The [Friday] Papers
Score one for White House media strategists who rushed the President in front of cameras yesterday to respond to an explosive USA Today story about the National Security Agency collecting phone records of American citizens.
That's how a nimble Administration turns a headline such as "NSA Collecting American Phone Records" or "NSA Examining Your Phone Calls" into one like "Bush: No Laws Were Broken," which appears across the top of the Chicago Tribune today.
(At least the Tribune decided the story was the most important one of the day. The Chicago Sun-Times thinks it's more important that U.S. congressman Danny Davis might like to be Cook County board president.)
I understand the impulse that newspapers have in our new hyperspeed media environment to report beyond yesterday's well-known events. But it's one thing to be up-to-date and another to speed by the original story in the process.
The president's closely crafted statement is just that - a document closely crafted by his media managers and designed to shape the discourse in his favor rather then elighten the electorate. Some might call it propaganda.
The reaction of various influential members of Congress is certainly important, though it must also be distilled through a political lens.
But we here in Chicago haven't yet absorbed the story everyone is reacting to. When I read in the Sun-Times front page promo for its NSA story that "Some lawmakers howl over news that [the] National Security Agency is building a database of every call within the country," I'm not thinking about the howling, I'm thinking, "Wait a minute. They aren't just collecting phone records but they are BUILDING A DATABASE OF EVERY CALL WITHIN THE COUNTRY?!"
In terms of news judgement, isn't that, like, HUGE?
We already know the NSA has an eavesdropping program that may be illegal, a fact that currently imperils the president's new choice to head the CIA.
And we know that this adminstration once propsed a Total Information Awareness data-mining program, curbed by Congress, that would have collected information on individuals such as credit-card purchases, bank transactions, and drug prescriptions.
So maybe fleshing out the initial core of this story and placing it within the larger context of an agency and a presidency indisputably in a constitutional no-man's land deserves higher priority than the president's scripted response or the reaction of congressional members who so far have been feckless in overseeing this administration's wayward moves into an unconstitutional presidency. Not to mention Danny Davis's possible Cook County board candidacy.
For example, this part of the Tribune's story sure stuck out:
"But Russell Tice, a former NSA analyst who disclosed the surveillance program Bush was referring to, said that NSA is conducting a number of programs that violate U.S. law. The NSA employees doing that work, said Tice, a 20-year intelligence veteran who was fired from the NSA last year, know it is unlawful.
"Everyone at NSA knew what they were doing was illegal," Tice told the Tribune, "because it's drilled into our heads over and over that it's against NSA policy that you do not do that [domestic surveillance]. The choice is to speak out and get fired."
Those were the final two paragraphs of the Tribune's story. Perhaps the paper could have oriented its story around the NSA and what folks like Tice are saying, as well as the astounded legal experts I saw on the cable news shows yesterday, rather than waste space with administration's spin efforts such as:
"White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said that Thursday's disclosure of the NSA phone records database program was unlikely to affect [CIA director nominee] Hayden's confirmation chances.
"'I think Gen. Hayden has had a really good start to his confirmation process,' she said."
Did the paper really have to make room for that kind of nonsense?
The Tribune story moved quickly from the president's response to congressional response to the potential impact on Hayden while I was still trying to get my head around what the NSA is doing. And the paper didn't include what sounds to me like the most significant revelation yet, the aforementioned aspect that the Sun-Times mentioned (but did not follow-up on in an even more inadequate report): THE NSA IS BUILDING A DATABASE OF EVERY PHONE CALL MADE IN AMERICA!
Every conspiracy theory is now back on the table.
Boarding School: The Tribune's editorial board does better. In fact, the first three paragraphs of its NSA edit could have properly stood as the opening of a front-page news story.
Back in the USA: For a more complete view, here are today's USA Today stories.
Bush Legacy: With conservatives now disliking this president as much as liberals, at least he is finally proving to be a uniter and not a divider.
The Beachwood Tip Line: Buy a membership and we'll listen harder.
Posted on May 12, 2006
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