The Media vs. The War on Terror

How ABC, CBS, and NBC Attack America’s Terror-Fighting Tactics as Dangerous, Abusive and Illegal


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.

During live coverage just two days after the attacks, ABC’s late Peter Jennings suggested the United States might no longer be a free country. "Much of the evidence now being obtained in this investigation is being obtained under something called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which is pretty much equivalent, I think some people believe, to martial law," Jennings told former Clinton Justice Department official Eric Holder.

"As a result," Jennings wondered, "do you believe that civil liberties have effectively been suspended in the country?" (WMV video clip/MP3 audio)

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.

Chart1These conclusions 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.