition to tax cuts.
To watch the ten videos posted by the MRC's Michael Gibbons after Michelle Humphrey and Karen Hanna rendered the Windows Media, Real and MP3 clips, go to: www.mrc.org
-- Brent Baker