ABC Ignores Denial by Phone Companies of NSA Story, Leads with Low Bush Rating

Tuesday's CBS Evening News devoted a story to how all three phone companies -- BellSouth, Verizon and AT&T -- denied they supplied the NSA with massive records of numbers called by their customers, as charged in a Thursday front page USA Today story which led to an ongoing media firestorm. Verizon, for instance, maintained: “Contrary to the media reports, Verizon was not asked by NSA to provide, nor did Verizon provide customer phone records.” NBC Nightly News ran a story on the denials by BellSouth and Verizon. But ABC's World News Tonight didn't utter a syllable about the denials which undermine the media's obsession of the last six days.

Instead, anchor Elizabeth Vargas announced: “We begin with President Bush and the growing dissatisfaction in this country with the job he is doing. A new ABC News/Washington Post poll finds that the President's approval now stands at just 33 percent, tying a 25-year low. George Stephanopoulos soon inserted a Vietnam comparison as he explained: "Everything President Bush says and does is seen through the filter of Iraq and the American people are judging it a failure. Look at these poll numbers: 59 percent call the war in Iraq a mistake. It took several more years back in the 1970s, far deeper into the Vietnam war, for the American people to reach that same judgment about Vietnam.” (Transcripts follow)

On the phone company denials, both CBS and NBC saw “parsing.” CBS's Jim Stewart cautioned, "You get the impression that they're very carefully parsing their statements,” and he endorsed the thrust of the story while giving a mild rebuke to USA Today: “You also get the impression looking at the body language of the intelligence community that there is something here, although maybe not on the scale that USA Today suggested." A flummoxed Lisa Myers of NBC decided: “It's very hard to know what this means because both statements are carefully parsed.”

Last Thursday, ABC led with the USA Today allegation now in question. Vargas opened the May 11 World News Tonight:
"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?"
Five days later, Vargas teased the May 16 World News Tonight:
“Tonight, a new ABC News poll finds Americans' satisfaction with their President is at a 25-year low. Can President Bush overcome an increasingly unpopular war?”
Vargas led her newscast:
“Good evening. We begin with President Bush and the growing dissatisfaction in this country with the job he is doing. A new ABC News/Washington Post poll finds that the President's approval now stands at just 33 percent, tying a 25-year low. The poll finds there is one significant reason behind the widespread unhappiness and that is the war in Iraq. Just 32 percent of Americans approve of his handling of the war. Until that changes, it will be very difficult for Mr. Bush to get traction on any other issue. ABC's Chief Washington correspondent, George Stephanopoulos, joins us, tonight, in New York, with more. This is not good news for the administration.”

Stephanopoulos, at the anchor desk with Vargas, over poll numbers on screen: “Elizabeth, everything President Bush says and does is seen through the filter of Iraq and the American people are judging it a failure. Look at these poll numbers: 59 percent call the war in Iraq a mistake. It took several more years back in the 1970s, far deeper into the Vietnam war, for the American people to reach that same judgment about Vietnam. 55 percent today of the American people are pessimistic about the situation in Iraq. That's a big jump from December, when there was hope over the elections. But the failure to form a government is really taking its toll.”

Vargas: “In the meantime, the polls actually show a remarkable disconnect. People are very unhappy with the President and his administration. But are very happy with their personal lives.”

Stephanopoulos: “This is the most fascinating finding in the poll: 69 percent of the American people think the country is on the wrong track. But 58 percent of the American people think their local community is on the right track, is going in the right direction. And 89 percent of the American people are optimistic about their own, personal future. You know, a President just shouldn't be at 33 percent when you've got 89 percent of the country optimistic about their future. This is a challenge and an opportunity for the President. The opportunity is, if things can turn around in Iraq, if they can get stabilized, and that starts to turn around, everything else should turn around, as well.”


The MRC's Brad Wilmouth corrected the closed-captioning against the video for the May 16 CBS and NBC coverage of the denials from the phone companies:

CBS Evening News
. Anchor Russ Mitchell:
"And with the 9/11 attacks, of course, began the War on Terror, which includes President Bush's once-secret domestic eavesdropping program, monitoring, without a warrant, phone calls and e-mails of Americans suspected of having ties to terrorists. Today congressional leaders say that in a major about-face the President agreed to allow the full Senate and House intelligence committees to review that program. There have been reports for almost a week now that also, as part of the War on Terror, major telephone companies were giving the government their customers' phone call records. But with those companies facing billions of dollars in lawsuits, they are now saying it never happened. There's a lot of confusion about this tonight. Jim Stewart's in Washington to sort if out for us. Hi, Jim."

Jim Stewart: "Russ, all three of the giant telephone companies that are alleged to have turned over millions of consumer phone records to a national spy agency now say they didn't do that, but their denials haven't stopped the firestorm. In carefully worded statements, BellSouth, AT&T, and now Verizon have challenged a report in USA Today that said the companies gave tens of millions of consumers' phone records to the National Security Agency as part of the War on Terrorism after 9/11: 'Contrary to the media reports, Verizon was not asked by NSA to provide, nor did Verizon provide customer phone records,' a company statement said. In response, USA Today said it will 'continue to investigate and pursue the story. We're confident in our coverage.' The phone records were reportedly stored in the NSA's mammoth computer system as analysts there tried to connect the dots between U.S. telephone numbers found on terrorist operatives captured overseas or numbers here that were dialed by suspected terrorists from their overseas locations. The New York Times had earlier reported the existence of an NSA eavesdropping program on international calls without warrants. Any collection of domestic consumer records would suggest the NSA program was far larger than suspected. President Bush today, however, insisted that no domestic calls were ever listened to without a warrant."

George W. Bush, at press conference: "This government will continue to guard the privacy of the American people, but if al-Qaeda is calling into the United States, we want to know, and we want to know why."

Stewart: "One of the companies, Verizon, suggested they're not even sure they could help the government if asked. There's no record any longer for most local calls, they said, because customers aren't billed for them. Russ?"

Mitchell: "Jim, as we said, this story has been around for a week. By issuing these carefully worded statements today, are these companies saying, in essence, there is nothing at all to this story?"

Stewart: "You get the impression that they're very carefully parsing their statements, and you also get the impression looking at the body language of the intelligence community that there is something here, although maybe not on the scale that USA Today suggested, Russ."


NBC Nightly News. Brian Williams asserted:
"At the White House today, President Bush said the federal government does not listen in on domestic phone calls, but he did not deny that the National Security Agency is collecting the records of millions of Americans' phone calls. Tonight, however, two of the big phone companies named as part of the surveillance program are denying they turned over records. We're joined for more on this tonight by our senior investigative correspondent Lisa Myers. So, Lisa, these two companies reported by USA Today to have been providing billing records to the government have now issued the denials?"

Lisa Myers: "Yes, they have, Brian. Both statements are a bit confusing and leave many unanswered questions. BellSouth now says its own internal review has determined that the company has not 'provided bulk customer calling records to the NSA,' and 'does not have any contract to do that.' Now, Verizon's statement starts by saying it 'won't confirm or deny' whether it has any relationship with the NSA program. It says that it 'never provided customer phone records to the NSA.' But Verizon will not comment on whether MCI, the giant phone company Verizon bought recently, did provide data to the NSA."

Williams: "So, Lisa, bottom line, what does all this mean? And is all this about lawsuits that have come up over matters of privacy?"

Myers: "Well, Brian, it's very hard to know what this means because both statements are carefully parsed. Clearly, the lawsuits have to be on these companies' minds. There already is a class action suit in New York against companies alleged to have cooperated with NSA."

Williams: "And all of this started with the reporting of USA Today, as we mentioned. What has their reaction been to this?"

Myers: "Well, Brian, tonight the paper says it remains confident about its story but will continue to investigate."
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