Newscasts Lead with Phone Database; Unlike CBS, ABC & NBC Note Congress Knew

Matching the agenda of the morning shows, Thursday's network evening newscasts led with USA Today's front page story, “NSA has massive database of Americans' phone calls," with none noting how the New York Times reported the same information back on December 24. Unlike CBS, however, both ABC and NBC at least pointed out how many Members of Congress were aware of how Verizon, AT&T and Bell South were providing the NSA with the numbers called by their customers, but didn't complain. Didn't complain, that is, until the news media decided to make it a big issue on which they could rail, thus providing the news media with material for further coverage.

CBS anchor Bob Schieffer demanded: “Does the government need to know who you've been talking to on the phone? Then why is it collecting millions of our phone records?” Schieffer led with how the phone companies “have been turning over the telephone records of tens of millions of their customers to a government spy agency. The overriding question is why and who has access to them. And it set off a storm on Capitol Hill where Republicans and Democrats alike are demanding answers.” Well, one liberal Republican, Senator Arlen Specter, who Schieffer interviewed. ABC's Elizabeth Vargas announced: "We begin with a revelation that may change the way Americans think about phone calls” because “the government has been collecting tens of millions of phone records. This includes phone calls to and from citizens who are not suspects in any crimes.” (Partial transcripts follow)

On World News Tonight, ABC's George Stephanopoulos pointed out: “Core members of both the Senate and House intelligence committee were fully brief on this, including the details of the program described in USA Today. And one source in the Senate says that no Senator raised any legal objections to the program.”

Over on the NBC Nightly News, Lisa Myers was even more direct and named names: "House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi pounced on the headline even though she had been briefed long ago." Myers concluded her piece on reaction to the story: "One intelligence source tells NBC News that two dozen members of Congress have known about this program for years and have been completely uninterested until today."

For a rundown of the hyperbolic Thursday morning show coverage by the broadcast networks, see this NewsBusters posting, “Hyping USA Today's 'Big Brother' Bombshell: TV Jumps on Stale NSA Database Story,” by Rich Noyes. The posting includes an excerpt from the December 24 New York Times story which reported the same thing.

On Thursday night, ABC, CBS and NBC all led with multiple stories on the NSA collecting records of phone numbers dialed. The MRC's Brad Wilmouth took down how the networks opened their newscasts and I caught a few more noteworthy sentences from the May 11 programs:

CBS Evening News. Bob Schieffer, in opening teaser:

"I'm Bob Schieffer. Does the government need to know who you've been talking to on the phone? Then why is it collecting millions of our phone records? We'll start there, but those questions lead to this question:"

Anthony Mason: "So why did phone companies agree to provide information about your personal calls? I'm Anthony Mason with that story."
With “Your Phone Records” as the on-screen graphic, Schieffer began:
"Good evening. The newspaper USA Today broke the story. Three of the biggest telephone companies -- AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth -- have been turning over the telephone records of tens of millions of their customers to a government spy agency. The overriding question is why and who has access to them. And it set off a storm on Capitol Hill where Republicans and Democrats alike are demanding answers. The President wouldn't comment on the program, but he said everything the government is doing is legal. So we go first to the White House and Jim Axelrod. Jim?"

Axelrod ran soundbites from “outraged Senators,” and Bob Schieffer cued up Senator Specter from Capitol Hill to say why he's upset and to recite the questions he wants to ask the phone companies, yet neither bothered to inform CBS viewers of how the House and Senate leadership, as well as those on the intelligence committees, had long ago been made aware of the program. Following Schieffer's session with Specter, Anthony Mason looked at how the law compelled the phone companies to cooperate.




ABC's World News Tonight. Elizabeth Vargas opened:

"Good evening. We begin with a revelation that may change the way Americans think about phone calls and about the war on terrorism. Today we learned that since the attacks of September 11th, the government has been collecting tens of millions of phone records. This includes phone calls to and from citizens who are not suspects in any crimes. The reported goal was not to monitor conversations. It was to look for clues of terrorist activity in what's now become the largest database in the world. USA Today broke the story earlier, and tonight we cover it from all angles, beginning with ABC's chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross in Washington tonight. Brian?"
Following Ross, Vargas turned to Martha Raddatz and George Stephanopoulos in Washington, DC. Vargas set up Stephanopoulos:
“We already saw lots of outrage on Capitol Hill, but Members of Congress were in fact briefed on this.”

Stephanopoulos: “That's exactly right, Elizabeth. Core members of both the Senate and House intelligence committee were fully brief on this, including the details of the program described in USA Today. And one source in the Senate says that no Senator raised any legal objections to the program. Even Senator Russ Feingold, a member of the intelligence committee who's called for censuring the President over this program, said the details talked about in USA Today are not necessarily illegal, even though he thinks they're extreme and unwise.”

NBC Nightly News
. Brian Williams led:
"Good evening. It started on page one of USA Today and exploded all over the morning news. The story is that the U.S. government via the super-secret National Security Agency is using phone company records, just about all the phone calls made in this country, to build a massive database of phone calls and e-mails. Just hours after critics started to roar in outrage, by mid-day the President himself felt the need to defend his government's policy."
Lisa Myers began her story:
"Even though key members of Congress had been briefed on this secret program, there was a firestorm today on Capitol Hill. Members of both parties demanded information..."
Myers later observed:
"House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi pounced on the headline even though she had been briefed long ago."

Nancy Pelosi at press conference: "I've been briefed on some of this. I don't know everything that went into that disclosure, but I think it's alarming."
Myers subsequently concluded:
"One intelligence source tells NBC News that two dozen members of Congress have known about this program for years and have been completely uninterested until today."

After Myers, Andrea Mitchell looked at all the surveillance endured by Americans before Williams talked with Tim Russert about the impact on the nomination of Michael Hayden to lead the CIA.

Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center