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Friday, September 08, 2006

Asking the Wrong Questions-Is America safer today? The media don't seem interested

The title of a CBS special report Wednesday night posed the question that haunts us all after 9/11: "Five Years Later: Are We Safer?" Given the show's brevity--an hour minus commercials--and the complexity of the subject, CBS's treatment was predictably shallow.

After host Katie Couric asked President Bush a few questions of the "your critics say . . . how do you respond?" sort, and we toured the federal antiterrorism command center, there was little time left for an in-depth examination of anything.

Then again, CBS, like other networks, has had five years to illuminate suggestions to make Americans safer, and it has barely skimmed the surface in all that time. According to a new study by the Media Research Center (MRC), in fact, TV coverage of the domestic War on Terror has focused most intently not on the threat to our lives but on alleged threats to civil liberties.

The latter demands discussion in an era when potentially intrusive law-enforcement tools are indispensable weapons against an unconventional enemy. Yet when the MRC reviewed all CBS, ABC and NBC evening news segments about three major aspects of the war--a total of 496 reports since 9/11--it found almost no debate or context. Judging by most of the segments, the Patriot Act, the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay and NSA surveillance are legal atrocities with little or no security value.

The full MRC study will be available today on its Web site, www.mrc.org. In summary, it found that "most TV news stories about the Patriot Act (62%) highlighted complaints or fears that the law infringed on the civil liberties of innocent Americans. . . . Only one report suggested the Patriot Act and other anti-terrorism measures 'may not be enough.' "

Of 277 segments about Guantanamo, the MRC says, "most of the network coverage . . . focused on charges that the captured al-Qaeda terrorists were due additional rights or privileges . . . or allegations that detainees were being mistreated or abused. . . . Only 39 stories described the inmates as dangerous, and just six stories revealed that ex-detainees had committed new acts of terror after being released."

Finally, on phone-call monitoring, "most network stories (59%) cast the NSA's post-9/11 terrorist surveillance program as either legally dubious or outright illegal. Only 21 stories (16%) focused on the program's value as a weapon in the War on Terror."

The report's author, MRC research director Rich Noyes, reminded us this week that journalists are supposed to question what the government does. But the networks have been selective in what they questioned, often failing to ask what more can be done to protect us from deadly terror attacks.

Only, be careful what you wish for. Wednesday night, CBS correspondents did offer a couple of terror-fighting suggestions. The most remarkable one implied that many "homegrown" domestic Islamic radicals are comparatively harmless boobs with "delusional" schemes to blow us all up and called on the FBI to stop wasting so much time on these folks and focus instead on real al Qaeda types. Definitely not a proposal that should make anyone feel safer.

Wall Street Journal
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