MSM Outlets Ignore or Cite Political Motives for the Criticism of the NY Times

The disgust of conservatives directed at the New York Times after the newspaper on Friday again undermined national security, this time by taking the lead in exposing a program to monitor international financial transactions by terrorist operatives, hasn't much disturbed the broadcast networks. While the cable news channels have been filled with coverage, especially after President Bush on Monday called the disclosure “disgraceful,” the CBS Evening News with Bob Schieffer hasn't touched the controversy -- though it has made time for stories on how at Wimbledon women are paid less prize money than men and on a left-wing (un-labeled) group's efforts to raise the minimum wage -- and other broadcast network coverage has questioned the administration's motives.

On Monday night, NBC's Kelly O'Donnell asserted that “today's coordinated White House assault is more than simply shared frustration. Analysts say there is political upside as well." Tuesday, on NBC's Today, co-host David Gregory doubted the White House, wondering “whether we should be taking their word for it. That these are legal programs, inappropriate programs. Do you think the administration has earned the right, has any administration earned the right in this kind of war to protect that kind of secret?" Chris Matthews replied: "Well not this one.” On CBS's Early Show, Harry Smith called the paper an “easy target” and suggested: "Is this just a way to attack the evil media or does he have a legitimate beef here?" Meanwhile, on Tuesday's GMA, ABC's Jessica Yellin featured New York Times reporter Eric Litchblau's insistence that “we're not trying to tilt the debate, we're not trying to influence the debate one way or the other. We're just trying to inform the public debate," as well as a great zinger from radio talk show host Scott Hennen about how the Times has become “a terrorist tip sheet."

Monday night on MSNBC's Hardball, the MRC's Geoff Dickens noticed, Newsweek Assistant Managing Editor Evan Thomas contended that “both the [New York] Times and the [Washington] Post have been really pretty careful in this area historically. So I'm inclined to believe they've been careful this time too."

On Sunday, the New York Times posted a defense from their Executive Editor which, on Monday, the MRC's Clay Waters dissected on our TimesWatch site and on NewsBusters: "Editor Bill Keller, Feeling the Heat, Pompously Defends Latest Attack on U.S. Spy Program." Tuesday's Los Angeles Times carried an op-ed piece from Editor Dean Baquet, defending his paper's decision to match the New York Times with a Friday story, as did the Wall Street Journal. Baquet asserted: “In the end, we felt that the legitimate public interest in this program outweighed the potential cost to counterterrorism efforts.”

But that didn't lift the CBS Evening News from its slumber. Tuesday's newscast led with fires in West and flooding in East, followed by David Martin on "the staggering cost of the war" at $6 billion a month with, $17 billion needed by the Army to repair or replace equipment, a full story on how states, pushed by the un-labeled far-left group ACORN, are raising minimum wages since Congress won't, and a follow-up on Buffett/Gates. Monday's newscast, on a day when both the President and White House Press Secretary had lashed out at the New York Times, led with two stories on Warren Buffett's plan to give about $30 billion to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and aired pieces on how boys really aren't lagging behind girls, a full story on how CraigsList online ads are becoming more popular than newspaper classified ads and a full story on how women at Wimbledon are paid less prize money than male competitors.

ABC's World News Tonight has held its coverage to this short item Monday night, June 26:
Anchor Charles Gibson: "Both President Bush and Vice President Cheney had some sharp words today for the New York Times attacking the newspaper for publishing details of a secret anti-terror program that tracks money transfers. Last week the Times printed information on the operation that monitors international movement of large amounts of money. The President calls the newspaper's reporting harmful."

George W. Bush, at the White House: "Congress was briefed. And what we did was fully authorized under the law. And the disclosure of this program is disgraceful. We're at war with a bunch of people who want to hurt the United States of America. And for people to leak that program and for a newspaper to publish it does great harm to the United States of America."

Gibson: "The New York Times says it believes it and others in the press have served the public interest by accurately reporting on the program."


The NBC Nightly News on Monday carried a full story. Anchor Brian Williams set it up, from the cllosed-captioning corrected against the video by the MRC's Brad Wilmouth:
"Today both the President and the Vice President attacked what many people consider to be this nation's leading newspaper, the New York Times. The criticism comes days after that newspaper, along with the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal, revealed that Treasury officials are monitoring bank transactions on an international financial database as part of this government's secret anti-terrorism program. NBC's Kelly O'Donnell is with us from the White House for more on this tonight. Kelly, good evening."

Kelly O'Donnell, at the White House: "Good evening, Brian. Tonight the White House escalated what amounts to a shame campaign against one of the nation's most prominent newspapers, the New York Times, angered that the paper has exposed two of its secret surveillance programs. President Bush on a slow burn at the White House today."

George W. Bush: "And the disclosure of this program is disgraceful."

O'Donnell: "Vice President Cheney on the campaign trail in Nebraska bluntly laid blame."

Dick Cheney: "The New York Times has now made it more difficult for to us prevent attacks in the future."

O'Donnell: "Outrage building since Friday's New York Times revealed that after 9/11, the government has been secretly tracking thousands of confidential banking records that electronically pass through this office building in Belgium in an effort to break terrorists' financing."

Bush: "For a newspaper to publish it does great harm to the United States of America."

O'Donnell: "Senior administration officials had urged the paper to hold the story citing national security. The New York Times' defense in part: 'Nobody should think that we made this decision casually or without fully weighing the issues.' From the White House point of view, this was strike two. The New York Times had earlier reported on another government secret, the NSA's domestic eavesdropping."

Cheney: "What is doubly disturbing for me is that not only have they gone forward with these stories, but they've been rewarded for it by being awarded the Pulitzer Prize for outstanding journalism. I think that is a disgrace."

O'Donnell: "Today's coordinated White House assault is more than simply shared frustration. Analysts say there is political upside as well."

Charles Cook, NBC political analyst: "They've got to motivate their base, and conservatives, Republicans tend to distrust the media, so any time you can play off and use the media as a foil, it's probably a good thing."

O'Donnell concluded: "And still one more salvo. Late today from the administration, a letter from the Secretary of the Treasury to the New York Times editor saying that his editors and staff showed breathtaking arrogance and a deep misunderstanding of the program to think that they understood what was happening with terrorist financing in their explanation of how they reached this decision, and the New York Times analysis of how they came to their decision to publish the report is available online."


NBC's Today on Tuesday morning, June 27. At 7am, fill-in co-host David Gregory, NBC's chief White House correspondent, plugged upcoming topics: “Then we'll move on to another storm, the storm of controversy being stirred up by the Bush administration now. The President is slamming the New York Times for publishing details about a secret program to monitor millions of financial transactions in the hunt for suspected terrorists. Is the White House attacking the press for political gain or is the press really hurting the war on terror?”

Later in the half hour, viewers saw a piece on the matter from Norah O'Donnell similar to what aired the night before, though she added soundbites from a Democrat and Tony Snow and focused more attention on a political motive behind the criticism:

O'Donnell: "Democrats rebuked the White House's attacks against the media as a diversionary tactic."

Rep. Ed Markey: "The Bush administration has decided that it's a better political strategy to shoot the messenger."

O'Donnell: "The Times says terror financiers know their money is tracked. An argument the administration is happy to engage."

Tony Snow: "The New York Times and other news organizations ought to think long and hard about whether a public's right to know, in some cases, might override somebody's right to live."

O'Donnell: "It's not the first time the administration has taken on the paper which disclosed last year the NSA was secretly wiretapping phone calls."

Cheney, referring to the Pulitzer Prizes: "What is doubly disturbing for me is that not only have they gone forward with these stories but they've been rewarded for it."

O'Donnell: "Attacks like that in the midst of an election year may rally the conservative base."

Mike Allen, Time magazine: "It's partly a safe target and partly it's a reminder the President's conservative supporters that he's on one side and the press is on the other."

O'Donnell: "Now this debate comes as the President's agenda is stalled in Congress and Republicans have packed the legislative schedule with items that are meant to rally the base. Today they are debating a flag burning amendment."
Then, as outlined in an earlier NewsBusters posting by Mark Finkelstein, David Gregory turned to guest Chris Matthews from Washington, DC:
“Let me get right into this attack on the New York Times. You heard Tony Snow in Norah's piece and he said, 'that news outlets should think long and hard at a time of war about whether the right to know is overridden by Americans' right to live,' as he put it. What is this all about?"

Matthews: "Well I think on the substantive level, as you know David, as a journalist this is a tough call. Bill Keller the Executive Editor of the New York Times said it was a tough call, a hard call to judge between the public's right to know and Congress's right to know, which is important in this case and the dangers this may put our national security. However there are some mitigating factors here. If you just read, I just spent the weekend reading Don, Ron Suskind's new book. We've known for a long time that our intelligence agencies have been checking into financial transfers of money around the world. It's been a very effective weapon against the bad guys, the al Qaeda groups and related groups. And it's worked. We've picked up a lot of them using this financial trail. Unfortunately every time you pick up somebody, as Suskind points out in his book, you identify how you're picking them up. So that pattern is clear, the enemy knows we're using financial transfers to catch them. They're starting to use independent people that physically carry the money around rather than use electronic means. So you could argue, which is the New York Times argument, that a great deal of the, of the secret has been out already."

Gregory: "Well the other question is whether we should be taking their word for it. That these are legal programs, inappropriate programs."

Matthews: "Right."

Gregory: "Do you think the administration has earned the right, has any administration earned the right in this kind of war to protect that kind of secret?"

Matthews: "Well not this one. And I think that's a fair charge. I mean the fact is there has been a lot of secrecy in this administration which has been unwarranted by any historic measure. Certainly our energy program that Cheney has charge of we have never known who is involved in putting together that energy program from the outside, from the oil industry, from the gas industry. And also we've just learned from the L.A. Times something we never learned from the administration, new information. 50,000 Iraqis have been killed in this war. The administration has never given us any numbers like that. So we have to go to the press, us, to get the information."

Gregory: "Right."

Matthews: "We've got a war over there which has caused 50,000 lives. Bad intel cost us 3,000 lives in America. We can't just count on the government to give us the information."


CBS's The Early Show ran a story on the subject by Thalia Assuras before Harry Smith (as noted in another Mark Finkelstein posting), at the very end of a session with political analyst Amy Walter, raised the topic:
"Let's talk about the president and vice president mad as heck at the the New York Times. There are other papers including the Wall Street Journal that published this story as well though, about revealing the bank surveillance system. Is this just a way to attack the evil media or does he have a legitimate beef here in 30 seconds or so?"

Amy Walter: "Right. Well, listen, I think that certainly the president going on the offense on terrorism is always a place where he feels the most comfortable, the most confident, and it is still the place where most Americans give him high marks. So for the president to go out on the offense on this issue, I think still helps him ultimately in pushing his goal forward of positioning himself and the Republican party on terrorism as the leaders and protectors."

Harry Smith: "Yeah, easy target. Amy Walter, thank you so much. Great to see you."


ABC's Good Morning America on Tuesday delivered the most complete and balanced story, one in which Jessica Yellin included both criticism of the New York Times as well as a defense from the co-reporter on the article in question, while refraining from ascribing a political motive to the criticism of the newspaper. Diane Sawyer set up the 7am half hour coverage on the June 27 program caught by the MRC's Brian Boyd:
"Well, up next: the President and the White House expressing outrage at the media. The President making a very blunt accusation that the press is making it harder to win the war on terrorism by revealing secret programs. And the President's anger was sparked by a story broken by the New York Times and other leading newspapers about a secret effort to track the financial transactions of terrorists. ABC's White House correspondent Jessica Yellin has more on those heated words from Washington this morning, Jessica."

Jessica Yellin, from the White House press room: "Good morning, Diane. It is the Bush administration versus the New York Times once again. The Times says it published information about that secret anti-terror program because of the public's right to know, but the fight has sparked a fierce national debate. President Bush is blasting the media for publishing classified information, again."

George W. Bush: "The disclosure of this program is disgraceful [edit jump] and the fact that a newspaper disclosed it makes it harder to win this war on terror."

Yellin: "Conservative talk radio is picking up his message."

Audio of Scott Hennen, substitute host of the Sean Hannity Show on ABC Radio: "That's basically what the New York Times has become, hasn't it? I mean, it's a terrorist tip sheet."

Yellin: "And the debate is drawing heat on cable TV."

(Exchange from guests on MSNBC: "Do you want them-"
"Shut up for two seconds and I will."
"Do you want them to tell the New York Times not to publish?")

Yellin: "At issue, this New York Times article revealing a secret program designed to track terrorist money. It's been in place since 9/11 with no judicial oversight or legislation authorizing it. The administration says it's legal and pressed the New York Times and two other papers not to publish details of the program. But Eric Litchblau, who broke the story for the Times, points out many companies involved in the program doubt its legality."

Eric Litchblau, in interview with Yellin: "We're not trying to tilt the debate, we're not trying to influence the debate one way or the other. We're just trying to inform the public debate."

Yellin: "But the Bush administration maintains that's not good enough when security is at stake. Late Monday, Treasury Secretary John Snow sent the New York Times this letter slamming their 'irresponsible and harmful' reporting. And Representative Peter King is calling on the Justice Department to prosecute those at the New York Times who published the piece."

Congressman Peter King (R-NY), in his office: "They've put American lives at risk, they've compromised the program and to me their conduct was absolutely disgraceful and it's criminal and it should be prosecuted."

Yellin: "The New York Times says they have withheld other stories before because they were convinced publishing them might compromise national security. They say they were unconvinced in this case. The Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal also published similar stories about this anti-terror program."

TimesWatch Editor Clay Waters on Friday posted a critique, "Times Cripples Another Terrorist Surveillance Program," of the front page story by Litchblau and James Risen.

My April 18 NewsBusters posting, “Pulitzer Prizes Award Journalists Who Undermined Anti-Terrorism Programs,” detailed Risen’s honor along with how the prize board awarded Washington Post reporter Dana Priest for exposing the existence of secret sites in Europe to hold terrorists.
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