The Media vs. The War on Terror

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

Conclusion: It's Not the Criticism, It's the Biased Agenda

Network reporters know well that they have great influence over the daily dynamic of national politics. That’s not to suggest a dark conspiracy, but to recognize a fact. The questions that reporters ask government spokesmen in briefings, or ask themselves in editorial meetings, suggest the topics for that night’s evening newscast, or the next morning’s newspapers. Once published, news stories evoke reactions from both politicians and the public, reactions which can — if reporters are still interested — keep the cycle alive for another 24 hours.

Journalists can be more influential than any government official in setting the political agenda. Reporters recognize this when they congratulate themselves for performing their "watchdog" function, forcing issues into the public discussion when politicians or officeholders would prefer otherwise.

As it relates to the War on Terror, the networks have certainly not shrunk from their role as watchdogs, as their newscasts frequently highlighted critics of the U.S. government’s terror-fighting tactics, criticism which reporters themselves have sometimes joined. But as this report has demonstrated, the agenda of that criticism has been dominated by the complaints of liberals and civil libertarians who argue that the government has been too heavy-handed.

Pointing out that TV’s news agenda is biased is not the same as suggesting that network reporters must not criticize the President or government during wartime. But when the networks favor critics of a certain ideological flavor, that bias will inevitably tug the public debate in the direction of those critics. In coverage of the Patriot Act, the Guantanamo Bay prison, and the NSA surveillance program, the networks all highlighted critics who argued that the government’s tactics went too far. Indeed, many civil libertarians have complaints about the government’s anti-terror tactics. It’s fair enough to include that point of view in the coverage.

But there is also a broad swath of Americans, as the polls cited in this report indicate, whose primary concern is not that the pre-9/11 concept of civil liberties are perfectly preserved, but rather that the War on Terror is fought effectively and successfully. An impartial news media would spend at least as much time confronting government officials about whether domestic law enforcement or the military and intelligence services abroad were using all of the available tools to disrupt dangerous terrorist networks and prevent another attack on the homeland.

This report found some possible avenues for reporters to explore. A handful of network stories mentioned that inmates who had been released from the Guantanamo Bay prison had resumed committing acts of terrorism, even boasting about how they had duped the U.S. military. Reporters could challenge government officials about whether their process for evaluating the detainees was too lenient, and ask what steps would be taken to ensure that any inmates released in the future would not pose a danger. That’s at least as important as exploring whether inmates deserve a chance to make their case in a U.S. civilian court.

When its role in the War on Terror was mentioned in news stories (which wasn’t often), the NSA’s terrorist surveillance program was portrayed as a crucial method of detecting future threats. But the great majority of network coverage focused on complaints it violated everyday citizens’ right to privacy, and perhaps exceeded the President’s constitutional authority. Yet none of the networks made much of an effort to inform viewers of the progress of congressional action aimed at resolving those constitutional and civil liberties questions so that the NSA could continue to keep tabs on suspected terrorists. Since the networks spent so much airtime on charges that the NSA program was flawed, wouldn’t it be equally important to hold Congress accountable for finding a way to ensure that the program remained in America’s terror-fighting arsenal?

The debate is not about whether reporters can challenge a president and his policies during a time of war. Of course they can. But the networks have chosen to highlight the complaints of those who paint the Bush administration as a danger equal to or greater than the terrorists themselves. Reporters could have spent the past five years challenging the administration with an agenda most Americans share, demanding that the government do everything within its lawful powers to protect the public and prevent another attack. Instead, liberal reporters have opted to join the ACLU in fretting that the War on Terror has already gone too far.