FAIR Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting
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Nightly News Glosses Over Anti-Terrorism Act September 27, 2001
In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Congress is considering
anti-terrorism legislation that could seriously weaken civil liberties
in the U.S. Yet the three major networks' nightly news shows have done
little reporting on the issue.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) warns that the Anti-Terrorism
Act of 2001 includes provisions that could "deny meaningful hearings
to immigrants, minimize judicial supervision of electronic surveillance
by law enforcement authorities and vastly expand the government's ability
to conduct secret searches." In response to Attorney General John
Ashcroft's efforts to speed the bill through Congress last week, over
120 groups joined the ACLU in an unusually broad left-right coalition
to urge the government not to undermine liberty in the name of security.
Despite the magnitude of the changes the bill proposes, a search of
the Nexis database of news transcripts shows that neither CBS Evening
News nor NBC Nightly News has aired a single report exploring the legislation's
potential impact. ABC World News Tonight has aired one.
CBS Evening News touched on the issue in a two-sentence report stating
that George Bush had asked Congress "to approve expanded federal
authority to conduct wiretaps and detain suspects" and noting that
some in Congress "aren't so sure" the proposal won't violate
civil liberties (9/25/01). No further details about the legislation were
NBC Nightly News has gone so far as to state as fact the idea that security
concerns will necessitate a loss of civil liberties, but Nexis searches
failed to turn up a single mention of Ashcroft's anti-terrorism bill
on the show. Introducing a related report (9/21/01) about the newly established
Office of Homeland Security, anchor Tom Brokaw said that the office's
name "sounds like something out of a totalitarian regime," but
nonetheless "the attacks proved that something in America has to
change." NBC's Andrea Mitchell went on to report that after the
terrorist attacks "there will be a cost to our civil liberties," stating
flatly: "The price? Increased surveillance and inconvenience." The
report-- which ends by saying that "no one really knows how much
authority the new security czar will really have"-- suggests that
to stay safe, Americans must surrender liberties without even pausing
to ask which ones.
Commendably, ABC's World News Tonight (9/25/01) did devote a segment
to the proposed anti-terrorism legislation, reporting that it would "give
the government more power to spy on Americans here at home, monitor internet
use with little oversight from a judge, lock up immigrants whom the government
says might be a threat to national security without presenting evidence." A
few days earlier, however, after reporting poll numbers indicating that
many Americans fear losing their liberties to " the fight against
terror," World News Tonight reporter Dean Reynolds (9/21/01) managed
to conclude just the opposite-- that "right now the calls for action
are drowning out the second thoughts. As one veteran of World War II
put it today, if you have to violate freedom to protect the masses, go
ahead and do it."
Ashcroft's proposed legislation would significantly expand law enforcement's
powers in several ways, but among the most serious are provisions that
would, as noted in the ABC report, allow the Attorney General to order
the indefinite detention of any non-citizen, without specifying what
kind of evidence would be required. In addition, any non-citizen could
be deported if they had ever materially supported the activities-- lawful
or otherwise-- of any organization labeled " terrorist" by
the U.S. government, even if the group was not considered terrorist at
Ashcroft's drive to expand wiretapping powers has been widely described
as an anti-terrorism measure, but ACLU points out that under the Foreign
Intelligence Surveillance Act, the FBI can already obtain wiretaps in
investigations of terrorism without showing probable cause. Ashcroft's
bill would extend this authority to ordinary criminal cases, effectively
removing an important check on the FBI's domestic surveillance efforts.
The bill would also grant the government the authority to request secret
searches in any criminal case-- meaning that law enforcement could more
easily search an individual's property without notifying them. "This
vast expansion of power," says the ACLU, "goes far beyond anything
necessary to conduct terrorism investigations."
ACTION: Please contact CBS and NBC to ask that they devote serious attention
to the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001 and its potential impact on civil liberties.
You might also encourage ABC to continue its coverage of the issue.
CBS Evening News with Dan Rather
Fax: 212-975-1893 Email
NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw
Phone: 212-664-4971 email@example.com
ABC World News Tonight with Peter Jennings
Phone: 212-456-7777 firstname.lastname@example.org
As always, please remember that your comments are taken more seriously
if you maintain a polite tone. Please cc email@example.com with your correspondence.
For more information about the anti-terrorism bill's civil liberties
implications, see the ACLU's overview at: http://www.aclu.org/news/2001/n092001e.htm