The Media vs. The War on Terror

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


The NSA Surveillance Program: "Big Brother" Strikes Again

All 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 after 9/11."

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.

Chart5In describing 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 U.S."

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 Evening News.

"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 going away."

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.

Chart6The supposedly 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.

TextBox8The NSA 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 the target.

"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 Phone Records."

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."

TextBox7Over the 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 years."

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 secrets.

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.