ABC Cites Lawmaker 'Surprise' at Public Backing on Phones, But Media as Out of Touch

ABC's Elizabeth Vargas and George Stephanopoulos reported Friday night that lawmakers opposed to the NSA's program, which collects phone numbers dialed, were “surprised” that by two-to-one Americans consider the effort an “acceptable” anti-terrorism program. But given the media's hyperbolic negative reaction to the supposed “Big Brother” program, which spread into a second day on Friday, it's Vargas and Stephanopoulos -- along with the rest of the mainstream media -- who should be embarrassed by news judgment so out of touch with the public.

“An ABC News/Washington Post poll finds that Americans overwhelmingly support the surveillance of phone records as a way to protect them against a potential terrorist strike,” Vargas reported as she cued up George Stephanopoulos by relaying how “some lawmakers were taken by surprise by this widespread public support for the program." Stephanopoulos echoed: "That's right, Elizabeth. When I was speaking to opponents of the program today they were really surprised that more Americans didn't share their outrage.” (Those "opponents" are presumably in politics, but I'm sure the same could be said for journalists.)  Stephanopoulos further marveled at how “two-thirds of Americans wouldn't be bothered, even if the NSA was collecting their own phone records.” (ABC transcript, plus brief quotes from CBS and NBC on Friday night, follow)

Meanwhile, CBS and NBC plowed forward with fears over the program, continuing to treat it as a top story of the day. Bob Schieffer teased Friday's CBS Evening News with, in a nation of more than 200 million phone users making multiple calls most days, the obvious: “It turns out the phone companies gave the government records of not millions but trillions of phone calls made by Americans.” The NBC Nightly News tease from Brian Williams illustrated how journalists live in another world from most Americans who can't comprehend the media hype for such a rational policy: “The political firestorm over the government surveillance program of Americans' phone calls...”

The CBS Evening News skipped the overnight ABC News/Washington Post poll (PDF), but NBC's Andrea Mitchell did note, in her NBC Nightly News piece, the survey's 63 percent to 35 percent widespread support.

On the May 12 World News Tonight, ABC anchor Elizabeth Vargas announced:
“There are two developments in the controversy about the government program that secretly collected records of millions of domestic phone calls. Qwest said today that it refused to provide its customers' phone records because it felt the surveillance violated privacy laws. Qwest was the only company that did not cooperate with the National Security Agency's program. An ABC News/Washington Post poll finds that Americans overwhelmingly support the surveillance of phone records as a way to protect them against a potential terrorist strike. They're in favor of it by a margin of nearly two to one [“Is collecting phone records acceptable? Yes: 63%, No: 35%].” ABC's Chief Washington correspondent George Stephanopoulos join us. And George, some lawmakers were taken by surprise by this widespread public support for the program.”

Stephanopoulos, from Washington, DC: “That's right, Elizabeth. When I was speaking to opponents of the program today they were really surprised that more Americans didn't share their outrage. But our poll shows that two-thirds of Americans [66%] wouldn't be bothered, even if the NSA was collecting their own phone records. And it also shows that a majority of Americans, 51 percent [versus 47%], think that President Bush has done a job of protecting privacy rights over these four years. Now that's not a huge majority, but it's much better than the President's ratings on issues like Iraq and the economy.”

Vargas: “So how might this public support for the program affect all the calls in Congress for investigations, for hearings into this?”

Stephanopoulos: “I think you're still going to see the hearings. The Chairman of Senate Judiciary Committee Arlen Specter is pretty committed to getting telephone executives up there. But I think you might see it moderate some of the vehemence among some Democrats. And it also seems to something that is still not blocking General Hayden and his quest to become CIA Director. He had a series of meetings today on Capitol Hill and he even drew some praise from the Democratic leader, Harry Reid.”
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