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The [Sunday] Papers

If you turned to Chicago's newspapers this weekend to learn more about the NSA's controversial phone-call tracking program, you were severely disappointed.

As the debate raged on elsewhere in the country - in the nation's elite newspapers, on the Internet and the cable news networks, and, from all available evidence, among the public itself - the papers here satisfied themselves with the barest of efforts.

On Saturday, the Sun-Times published a single Associated Press article on page two that read just like you would expect a story with the headline "CIA Nominee: We Followed The Law" to read.

The Tribune did better with a front-page story about the potential legal liability of the phone companies, noting that Qwest declined to turn over its records because it determined it would be a violation of telecommunications privacy law - which in fact is now the basis of a $5 billion lawsuit filed against Verizon.

The paper also had an inconsequential piece about the president's nominee for CIA director, Gen. Michael Hayden, that provided no extra value beyond what could have been picked up off the AP wire. The two reporters who worked on it may have been better deployed on the intriguing but still incomplete phone company story.

For example, if the NSA isn't collecting records from all the phone companies, can its program really be successful? I mean, does the absence of Qwest records mean that terrorists in the West are more likely to escape detection?

If the phone records are so important, why didn't the NSA seek a court order to compel Qwest's cooperation?

What was the nature of the discussions between Qwest and federal agents?

What do the legal counsels for the other phone companies have to say for themselves? Have they ever been sued for turning over phone records for commercial purposes? Have they turned over phone records to the government en masse before - say, during World War II? Would they object to just tying their computers right into the NSA? And if so, why?

Can I switch my phone service to Qwest?

If you were disappointed in what the Saturday papers had to say but figured they were saving their big pieces for Sunday, well, you were once again foiled by false hope.

In its news pages, the Sun-Times on Sunday printed a six-paragraph Bloomberg News story reporting on a Newsweek poll showing that "Phone Record Search Goes Too Far For Most In U.S."

The paper also published a 10-paragraph piece combining the reporting of Bloomberg News and AP on a New York Times story revealing that after 9/11, Vice President Dick Cheney wanted the NSA to monitor domestic communications without warrants. That was on page 26.

(Yes, the Sun-Times relies on other news agencies to report on stories appearing in yet other news outlets. It gets confusing, but it's a cheaper way to do business.)

True enough, the paper's Controversy section, which captures at least a slice of the Web's vitality each Sunday, featured the NSA controversy on its cover. But "Ten Reasons The NSA Should Hang Up Now" was reprinted from the Daily Kos, and the absolutely bizarre "The Real Big Brother Is On Capitol Hill" was reprinted from the National Review Online. They hardly sufficed.

The Tribune on Sunday also dodged the most compelling aspect of the story - the NSA is building the largest database in history tracking at minimum the phone calls of American citizens and possibly, based on recent data-mining efforts, medical records, credit card activity, banking records, and whatever else is out there under the direction of a president who may be acting outside the Constitution - in favor of a front-page wet kiss to Hayden in "The Man Behind Spy Flap - Hayden Seen As Washington Archetype, Effective Bureaucrat."

Do you feel smarter having read that? Feel like you really know this guy and what he's been up to snooping into your life? Or do you feel like you've just read yet another cliched script of a story that newspapers serve up time after time?

The Tribune also effectively blunted the significance of the NSA phone records story by placing on its front page an irrelevant piece about how much of your life is digitally documented by a variety of public and private concerns. "Privacy? What Privacy? - Cameras, Cards And All Sorts Of Data-Gathering Techniques Can Follow Almost Your Every Move" diminishes the NSA's data-mining operation by telling readers, in a light tone, that this sort of thing happens all the time.

Of course, the recording on a CTA smart card of which stations the card is used at is a little bit different than the federal government maintaining a huge database of all of its citizens.

More absurd is the front-page graphic, in which the paper offers three examples of "How the information age can invade your privacy." The first is that anyone can type your phone number into Google and get directions to your home.

Yes they can. As opposed to the old days when addresses weren't listed in phone books and maps weren't available to the general public.

(The other two: "Internet service providers keep logs of everything you do online, which can be made available to police." Just like phone service providers. Only you might have heard recently that the authorities don't need a warrant to get the phone logs; and "Your Internet address can be captured by a skilled hacker who can then figure out your home address." Maybe even by using Google.)

The Tribune states near the start of its story that "We live in a digital fishbowl, an overlooked aspect of the fiery debate that erupted last week with the reports that the National Security Agency is collecting information on America's telephone calls."

Good thing the Tribune is smart enough to locate the overlooked aspect of the NSA story rather than focus on the NSA story itself. Because I've never read a story before about new threats to privacy posed by the digital age. Apparently the Tribune has gotten there first.

(The story also contains the Tribune's obligatory slap at "young people," as if they are another species with which they are barely familiar, by stating near the top of the story that "Young people, in particular, who consider the Internet a virtual coffee shop to gather and chat, think little of exposing themselves with each visit."

(Let me tell you something: "Young people" are those hackers who are finding not just your home address but a list of the porn sites you've been looking at. If anyone knows how to use technology to shield their identity, it is "young people," not, say, newspaper reporters.)

The Tribune added one more piece to its coverage on Sunday, a seven-paragraph story under the headline "Bush: Americans' Privacy Protected." It was a summary of the president's weekly radio address. Isn't that the same thing as the president reading a press release on the air? How is that news? (Or was it the president's assurance that Hayden is "supremely qualified" that was so important to bring to readers?)

The paper's Perspective section also punted, enlightening us only with a story on its front cover entitled "Will This Military Man Say No?" about Hayden. Didn't I read this story on Saturday?

How can the real story here not engage our editors? There are serious questions here not only about how far the NSA's data-mining goes, but about whether this program is legal - whether the president has violated the law. The privacy of Americans from the intrusive force of the government is one of the bedrock principles of this country. We do not spy on our own citizens and maintain a database tracking their movements. Isn't that what made the Soviet Union an evil empire?

And if the program is legal - and effective - than so be it. But let's get to the bottom of it first. Doesn't this story demand our utmost attention? Or do our editors just assume by now that we get most of our news elsewhere? And if so, why do they even exist? To bring us Q?

The only shining light in all the muck was "A Nation Of Suspects In Land Of The Free," by Tribune editorial board member and columnist Steve Chapman.

It makes you wonder what stories he would've ordered up if he was the paper's editor.

The Beachwood Tip Line: Data-mining at its best.


Posted on May 15, 2006

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