The story of the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping is one that mainstream media have been slow to give the attention it deserves (Action Alert, 1/11/06; Media Advisory, 1/27/06). Now some journalists are pointing to public opinion to justify the news industry's less-than-aggressive approach to this major constitutional scandal. But when NBC's Tim Russert and Chip Reid cite polling data, are they really talking about what the public thinks—or what they think we ought to think?
On February 7, when syndicated radio host Don Imus (whose show is simulcast on MSNBC) interviewed Reid, an NBC congressional correspondent, about Democratic criticism of the NSA wiretapping program, Imus remarked, "I wonder if these senators understand that the American people don't care about this." Reid replied:
One has to wonder whether Reid even read the NBC poll (1/26-29/06) he claims to be citing, because the actual results look very different. (See www.pollingreport.com/terror.htm.) When asked to approve or disapprove of the Bush administration "using wiretaps to listen to telephone calls between suspected terrorists in other countries and American citizens in the United States without getting a court order to do so," 51 percent approved vs. 46 percent disapproving—a fairly even split, hardly evidence that "the American people" are speaking with one voice on the issue.
But one can't even present that response as evidence of a narrow margin of support for Bush without taking into account the very next question in the poll. When asked a question that focuses specifically on whether the administration should be required to get a warrant or not—"Do you think that the Bush Administration should conduct wiretaps of American citizens who are suspected of having ties to terrorists without a court order, or do you think that the Bush Administration should be required to get a court order before conducting these wiretaps?"—41 chose "without a court order" and 53 percent said "with a court order."
Part of the difference in the response may have to do with asking about "terrorist suspects" vs. "citizens who are suspected of having ties to terrorists"—the latter formulation being a more accurate description of the targets, since the administration has no reason to suspect that most of the estimated 5,000 U.S. citizens or residents whose calls or e-mails have been monitored are actual terrorists.
Only 3 percent and 2 percent of respondents, respectively, answered "unsure" to these questions—suggesting that relatively few people "aren't really paying attention." As for the assertion that Americans "don't care" about the issue, when NBC asked, "How concerned are you that the Bush administration's use of these kinds of wiretaps could be misused to violate people's privacy?" 31 percent said "very concerned" and another 25 percent said "quite concerned"—for a total of 56 percent. Only 21 percent said they were "not at all concerned." By comparison, 48 percent were "very worried" or "fairly worried" that "the United States will experience another major terrorist attack."
Reid wasn't the only NBC reporter to skew the outlet's own poll. NBC Washington bureau chief Tim Russert, appearing on MSNBC's Hardball (1/30/06), reported the numbers this way:
Russert just skipped over the question where a majority said that the administration "should be required to get a court order before conducting these wiretaps"—an answer that directly contradicts his statement that a majority agrees with Bush. And his account of how many said they were concerned is inaccurate: A full 78 percent of respondents reported at least some concern over misuse of the policy.
And on his own show, Meet the Press (2/5/05), Russert dropped any reference to the question about privacy concerns, further tilting the poll in Bush's favor:
Brownstein, a Los Angeles Times political reporter, continued down the same path: "I think, as the issue is now defined, the polls have been very consistent from the beginning. That's one of about five or six polls that have shown a narrow plurality or majority supporting it." Brownstein is not only wrong in suggesting that the poll under discussion shows consistent support for Bush, but he's inaccurate about the polling in general. When a CBS News/New York Times poll (1/20-25/06), for example, asked whether people approved of the fact that "after 9/11, George W. Bush authorized government wiretaps on some phone calls in the U.S. without getting court warrants," 50 percent disapproved while 46 percent approved. Only when the phrase "saying this was necessary in order to reduce the threat of terrorism" was added to the question did 53 percent approve (vs. 46 percent disapproving).
Referring to "telephone conversations between U.S. citizens living in the United States and suspected terrorists living in other countries," a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll asked (1/20-22/06), "Do you think the Bush Administration was right or wrong in wiretapping these conversations without obtaining a court order?" 51 percent said it was wrong, while 46 percent said it was right. Fifty-eight percent said a special prosecutor should be appointed. (Polls by ABC News/Washington Post—1/23-26/06—and Fox News—1/10-11/06—did find majorities supporting warrantless wiretapping.)
FAIR has noted recently that the main reason freedom of the press is guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution is to serve as a protection for all the other rights. This is a role that the media have a moral obligation to play regardless of whether doing so is popular or not. What does it say when prominent journalists, rather than standing up for the Bill of Rights, distort the findings of their own polls to make it seem like U.S. citizens care less about their rights than they actually do?
ACTION: Please contact Tim Russert, NBC's Washington bureau chief, to point out that his network has mispresented the results of its polls to downplay public concern about Bush's warrantless wiretapping program.
NBC News Washington Bureau Chief
NBC Washington Bureau
c/o Meet the Press