According to post-9/11 studies by the
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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).