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 Dec. 24 by hyping "the spying was much more widespread, with millions of calls and e-mails tracked 52; 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 Dec. 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 (10 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 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.