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MEDIA SPINNING THE WAR ON TERROR

According to post-9/11 studies by the Media Research Center (MRC), news reporters at the three major television networks have tended to cast the U.S. government’s anti-terrorism efforts in a decidedly negative light. In one particular study of ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts from September 11, 2001 through August 31, 2006, MRC researchers analyzed 496 stories dealing with three major topics: the PATRIOT Act, the Guantanamo Bay detention center, and the National Security Agency's terrorist-surveillance program. Their findings were as follows.

(A) PATRIOT Act: During the weeks immediately following the 9/11 attacks, comprehensive legislation to close the loopholes in America's existing national-security laws was drafted in the form of the PATRIOT Act, which passed with just one dissenting vote in the Senate and a mere 66 dissenting votes in the House of Representatives. Signed into law by President George W. Bush on October 26, 2001, this bill did not represent a dramatic departure from existing law. Indeed, many of its key provisions were incorporated from an anti-terrorism measure that had been passed by Congress and signed into law by former President Bill Clinton five years earlier. Most significantly, the PATRIOT Act removed several Clinton-era restrictions that had erected "walls of separation" preventing intelligence agents and law-enforcement officials from sharing information with one another and collaborating on terrorism-related investigations.

Even before it was signed into law, the TV broadcast networks depicted the PATRIOT Act as a wide-ranging threat to the civil liberties of ordinary Americans. This trend continued long after the bill had been passed. Fully 62% of PATRIOT Act-related stories which the networks aired after 9/11 presented fears about America becoming a police state as valid and reasonable. By contrast, only 5% of the stories noted that the PATRIOT Act had not resulted in even a single substantiated civil-liberties violation since the law was enacted. And only NBC’s Pete Williams (on September 10, 2003) told viewers that some of the supposedly controversial elements of the law — including the provision for “delayed notification,” where a warrant could be executed to search a home or business and the subject only told about it after the fact — were already legally-approved techniques for anti-drug and organized-crime cases.

In their coverage of the PATRIOT Act, all of the evening newscasts tended to feature sound bites from experts – mostly attorneys or law professors – who disapproved of the law. Some 61 percent of these network sound bites asserted that the law represented a threat to people's privacy rights. Moreover, the networks also aired 19 sound bites from ordinary citizens – every one of them critical of the PATRIOT Act. This reportage was entirely inconsistent with the fact that according to a January 2006 poll, 53 percent of Americans saw the PATRIOT Act as a positive measure, whereas only 30 percent opposed it. In addition, 59 percent of the public believed that the law had helped to prevent terrorist attacks, while just 29 percent thought it had not.

(B) Guantanamo Bay: Military police began transferring captured enemy combatants (mostly al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists) to a newly established prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba on January 10, 2002. From January 2002 through August 2006, just 14% of Guantanamo-related network-news stories mentioned the dangers posed by the very violent men who were being detained there. By contrast, 36% of the stories focused on charges that the detainees were being denied their rights or privileges, and 38% dealt with allegations that the detainees were being mistreated or abused. Scarcely 2% of the news stories noted that some Guantanamo inmates had been released, only to rejoin al Qaeda’s jihad against America.

During this same period, the network evening newscasts aired 79 Guantanamo-related sound bites from independent experts, mostly law professors or other legal experts. Only 19 percent of these supported the manner in which the U.S. was managing Guantanamo, while 58 percent were critical and 23 percent offered neutral information.

The newscasts also featured 46 sound bites from Guantanamo detainees, their families, and their attorneys – unanimously depicting the prisoners as innocent victims of circumstance, unlucky people who had been taken into custody without just cause.

(C) NSA Surveillance Program: On December 16, 2005, The New York Times ran a front-page story revealing that the Bush administration, since shortly after 9/11, had been allowing the National Security Agency (NSA) to wiretap -- without court warrants -- phone calls involving U.S. residents, provided that in each case: (a) at least one party to the call was situated overseas, and (b) the American was a known contact of a terrorist organization. The political Left immediately condemned the program, and all three television news networks likewise presented it mostly as a Bush administration scandal. During the first seven days after the Times revealed the NSA program's existence, the three networks ran a combined 23 stories about it; 59% of these cast the program as either legally dubious or outright unlawful. Fifty-five percent of the purportedly independent experts cited in these stories argued against either the ethics or the legality of the program, compared with just 11 percent who defended it; the remaining 34% conveyed neutral information.

Between December 15, 2005 and August 31, 2006, half of all network news stories about the NSA program stressed its potential for violating Americans’ civil liberties, and 30% focused on questions of whether the President had exceeded his constitutional powers in implementing the measure. Only 16% of the stories discussed the surveillance program's potential value in combating terrorism.

Also during this period, news reporters often portrayed the NSA program as one that could potentially intrude on the privacy of virtually every American. For example, 37 percent of the news stories said that the program targeted "Americans" or "U.S. citizens" generally. Just a handful of the reports explained that the NSA’s goal was specifically to monitor terrorists (5%) or individuals already suspected of collaborating with terrorists (8%).


Resource: "The Media vs. the War on Terror," by Rich Noyes
(September 11, 2006)
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RESOURCES:

The Media vs. the War on Terror
By Rich Noyes
September 11, 2006

The Press at War
By James Q. Wilson
November 6, 2006

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