"Media Matters"; by Jamison Foser

››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

Since the revelation of the Bush administration's domestic spying program, news organizations and pundits have frequently portrayed criticism of the program as coming exclusively from Democrats and liberals, ignoring the fact that conservatives have criticized the program in growing numbers and creating the false impression that the matter is simply another case of partisan bickering.

This Week:

Media downplay criticism of NSA spying

Wash. Post ombudsman advances flawed view of journalism

Media Matters debunks top Alito falsehoods

CNN reportedly hires Bill Bennett as political analyst

Robertson, O'Reilly unhinged

Media downplay criticism of NSA spying

Since the revelation of the Bush administration's domestic spying program, news organizations and pundits have frequently portrayed criticism of the program as coming exclusively from Democrats and liberals, ignoring the fact that conservatives have criticized the program in growing numbers and creating the false impression that the matter is simply another case of partisan bickering.

An article in the January 9 edition of Newsweek, for example, asserted that reaction to the program "was predictably partisan." Additionally, in a January 5 column, conservative columnist Debra Saunders wrote:

Angry leftists are so hysterical that they cannot distinguish between government agents eavesdropping on a president's political enemies, and the data mining of international phone calls in an earnest effort to thwart another Sept. 11 terrorist attack. They don't see that Bush, rather then [sic] trying to hide his role in the effort, signed off on the program more than 30 times.

[...]

This whole NSA story reinforces the fact that Bush is willing to be unpopular, even risk the White House, to get the job done, while too many of his Democratic critics will walk over anyone to stand up for their lack of principles.

Saunders displayed either a stunning lack of honesty or lack of understanding of the matter, or both. Her statement that "Bush, rather then [sic] trying to hide his role in the effort, signed off on the program more than 30 times" ignores the rather salient fact that Bush "signed off on the program" in secret. Saunders didn't bother to explain how Bush's secret authorization of a secret program -- the details of which were withheld from Congress and the American public for years -- constitutes evidence that Bush was not trying to "hide his role in the effort"; it seems, instead, to be the very definition of "trying to hide his role in the effort."

But that wasn't Saunders's only bizarre and false claim: her sneering description of critics of Bush's domestic spying program as "hysterical," "angry leftists" and "Democratic critics" ignores the growing number of conservatives who have spoken out against the program.

In rebuttal to this frequent claim that the controversy over Bush's spying operation is a partisan squabble, Media Matters has compiled a lengthy summary of criticism of the program by conservatives and Republicans -- the most thorough summary we have seen to date.

Among those expressing concern:

  • Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE), a member of the Intelligence Committee
  • Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME), a member of the Intelligence Committee
  • Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA), chairman of the Judiciary Committee
  • Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee
  • Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee
  • Sen. John E. Sununu (R-NH)
  • Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID), a member of the Homeland Security subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee
  • Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a member of the Judiciary Committee
  • Sen. John McCain (R-AZ)

That's nine Senate Republicans -- including the chairman of the Judiciary Committee and three members of the Intelligence Committee -- who have expressed concern about the program. At least six of them -- Hagel, Snowe, Specter, Lugar, Collins, and Sununu -- have called for congressional hearings.

Other prominent conservatives have also criticized the program. Former Rep. Bob Barr -- best known for calling for President Clinton's impeachment even before the Lewinsky scandal broke -- wrote:

Exactly like Nixon before him, Bush has ordered the National Security Agency (NSA) to conduct electronic snooping on communications of various people, including U.S. citizens. That action is unequivocally contrary to the express and implied requirements of federal law that such surveillance of U.S. persons inside the U.S. (regardless of whether their communications are going abroad) must be preceded by a court order.

Former Reagan administration deputy attorney general Bruce Fein and American Enterprise Institute scholar Norman Ornstein have suggested the president's program constitutes an impeachable offense; Fein added that "President Bush presents a clear and present danger to the rule of law." Robert Levy, a member of the Board of Visitors of the Federalist Society, syndicated columnist George F. Will, and columnist and former Nixon aide William Safire have joined in the criticism.

Some news organizations haven't stopped at downplaying conservative criticism of domestic spying. Comments by Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA), the ranking Democratic member of the House Intelligence Committee, have been taken out of context to falsely portray her as supportive of the spying operation.

Time magazine reported:

G.O.P. strategists argue that Democrats have little leeway to attack on the issue because it could make them look weak on national security and because some of their leaders were briefed about the National Security Agency (NSA) no-warrant surveillance before it became public knowledge. Some key Democrats even defend it. Says California's Jane Harman, ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee: "I believe the program is essential to U.S. national security and that its disclosure has damaged critical intelligence capabilities."

But a more complete quotation of Harman makes clear that she was not defending what Time described earlier in the article as "spying in this country without warrants." Harman said in a press release:

As the Ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, I have been briefed since 2003 on a highly classified NSA foreign collection program that targeted Al Qaeda. I believe the program is essential to US national security and that its disclosure has damaged critical intelligence capabilities.

Due to its sensitive nature, I have been barred from discussing any aspect of this program, and until the President described certain parts of it on Saturday, I have made no comment whatsoever.

Like many Americans, I am deeply concerned by reports that this program in fact goes far beyond the measures to target Al Qaeda about which I was briefed.

Harman's statement that the program is "essential" was in reference to a "NSA foreign collection program that targeted Al Qaeda." Time magazine incorrectly portrayed it as defense of "spying in this country without warrants," something far different from what Harman actually said. And Time completely omitted Harman's statement that she is "deeply concerned" that the program may go "far beyond the measures to target Al Qaeda about which I was briefed."

Time wasn't the only news outlet to distort Harman's comments. Fox News, CBS, and The New York Times did the same. How could four of the nation's largest news organizations all distort Harman's comments the same way? Is it merely a coincidence that the Bush White House makes the same omission of Harman's statement that the NSA program goes beyond what she was briefed about?

Wash. Post ombudsman advances flawed view of journalism

Last month, we criticized Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell for an attempt to dismiss criticism of the Post:

Her reference to complaints that the Post is "biased against Bush or are in his back pocket" is simply an irrelevant dodge; it has nothing to do with the question. It's simply the same tired and lazy strategy that news organizations often fall back on in the face of criticism: saying, essentially: hey, both sides complain, so we must be doing everything right.

In Howell's most recent column, she explicitly endorsed the strategy we called "tired and lazy," writing: "An old newsroom adage says that if both parties are angry with you, you must be doing something right."

Howell is right; that is an "old newsroom adage." But it is one that she should come to bury, not to praise. It is a crutch, used by those too lazy to offer substantive responses to criticism -- or those unable to.

In what other profession would it be considered a badge of honor for everyone to think your work is flawed? Shouldn't the goal be for nobody to think your work is flawed?

If a newspaper article calls one candidate an alcoholic and her opponent a compulsive gambler, and both complain, can the reader conclude that the reporter must have done "something right"?

Substantive criticism of news reports should not be dismissed simply because someone else has a different complaint. Howell's approach -- and that of too many journalists -- assumes that both complaints have equal merit, which is obviously not always true. And it assumes that if any article is unfair to Party A in one way and Party B in another way, they cancel each other out - essentially, that two wrongs make a right.

In her second column as the Post's ombudsman, Howell offered readers "a couple of tips on how best to use your ombudsman." It's time to return the favor with a tip for Howell, and for other journalists: Complaints about news reports should be dealt with on their own merits, not by simply matching them up against opposing complaints and discounting them all. Criticism from Media Matters, for example, should not be ignored simply because the Media Research Center also criticizes you -- and vice versa. On this, if little else, we suspect Media Matters, FAIR, Media Research Center, Accuracy in Media, and everyone else who regularly critiques the media can agree.

Media Matters debunks top Alito falsehoods

In anticipation of next week's hearings, Media Matters has compiled and debunked the most frequent and damaging conservative misinformation about the nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court.

CNN reportedly hires Bill Bennett as political analyst

CNN has reportedly decided to hire conservative radio host and former Reagan administration official Bill Bennett to serve as a political analyst, apparently replacing Bob Novak, whose contract CNN recently chose not to renew.

Bennett drew widespread condemnation for his September 28 comments linking race with crime - comments that led to his resignation from the board of directors of K12 Inc., an education company he co-founded that is currently part of a Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigation into a multimillion-dollar U.S. Department of Education grant in which it was a partner.

Bennett was previously best-known as the author of various preachy screeds denouncing America's moral decay - writings that, it turned out, financed his multimillion-dollar gambling habit. Michael Kinsley wrote in 2003:

Bill Bennett has been exposed as a humbug artist who ought to be pelted off the public stage if he lacks the decency to slink quietly away, as he is constantly calling on others to do. Although it may be impossible for anyone famous to become permanently discredited in American culture (a Bennett-like point I agree with), Bennett clearly deserves that distinction.

CNN now seems to be doing everything it can to prove Kinsley right. Ask them why.

Robertson, O'Reilly unhinged

As regular Media Matters readers know, we often point out the absurdity of the "angry liberal" storyline in which media figures portray liberals as angry, hostile, hate-filled unhinged lunatics. Such characterizations are frequent; recent notable examples range from Newsweek managing editor Jon Meacham's suggestion that Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean is insane to MSNBC's Chris Matthews' claim that everybody except "real whack-jobs ... on the left" likes President Bush to conservative columnist Michelle Malkin's book, Unhinged: Exposing Liberals Gone Wild (Regnery, 2005). Despite countless examples of conservatives whose rhetoric goes far beyond anything Dean ever said, it is liberals who are constantly accused of being rabid and unhinged.

Rarely, however, does one week bring two better examples of the lunatic right's hateful rhetoric than we saw this week:

  • On the January 5 edition of The 700 Club, Pat Robertson suggested that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's recent stroke was God's punishment for Sharon's policies.
  • During the January 2 broadcast of his radio show, Bill O'Reilly advocated hanging George Soros, apparently because "[h]is money is in Curaçao."
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