The Media vs. The War on Terror

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

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 anti-terrorism laws."

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.

Chart2"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 "liberal."

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."

For the next five years, network reporters would return to the "endangered civil liberties" topic in a majority of their stories about the Patriot Act (56 out of 91 stories, or 62%). The networks presented fears about a police state as valid and reasonable, perhaps even an admirable early warning. On the July 4, 2003 CBS Evening News, fill-in anchor John Roberts claimed that "as Americans celebrate their independence today, concern is growing that civil liberties are threatened as never before by the Patriot Act." The following story by reporter Lee Cowan touted "an unlikely revolutionary, soft-spoken librarian Marilyn Sotirelis." (WMV video clip/MP3 audio)

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 always are."

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."

TextBox1"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 Kerry?

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.

Chart3All 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 changes phones."

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 dealers."

TextBox2Of 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.