Media mischaracterize as partisan issues that don't fall neatly along party lines

››› ››› ANDREW SEIFTER

On issues such as drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), budget cuts, the renewal of the USA Patriot Act, and recent revelations regarding the Bush administration montioring phone conversations without search warrants, media outlets have characterized these disputes as partisan, even though prominent Republicans have agreed with Democratic critiques.

As Republicans in Congress have become increasingly willing to oppose policies put forth by their Republican leadership and the Bush administration -- whether attributable to President Bush's sagging poll numbers, prominent senators' presidential ambitions, or the fast-approaching 2006 midterm elections - the media continue to frame major policy disputes as purely partisan battles. For example, recent reports by The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and NBC's Today provide clear examples of how the media has mischaracterized four such issues as merely partisan disputes: Congressional proposals to attach a provision to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to a military spending bill, dramatically cut the budget on social programs, and renew all major provisions of the Patriot Act, and the Bush administration's effort to defend monitoring the phone conversations of Americans without a search warrant.

Sen. Stevens's ANWR proposal

A December 20 New York Times article on the congressional debate over ANWR drilling, by reporters Carl Hulse and Sheryl Gay Stolberg, began by mischaracterizing as purely partisan the dispute over Sen. Ted Stevens's (R-AK) plan to use procedural tactics to ensure passage of a provision permitting drilling in ANWR:

With tensions rising in the Capitol, Senate Democrats threatened on Monday to derail a $453 billion military spending bill over an Arctic oil drilling dispute, just hours after the House approved the measure in an all-night session that also included passage of a $40 billion budget-cutting bill.

Anticipating a Democratic-led effort against the military bill, Senator Bill Frist, the majority leader, took procedural steps on Monday to cut off debate on the measure, setting the stage for a decisive vote Wednesday on the legislation.

Frustrated Democrats predicted they could round up the votes to stall the Pentagon measure even if it put them in the awkward position of blocking money for American military operations. They called on Republicans to drop the language allowing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

"I don't have any hesitation to be part of a filibuster," said Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, who is a military hawk and a longtime foe of the Arctic drilling plan. "This is a tough fight," he added. "But it is a fight worth waging."

[...]

Upset with the oil drilling initiative and other add-ons, Democrats accused Mr. Stevens of twisting Senate rules to hijack the military bill to advance an unrelated pet cause, a charge he angrily denied in a lengthy speech on the Senate floor Monday.

As Media Matters for America documented when the Times previously portrayed the debate over Stevens's proposal as partisan, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who is one of the conferees and negotiators on the defense bill, described Stevens's move as "disgusting" and "disgraceful," while Sen. Norm Coleman (R-MN) said it would make the vote on the defense bill "very uncomfortable for me."

Moreover, three separate December 20 articles in the Washington Post noted that many other Republicans are also opposed to Stevens's efforts to attach the ANWR provision to the 2006 defense spending bill. One report noted that Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee (R-RI) said the ANWR provision "doesn't belong on a defense bill" and that Stevens's move is "just not fair." A second article documented that a spokesperson for Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) said Snowe believes "inserting ANWR into the defense appropriations bill discredits the integrity of the process" and that "[t]he American people will see this for what it is, a cynical approach to legislating that will further erode public confidence in the federal government." The article also reported House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood L. Boehlert's (R-NY) contention that the ANWR provision "never, never, never should have been added on as an extraneous matter to a bill to fund and pay and equip our troops." The third report noted that in the House, Republican leaders "had to beat back a bipartisan parliamentary maneuver to scuttle the defense spending bill over the Arctic drilling provision."

But the Post has also engaged in problematic reporting on the ANWR dispute. One day before highlighting Republican opposition to Stevens's plan, a December 19 Post article mischaracterized the debate by suggesting that only "Democrats were furious about the drilling maneuver on the defense bill."

The USA Patriot Act

After misrepresenting the debate over Stevens's ANWR plan, the December 20 Times article similarly reported that "Senate Democrats and Republicans remained at loggerheads" over some provisions of the Patriot Act that opponents fear curtail fundamental civil liberties:

In addition to the Pentagon bill snarled in the oil fight, Senate Democrats and Republicans remained at loggerheads over the USA Patriot Act, the broad antiterror law containing major provisions that were set to expire Dec. 31 without Senate action.

But contrary to the Times' suggestion, that issue also does not fall purely along party lines. In fact, four Senate Republicans -- Larry E. Craig (R-ID), Chuck Hagel (R-NE), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and John E. Sununu (R-NH) -- joined all but two Democrats in supporting a filibuster of the Patriot Act on December 16 (Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) "subsequently changed his vote" to supporting the filibuster in a procedural maneuver that "gives him the right to call for a second vote," as the Los Angeles Times noted on December 17).

Nonetheless, in an interview with Vice President Dick Cheney broadcast on the December 19 edition of ABC's Nightline, chief White House correspondent Terry Moran allowed Cheney to claim that "Democrats are trying to filibuster" the Patriot Act:

CHENEY: The Patriot Act is a vital piece of legislation. It was, in fact, passed in the aftermath of 9-11. It extended to our ability to operate with respect to the counter-terrorist effort, the need to maintain the capability of this government to be able to defend the nation. And that means we have to take extraordinary measures. But we do do it in a manner that's consistent with the Constitution and consistent with our statutes. And when we needed statutory authority, as we did for the Patriot Act, we went and got it. Now Congress, the Democrats are trying to filibuster it.

MORAN: Does the United States maintain secret prisons around the world?

CHENEY: I'm not going to talk about intelligence matters --

In the House, 18 Republicans voted against extending the controversial provisions of the Patriot Act, while 44 Democrats voted in favor of doing so.

Budget cuts

Some media have also suggested that the dispute over proposed budget cuts is merely between Republicans and Democrats. For example, in a December 19 article reporting that the Republican leadership in the House and Senate had reached an agreement on the cuts, the Los Angeles Times wrote:

House and Senate negotiators also agreed to cut $41.6 billion from Medicare, Medicaid, student loans and other domestic programs over the next five years -- a measure that Republicans describe as part of a new, more determined effort to reduce the federal budget deficit, which totaled $319 billion for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. Democrats contended that the savings would be wiped out by billions of dollars in tax cuts that Republicans hope to pass early next year.

But the Los Angeles Times ignored congressional Republicans who also oppose the budget cuts. In a December 19 roll call vote in the House, nine Republicans voted against the budget cuts, while no Democrats voted in favor of it. As The Washington Post reported on December 20, in the Senate "[t]hree Republican moderates, Sens. Olympia J. Snowe (Maine), Gordon Smith (Ore.) and Lincoln D. Chafee (R.I.), said they will oppose the measure, and Senate Republican leaders expect a fourth, Mike DeWine (Ohio), to join them." The number of Senate Republicans opposing the budget cuts increased to five, according to an updated December 20 tally by the Associated Press, which also noted that no Senate Democrats plan to support the cuts.

Secret domestic surveillance

The most recent issue that media have begun to cast as partisan is the revelation that the Bush administration has been secretly monitoring the phone conversations of Americans without a search warrant. For example, on the December 20 edition of NBC's Today Show, NBC White House correspondent Kelly O'Donnell reported:

O'DONNELL: The White House cites the Constitution and Congress's authorization to use military force as a legal basis for the president to act. But Democrats in Congress charge the president went beyond the law.

In fact, several Republicans have also expressed concern that the Bush administration's actions might violate the law. For example, on the December 18 edition of CBS' Face the Nation, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said that "I don't know of any legal basis to go around" the requirement that the White House formally apply to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court for a warrant to engage in domestic surveillance:

BOB SCHIEFFER (host): Does he have that authority, Senator?

GRAHAM: If he has the authority to go around the FISA court, which is a court to accommodate the law of the war of terror, the FISA Act was -- created a court set up by the chief justice of the United States to allow a rapid response to requests for surveillance activity in the war on terror. I don't know of any legal basis to go around that. There may be some, but I'm not aware of it. And here's the concern I have. We can't become an outcome-based democracy. Even in a time of war, you have to follow the process, because that's what a democracy is all about: a process.

Similarly, on the December 18 edition of ABC's This Week, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said: "Why did the president choose not to use FISA? That's a legitimate question."

Finally, a December 20 New York Times article noted that after attorney general Alberto R. Gonzales claimed that the administration was within the law in secretly monitoring calls from within the United States, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) responded that he was "skeptical of the attorney general's citation of authority." As Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Specter is in charge of arranging an investigation into the Bush administration's actions. A December 20 Post report similarly noted Specter's statement that "I have grave doubts about the wide scope of executive power claimed by Attorney General Gonzales." The Times also noted Specter's contention that, even if the administration did adequately inform some members of Congress of its actions, that "does not constitute a check and balance" because "[y]ou can't have the administration and a select number of members alter the law."

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