Over at www.mrc.org, we’ve just posted a new study of how ABC, CBS and NBC have covered the NSA surveillance story. It's just as awful as you expected — most network stories were framed around the idea that the program is probably illegal and a shocking violation of Americans’ civil liberties.
Maybe the most interesting statistic is how reporters themselves refer to the targets of NSA’s surveillance. Most of the time, it’s either “domestic spying” or “spying on U.S. citizens,” categories that account for 84% of journalists’ descriptions. Only about one-sixth of the reporters descriptions point out that the targets are either “U.S. citizens suspected of ties to al-Qaeda” or “suspected al-Qaeda operatives inside the U.S.”
On the December 24 World News Tonight, ABC’s Dan Harris even hyped how “the spying was much more widespread, with millions of calls and e-mails tracked — perhaps even yours.” (In fact, the program focused on just a few hundred “U.S. Persons” — an NSA term for anyone located on U.S. territory, whether they are a law-abiding citizen or a terrorist infiltrator. Harris was talking about a different program that collected phone numbers, not conversations.)
Are reporters trying to make the program sound as scandalous as possible? Or is this just another way of luring viewers by hyping everything as a threat or a danger to their well-being? Either way, it’s a pretty poor contribution to what is supposed to be an important debate about how best to confront a dangerous enemy.