CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC dedicated a considerable amount of airtime to a purported threat to NFL stadiums in seven cities, despite the fact that the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI both characterized the threat as not credible. Further, with one brief exception, at no point was there any reference on any of the three channels to evidence that the Bush administration has used terrorism-related announcements for political gain.
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On October 18, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) notified seven U.S. cities -- out of "an abundance of caution" -- that the stadiums of their professional football teams had been named on a website as possible targets for radiological bomb attacks. Although the DHS and the FBI both characterized the threat as not credible, the three major cable-news networks -- CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC -- devoted substantial coverage to the story throughout the day, offering viewers repeated updates on the subject and conducting interviews with numerous terrorism experts. But largely absent from their coverage was any mention of evidence that the Bush administration has, in the past, used and timed terror-related announcements for political gain. The single exception came on the October 18 edition of CNN's The Situation Room, when Democratic strategist Paul Begala stated, "[I]t is interesting that these things always seem to spike right before an election," and went on to note Tom Ridge's 2005 comment that, as DHS secretary, he had regularly been pressured by administration officials to raise the terror threat level even though he did not believe that intelligence warranted it.
According to news reports, on October 16, the U.S. government was made aware of a posting on a website called "The Friend Society" that claimed seven National Football League stadiums -- in New York, Miami, Atlanta, Seattle, Houston, Oakland, and Cleveland -- would soon be attacked with radiological bombs and that Osama bin Laden would claim responsibility. National news outlets first reported on the story in the early afternoon of October 18, noting that while DHS officials had determined that the threat was not credible, the agency had nonetheless notified the NFL and the seven cities purportedly targeted.
Of the three major cable networks, CNN devoted the most airtime to the story. Indeed, The Situation Room aired seven segments on the stadium threat, including separate interviews with former inspector general for the DHS Clark Kent Ervin and Rep. Peter King (R-NY). The October 18 edition of CNN's Paula Zahn Now also featured a report on the story, as well as an interview with Ervin and security analyst Jim Walsh.
Fox News Channel's late afternoon and early evening programming included four reports on the story from homeland defense correspondent Catherine Herridge. Further, Fox News host Neil Cavuto interviewed retired Lt. Col. Ralph Peters about the threat on the October 18 edition of Your World, and host John Gibson discussed the story with terrorism expert Daveed Gartenstein-Ross on The Big Story.
Meanwhile, MSNBC also covered the purported stadium plot. The October 18 edition of Tucker featured a report from NBC News correspondent Pete Williams on the story, and Scarborough Country included an interview with terrorism expert Evan Kohlmann and a report from Daniel Garza, a reporter with NBC affiliate KNTV in the San Francisco Bay area.
But a Media Matters for America survey of the October 18 coverage listed above found only one instance in which a reporter or commentator broached the topic of whether politics might have played a role in the government's disclosure of the alleged threat. On The Situation Room, Begala directly questioned the timing of this news. "We're 19 days before an election," he said, "and they ... hyped this potential threat to the NFL, even though the reporting is that it's not credible." Begala went on to state, "[I]t is interesting that these things always seem to spike right before an election." He later brought up the fact that Ridge had said in 2005 "that he thinks there have been times when the White House exerted pressure, political pressure, on terrorism politics and terrorism press matters."
The comment Begala cited was made at a May 10, 2005, forum in Washington, D.C., during which Ridge said he wanted to "debunk the myth" that he had been responsible for repeatedly raising the threat level during his tenure at the DHS. From a USA Today article posted online that day:
The Bush administration periodically put the USA on high alert for terrorist attacks even though then-Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge argued there was only flimsy evidence to justify raising the threat level, Ridge now says.
Ridge, who resigned Feb. 1, said Tuesday that he often disagreed with administration officials who wanted to elevate the threat level to orange, or "high" risk of terrorist attack, but was overruled.
Ridge said he wanted to "debunk the myth" that his agency was responsible for repeatedly raising the alert under a color-coded system he unveiled in 2002.
"More often than not we were the least inclined to raise it," Ridge told reporters. "Sometimes we disagreed with the intelligence assessment. Sometimes we thought even if the intelligence was good, you don't necessarily put the country on (alert). ... There were times when some people were really aggressive about raising it, and we said, 'For that?' "
The White House immediately "dismissed" Ridge's allegations, according to a May 12, 2005, article in the Chicago Tribune. But others raised the issue, and, on the October 6, 2005, edition of MSNBC's Countdown, host Keith Olbermann documented 13 "coincidences" -- instances characterized by "a political downturn for the administration, followed by a 'terror event' -- a change in alert status, an arrest, a warning." One such "coincidence" occurred on August 1, 2004, shortly after the Democratic national convention had concluded. That day, the DHS raised the alert level for financial institutions in New York and Washington, citing "unusually specific" intelligence. But less than a week later, it came to light that the information that led to the warning was actually "three or four years old," according to an August 3, 2004, New York Times article.
Another glaring example came while the convention was still under way. An article in the July 19, 2004, issue of The New Republic -- posted July 8 on the magazine's website -- quoted two sources from Pakistan's intelligence service and another from its Interior Ministry saying that the Bush administration was pressuring Pakistani officials to make arrests of so-called "high-value targets" during the Democratic convention. Then on July 29, 2004, mere hours before Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) accepted the Democratic presidential nomination, Pakistani officials announced that they had captured Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, an Al Qaeda suspect in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Soon after, it came to light that the Pakistani government had actually arrested Ghailani four days earlier -- before the convention began -- but had delayed announcing the news until July 29. As Media Matters noted at the time, the media simply did not mention The New Republic's July 19 disclosure in reporting on the arrest and were largely silent on the reported delay of the announcement. CNN's silence was most egregious, given that the cable network had hosted New Republic editor Peter Beinart earlier in the month to discuss the article.
From the October 18 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:
BEGALA: Democrats lost more than 50 seats in the House in 1994, and I think nine seats in the Senate. It was the worst year for my party in a generation. This is shaping up to be the worst year for the Republicans in a generation. And they're going to do everything that they can. There's a whole lot of people today, they're going to watch the first 15 minutes of our broadcast today, and say, "Isn't that interesting? We're 19 days before an election, and they raise the threat level" -- they didn't actually raise the threat level; that's not true. But they hyped this potential threat to the NFL, even though the reporting is that it's not credible.
BLITZER: Well, let me just -- let me just press you on this, because I know that there are people out there who are going to think that the Department of Homeland Security, which is part of the Bush administration, is --
BEGALA: Yes. Which is run by a guy who was a political hatchet man for [former Sen.] Al D'Amato [R-NY], the Republican senator who ran all that Whitewater stuff, Michael Chertoff.
BLITZER: But if a website, in fact, made this specific threat, wouldn't they be derelict in their duty if they didn't alert the NFL and the American public to that kind of a threat?
BEGALA: That's the problem. It -- the -- clearly, the president was derelict when he ignored the warnings before 9-11, and so, they are in a box, and I feel for them in that respect. And I always try to give them the benefit of the doubt. But it is interesting that these things always seem to spike right before an election.
BLITZER: You know, and he makes a point that a lot of our viewers are going to think that this administration, the Republicans, desperate to try to get themselves re-elected, they're going to make Americans fearful of another terrorist attack, and they might vote for Republicans.
BAY BUCHANAN (CNN political analyst): You know, I just want to get it straight here. I'm just wondering, are we suggesting here, Paul, that Republicans have somehow created this -- this scare, this frightening possibility that's been proposed with these National Football League stadiums? Is this something you're saying that we have just --
BUCHANAN: -- put out there because it is a couple days --
BEGALA: No, but --
BUCHANAN: -- a couple weeks before an election?
BEGALA: No, no. What I'm saying is that the -- Jeanne Meserve's own reporting was that this is not a credible threat.
BUCHANAN: It is -- and that's -- well, who said that? Homeland Security said that.
BUCHANAN: But who's making national attention? CNN and others are telling the people in the country because they feel they have an obligation to let them know.
BEGALA: It is a tough call.
BUCHANAN: This administration is doing their job --
BEGALA: As I said, my heart goes out to them.
BUCHANAN: Yes, but you're criticizing them, suggesting this is some ploy. That's outrageous. And I believe --
BEGALA: It has been used in the past.
BUCHANAN: -- it's this kind of attitude that is going to --
BEGALA: Tom Ridge -- Tom Ridge, the former director of Homeland Security, has said -- I'm paraphrasing, but he has said that he thinks there have been times when the White House exerted pressure, political pressure, on terrorism politics and terrorism press matters. I don't know if this is one of those occasions. But let's go back and see what Secretary Ridge said. And I just think a lot of voters are going to be deeply skeptical.