Red, White, and Partisan

How the Media Furor Over Bush's War on Terror Vanished Under Obama

Civil Liberties: Bush's Abuse?

Under Bush, the media viewed the War on Terror as a dark era in American history where our civil liberties were vanishing. In November of 2001, the Washington Post found in a poll that seven in ten Americans believed the government was doing enough to protect the rights of suspected terrorists, and an equally large majority believed the government was doing enough to protect the rights of Arab-Americans and American Muslims.

The media, however, eagerly tried to “correct” that view. Attorney General John Ashcroft did a round of interviews on the networks on November 29, 2001, and not a single interviewer mentioned the poll or asked if the government was doing enough to prevent another terrorist attack. Instead, Ashcroft was uniformly hammered from the left about mistreating terror suspects.

NBC’s Matt Lauer expressed disgust: “You said the other day at a press briefing, in referring to the question of are we infringing on the civil rights of some of these people being detained, you said there hasn’t been one civil rights lawsuit brought against the Justice Department or the American government. Is that really a standard we want to live with? That we push things as far as we can until someone sues us?”

Patriot Act. Within the first week of media coverage after 9/11, discussion of the Patriot Act – which passed the House 357-66 and the Senate 98-1 in October 2001 – contained plenty of critics. Over the first five years of War on Terror coverage, ABC, CBS and NBC heavily favored Patriot Act opponents. Of 23 soundbites from “experts” (such as law professors or ex-FBI agents), 61 percent faulted the law as a threat to privacy rights. Of 19 soundbites from ordinary citizens, every one condemned the Patriot Act, despite polls showing most Americans support the Patriot Act and believe it has prevented new acts of terrorism.

Network reporters would return to the “endangered civil liberties” topic in a majority of their stories about the Patriot Act in those first five years (56 out of 91 stories, or 62 percent). 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.”

This hyperbole didn’t just emerge in Patriot Act stories. It even showed up on September 11 anniversaries. On September 11, 2002, NBC anchor Tom Brokaw launched this first-anniversary observance: “That brings us to America’s growing Arab and Muslim communities. For many, this has been the year – as one observer put it – that the American dream for them descended into nightmares.”

JeaneOthmanReporter Jim Avila mourned: “This is Jeanean Othman, an American of Palestinian descent. Born 42 years ago in suburban Chicago. Now worried everything she learned as an American about justice and civil rights collapsed along with New York’s Twin Towers.” Othman added: “All of a sudden, this, you know, the regular Constitution doesn’t apply to Muslims somehow.”

After live coverage of the State of the Union address in 2004, Peter Jennings challenged Sen. John Kerry by quoting from an outraged Iowa college student, pushing from the left: “John Kerry voted yes for President Bush’s Patriot Act, he voted yes for Bush’s No Child Left Behind, he voted yes for Bush,’ these are his words, ‘to invade Iraq. If you support John Kerry for President you might as well stay home on election day as Bush is already doing a good job of leading America into a war and shredding the Constitution.”

Anchormen thought the notion of Bush “shredding the Constitution” was fair comment, even to the extreme that they would suggest an ultraliberal senator like John Kerry was failing to oppose emphatically enough this metaphorical shredding.


Guantanamo. On January 10, 2002, less than four months after September 11, military police began transferring captured enemy combatants to a newly-established prison facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

For most of 2002, the networks covered Guantanamo as a military story, largely focusing on the preparations and security measures. After 2002, however, the networks shifted their coverage away from the challenge the detainees presented to their military guards. Just 39 stories mentioned the dangers posed by the Guantanamo prisoners (14 percent of the total). Far more stories focused on charges that the captured al-Qaeda terrorists were due additional rights or privileges (100 stories, or 36 percent) or allegations that detainees were being mistreated or abused (105 stories, or 38 percent). (Some stories included more than one topic.)

2004-04-20-ABCWNTDespite the knowledge that detainees had used deception to win their way back into battle against the U.S., network reporters exhibited amazingly little skepticism of their claims of innocence and torment at the hands of their American captors. On September 12, 2002, referring to the observance of the 9/11 anniversary, ABC’s Jennings oddly observed: “It was a somber day for U.S. soldiers at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, obviously. But for nearly 600 prisoners, it was another day. They have no calendars, and nobody told them it was the first anniversary.”

The following year, ABC’s World News Tonight weirdly chose the second anniversary of the September 11 attacks to offer a sympathetic view of the prisoners. “There have been 31 suicide attempts to date,” reporter Claire Shipman fretted. “Letters home obtained by ABC News show despair. One Kuwaiti prisoner writes [that] he wants, quote, ‘to die, as I cannot stand this place.’...Prison guards have told us that it’s the uncertainty of their fate that is the worst punishment for prisoners here.”

The networks did not seem to ponder whether or not the terror suspects were guilty. If they had plotted the deaths of Americans, why should Americans be urged to feel regret that they’re unhappy in detention? The tone of this coverage suggested that the prisoners had more moral authority than their U.S. military captors.

2006-1-2-ABCNLMoranCheneyBetraying America’s Values. On ABC’s Nightline on December 19, 2005, Terry Moran threw this hardball at Vice President Dick Cheney: “I’d like to put this personally, if I can. You’re a grandfather. I’m a father. When we look at those girls and we think that the country we’re about to pass to them is a country where the Vice President can’t say whether or not we have secret prisons around the world, whether water-boarding and mock executions is consistent with our values, and a country where the government is surveilling Americans without the warrant of a court – is that the country we want to pass on to them?”

This matches what MRC analysts found when they reviewed the three broadcast evening newscasts and found 69 stories on the National Security Administration phone-surveillance program from December 16, 2005 (the day the program was disclosed by the New York Times) through February 3, 2006. Most network stories (57, or 83 percent) cast the NSA program as legally dubious or outright illegal....Reporters most often framed the story as about government infringing on “civil liberties” (the focus of 29 stories, or 42 percent). Half of the soundbites from experts (30, or 56 percent condemned the ethics or legality of the NSA program, compared with just four (seven percent) who found the program justified, an eight-to-one disparity.

brother1220The tone was set by ABC’s new anchorman Bob Woodruff, who began his newscast with loaded Orwell phrases: “Big Brother. The uproar over a secret presidential order giving the government unprecedented powers to spy on Americans.”

A CBS News/New York Times poll showed how the public shifted sides on this surveillance question depending on how the question is framed. First question: To stop 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?”Unsurprisingly, this idea was rejected: 70 percent to 28. Then the 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 numbers completely flipped: 68 percent supported monitoring them, and only 29 percent said no.

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.” 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).

In the wake of the NSA “domestic spying” scandal, the media liked casting aspersions on the Bush administration as a dangerous cabal of authoritarians. Newsweek senior editor Jonathan Alter cried tyranny: “We’re seeing clearly now that Bush thought 9/11 gave him license to act like a dictator, or in his own mind, no doubt, like Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War.” Alter suggested leaking the NSA story to the New York Times was not shameful, as Bush suggested, but patriotic: “it was the work of a patriot inside the government who was trying to stop a presidential power grab.”