Hume attacked Gallup poll showing majority disapproval of NSA call-tracking, ignored Newsweek poll with similar resultsMay 16, 2006 4:04 PM EDT ››› JEREMY SCHULMAN
During the "Grapevine" segment of the May 15 edition of Fox News' Special Report, host and Fox News Washington managing editor Brit Hume attacked the wording of a recent USA Today/Gallup poll that found that a majority of respondents disapprove of the National Security Agency's (NSA) reported collection of Americans' telephone records. Contrasting the USA Today/Gallup poll with an earlier Washington Post/ABC News poll -- which found that 63 percent of respondents said the program was acceptable -- Hume told viewers that "USA Today's poll question does not mention that the NSA database program does not involve listening to or recording telephone conversations, while the Post poll question did mention that." Hume did not tell viewers that a Newsweek poll found that even after being told that the program does not involving "listen[ing] to calls," a majority of respondents said the program "goes too far."
From the May 15 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:
HUME: Fifty-one percent of Americans now say they disapprove of the National Security Agency's database of domestic phone calls, that according to a new USA Today/Gallup poll. The number from a Washington Post poll taken last week, just after the story broke, in which 63 percent of Americans called the NSA program an acceptable way for the government to investigate terrorism. The paper reports, USA Today reports its findings, quote: "may differ because questions in the two polls were worded differently." They sure were. USA Today's poll question does not mention that the NSA database program does not involve listening to or recording telephone conversations, while the Post poll question did mention that.
At the time of Hume's misleading report, three national polls on the NSA's domestic call-tracking program had been released.
The Washington Post/ABC News poll -- conducted on May 11, the same day the program was first publicly disclosed -- asked: "It's been reported that the National Security Agency has been collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans. It then analyzes calling patterns in an effort to identify possible terrorism suspects, without listening to or recording the conversations. Would you consider this an acceptable or unacceptable way for the federal government to investigate terrorism? Do you feel that way strongly or somewhat?" Sixty-three percent of respondents said the program was "acceptable"; 35 percent said it was "unacceptable."
The USA Today/Gallup poll (subscription required) -- conducted May 12-13 -- did not assert that the NSA does not listen to the calls it tracks. The USA Today/Gallup poll asked: "As you may know, as part of its efforts to investigate terrorism, a federal government agency obtained records from three of the largest U.S. telephone companies in order to create a database of billions of telephone numbers dialed by Americans. ... Based on what you have heard or read about this program to collect phone records, would you say you approve or disapprove of this government program?" Forty-three percent of respondents said they "approve"; 51 percent said they "disapprove."
The Newsweek poll -- conducted May 11-12 -- was worded similarly to the Washington Post/ABC news poll; both told respondents that the NSA does not listen to the calls it tracks. However, Newsweek's findings were similar to USA Today/Gallup's findings. The Newsweek poll asked: "As you may know, there are reports that the NSA, a government intelligence agency, has been collecting the phone call records of Americans. The agency doesn't actually listen to the calls but logs in nearly every phone number to create a database of calls made within the United States. Which of the following comes CLOSER to your own view of this domestic surveillance program? It is a necessary tool to combat terrorism. [Or] It goes too far in invading people's privacy." Forty-one percent of respondents said the program was "a necessary tool"; 53 percent said it "goes too far."
Hume made no mention of the Newsweek poll, which appears to undermine his attack on the USA Today/Gallup results.
As Hume noted, a May 15 USA Today article suggested that differences in wording may account for the different findings of the USA Today/Gallup and Washington Post/ABC News polls. However, Hume omitted other possible explanations offered by USA Today:
The findings differ from an ABC News/Washington Post poll taken Thursday night of 502 adults. In that survey, 63% called the program an acceptable way to investigate terrorism. The findings may differ because questions in the two polls were worded differently.
Also, the USA TODAY/Gallup Poll includes more respondents -- the margin of error is +/- 4 percentage points, compared with +/- 5 points in the ABC poll -- and was taken after Americans had a day or two to hear and think about the program.
In addition, The Washington Post's own reporting suggests that the wording of the USA Today/Gallup poll is more accurate than the wording of either the Washington Post/ABC News poll or the Newsweek poll, both of which assert that the NSA program does not involve listening to the calls being tracked. As Media Matters for America has noted, the Post reported on May 12 that the NSA's call-tracking program is directly linked to the NSA's warrantless eavesdropping program, first publicly revealed by The New York Times in December 2005. According to the Post:
Government access to call records is related to the previously disclosed eavesdropping program, sources said, because it helps the NSA choose its targets for listening. The mathematical techniques known as "link analysis" and "pattern analysis," they said, give grounds for suspicion that can result in further investigation.
In other words, the Post's reporting suggests that the NSA may, in fact, be "listening to or recording the conversations" of at least some Americans as a direct result of its analysis of the phone-record data the agency is collecting.