The Media's Partisan "Domestic Spying" Fight

The debate over the propriety of intelligence-gathering by the Bush administration is complicated, and the programs themselves can lose their secrecy (and effectiveness) the more they are debated. The media aren't monitoring the debate. They started the fight by blowing the lid off the NSA activity in the New York Times, and they're pushing the fight day and night, clearly coming down against Bush, that arrogantly unconstitutional rogue.

When given a choice between more information about our intelligence-gathering methods and less safety, or less information about our intelligence-gathering and more safety, which do the public choose? The public tends to prefer more safety. The media prefer more information. And the media would prefer the public believe it agrees with them, even if it has to cook a few surveys to establish that canard.

A recent CBS News/New York Times poll brilliantly illlustrated how the public shifts sides on this question depending on how the question is framed. First question: "In order to reduce the threat of terrorism, would you be willing or not willing to allow government agencies to monitor the telephone calls and e-mails of ordinary Americans on a regular basis?"

"Ordinary Americans"?!? The only Americans being tapped would be those suspected of helping wage war on America - hardly "ordinary Americans." Who could support secret government surveillance of ordinary Americans? It's not surprising that this idea was rejected: 70 percent say they're not willing to allow that, and only 28 percent say yes.

Then the CBS/Times pollsters changed the wording to be much more precise in who is being monitored: "In order to reduce the threat of terrorism, would you be willing or not willing to allow government agencies to monitor the telephone calls and e-mails of Americans that the government is suspicious of?" When the targets are suspected terrorists or sympathizers, the poll numbers completely flipped: 68 percent support monitoring them, and only 29 percent say no.

Now consider that according to the CBS/New York Times pollsters, President Bush has a 42 percent job approval rating, and a 52 percent approval rating in fighting terrorism. It's shocking to see that almost 70 percent - including a big chunk of people who aren't wild about Bush - support keeping electronic tabs on our enemies.

It's also somewhat shocking that our supposed accuracy-lauding media have preferred the first, more inaccurate phrasing - spying on "ordinary Americans" - over the second phrasing about terrorist suspects. In an eye-opening study of the 69 stories on the last seven weeks of ABC, CBS, and NBC evening-news coverage, Rich Noyes of the Media Research Center found that the TV reporters described who was being monitored.

Most correspondents in those stories portrayed the NSA as casting a wide net, targeting "Americans" or "U.S. citizens" (53, or 40 percent), or used terms such as "domestic" or "communications inside the U.S." (60, or 45 percent). ABC's Dan Harris even began on December 24 by hyping "the spying was much more widespread, with millions of calls and e-mails tracked - perhaps even yours."

Perhaps - if you've got al-Qaeda on your cell-phone's speed-dial.

By contrast, only about a sixth of these descriptions (21, or 16 percent) stated that the government was focused on persons contacting suspected terrorists (12) or the suspected terrorists themselves (nine). For example, NBC's Pete Williams described monitoring of "suspected al-Qaeda members" on December 29.

There are more findings. Fully 83 percent of network stories suggested the NSA program was illegal, or legally questionable. Reporters framed the story as the government violating "civil liberties" in 42 percent of stories, but the NSA program's role in the war on terror surfaced in only seven stories (ten percent). The supposed nonpartisan legal experts quoted on the ethics or legality of the NSA program were a slanted cast: 30 (or 56 percent) condemned the program, while only four (seven percent) found the program justifiable, an eight-to-one disparity.

One aspect of the story was almost completely ignored by TV reporters: the leak of classified information to the New York Times. Only five network stories focused on the leak probe, and those five mostly painted it as an act of retribution from an enraged Bush administration. And you certainly couldn't expect a New York Times poll on the propriety of the New York Times.

In April of 1995, after the Oklahoma City bombing, President Clinton called for more agents to investigate domestic terror suspects, and more power to infiltrate terrorist plots and examine suspects' "phone, hotel, and credit card records," as CBS explained at the time. CBS didn't shriek about "domestic spying" or commission a poll then questioning Clinton's commitment to civil liberties. They noted Clinton's handling of Oklahoma City "sent his approval ratings soaring."

This story is extremely politicized. Americans can't trust a liberal media, so partisan in this debate, to tell it to them straight.