The Censorship Election

How the Broadcast Networks Buried the Bad News That Threatened Barack Obama's Quest for a Second Term

In May 2012, on the heels of Team Obama and their media allies celebrating the first anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden (NBC News even donated an hour of prime time to an uncritical Rock Center special, the centerpiece of which was Brian Williams interviewing the President in the White House Situation Room), a wave of positive stories reached the press about the administration’s success in fighting terrorism:

■ On May 7, the Associated Press disclosed that the U.S. and allied intelligence agencies had thwarted a new al Qaeda plot to use a sophisticated bomb with no metal parts to attack a jetliner. “American officials are saying tonight that this is a big success story,” NBC’s Pete Williams celebrated.
That night, ABC’s Brian Ross revealed on Nightline that “this latest plot was stopped not by technology, but by good spy work, with an apparent undercover operative inside al Qaeda, raising some other questions about today’s release of information from the White House.”
■ On May 29, a massive front-page story in the New York Times trumpeted how Obama was personally selecting and approving overseas terror suspects for inclusion on a “kill list” to be targeted by remote-operated drones. As the Times’ Jo Becker and Scott Shane fawningly relayed: “A student of writings on war by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, [the President] believes that he should take moral responsibility for such actions.”

■ Three days later (June 1), the Times’ David Sanger was back on the front-page with a scoop about how Obama was leading a U.S. and Israeli cyberwar aimed at delaying Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapon. “From his first months in office, President Obama secretly ordered increasingly sophisticated attacks on the computer systems that run Iran’s main nuclear enrichment facility, significantly expanding America’s first sustained use of cyberweapons, according to participants in the program,” Sanger wrote in his lede.

Each of these stories was based on anonymous leaks from U.S. officials, potentially from the White House itself. The prevailing suspicion was that Obama administration officials had orchestrated some or all of these stories in order to build on the momentum from the bin Laden anniversary and to bolster the President’s national security credentials going into the fall campaign.

But the leaks were also damaging to U.S. national security, and drew fire from both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill. “This has to stop,” an angry Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) declared on June 7. “When people say they don’t want to work with the United States because they can’t trust us to keep a secret, that’s serious.”

During the Bush years, the networks pounced on leaks such as the one which disclosed the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame, revealed in a Robert Novak column in 2003. When the Justice Department announced the start of its criminal investigation into Plame’s case in late September 2003, the three broadcast networks ran a combined 21 stories that week (from Sunday, September 28 through Saturday, October 4) — and that was only the beginning of years of hyperbolic coverage.

Yet in the case of the Obama administration’s leaks, the networks were profoundly uninterested in investigating whether or not senior officials were guilty of negligence regarding our national security.

Late on Friday, June 8, Attorney General Eric Holder picked two U.S. Attorneys to conduct a criminal investigation of the leaks surrounding the most damaging of these news stories: the revelations in early May about the double agent that had infiltrated al Qaeda; and the New York Times report about the “Stuxnet” computer worm deployed against Iran.

The same networks that had pounced on news of a criminal probe of Bush’s top aides yawned at the investigation of Obama’s deputies. ABC’s World News (which had run one story about the congressional furor before Holder’s announcement), aired a single story on Saturday, June 9. The NBC Nightly News ran just two stories — one on Sunday, June 10, and another on Tuesday, June 12. The CBS Evening News never mentioned the Holder probe (although the information was conveyed on other CBS News broadcasts, including CBS This Morning and Face the Nation).

In the week in which the criminal investigation into the Bush administration was announced in 2003, ABC placed the story at the top of World News Tonight twice that week (on September 29 and 30), while the CBS Evening News led off with the investigation on September 30, and the NBC Nightly News made it their top story for three consecutive nights (from September 29 through October 1). The prominence conveyed the networks’ editorial message that this was a major event, a political “firestorm” in the words of both the ABC and NBC correspondents.

As for the leaks under Team Obama, the networks never placed the story — either the congressional criticism, or the launching of the criminal investigation — at the top of their broadcasts. After June 12, none of the broadcast network evening newscasts mentioned the criminal investigation again for the remaining 146 days of President Obama’s re-election campaign.

Indeed, none of the three newscasts would revisit the leak scandal until May 13, 2013, when CBS and NBC both reported that the Justice Department, as part of the investigation, had obtained two months of phone records from the employees of the Associated Press. (It took ABC’s World News an additional day to find the story.) The expansive seizure of a fellow news organization’s records set off alarm bells at the networks, who collectively mentioned the case in 15 evening news stories over the following month — five times more than discussed the start of the criminal probe the previous June.

And virtually none of the stories about the investigation into the AP (just two) actually gave viewers details into the breach of U.S. national security which prompted the inquiry in the first place. In other words, the government seizure of AP’s phone records was treated by the networks as a bigger controversy than the original leak which exposed the CIA’s operative inside al Qaeda.