The Media’s NSA Misrepresentations
POP QUIZ: Is the mainstream media 1) Politically biased 2) Incorrigibly sloppy 3) Unethical, or 4) All of the above?
Based on the reporting of the NSA’s collection of telephone company data, the only correct conclusion is 4) All of the above. There is nothing about the gathering of phone records breathlessly reported in USA Today that is remotely sinister, intrusive, offensive, illegal or new. This is billing information, nothing more nothing less, and records of what numbers phone users dial has long been established as unprotected by the Constitution, requiring no warrant for Government examination. Here’s relevant part of the Supreme Court’s opinion majority opinion in SMITH v. MARYLAND in 1979:
(b) Petitioner in all probability entertained no actual expectation of privacy in the phone numbers he dialed, and even if he did, his expectation was not “legitimate.” First, it is doubtful that telephone users in general have any expectation of privacy regarding the numbers they dial, since they typically know that they must convey phone numbers to the telephone company and that the company has facilities for recording this information and does in fact record it for various legitimate business purposes. And petitioner did not demonstrate an expectation of privacy merely by using his home phone rather than some other phone, since his conduct, although perhaps calculated to keep the contents of his conversation private, was not calculated to preserve the privacy of the number he dialed. Second, even if petitioner did harbor some subjective expectation of privacy, this expectation was not one that society is prepared to recognize as “reasonable.” When petitioner voluntarily conveyed numerical information to the phone company and “exposed” that information to its equipment in the normal course of business, he assumed the risk that the company would reveal the information [442 U.S. 735, 736] to the police, cf. United States v. Miller, 425 U.S. 435 . Pp. 741-746.
Nonetheless, the New York Times, Washington Post and scores of other media sources have described the NSA project as “monitoring” phone calls, feeding into hysterical accusations by Democrats and bloggers that this is the harbinger of a police state. This goes beyond sloppy reporting, although of course it is. It is affirmatively misleading a lie, if you will. When I tell you what number I dialed, that does not mean I let you “monitor” my call. Most readers believe “monitoring” a call means listening in, as in wire-tapping, and rightly so: that’s what the plain meaning of the word is. Why are they using this word if it isn’t accurate, applicable or true? Well, see the quiz above, and take your pick.
Democrats pronounced themselves stunned when polls showed that less than 40% of Americans were outraged at the NSA’s work; maybe they should alert the press to use even more dishonest descriptions than “monitoring.” Imagine how describing it as “taping” or “recording” would bump up the outrage! Those words would be terribly misleading, but so is “monitoring.” It is the perfect cycle: the press misinforms the public, then polls the public to determine how the misinformation has affected public opinion.
Should the NSA be doing this as an anti-terror measure? That is a very legitimate topic for debate. Unfortunately, we can’t have a meaningful debate about conduct that the news media irresponsibly/sloppily/dishonestly misrepresents, for whatever reason. This is how the execrable professionalism and ethics of American journalists distort our political process again and again.