Little NSA Debate at CBS: Why Can’t Face the Nation Face Dissent on NSA Spying?

The CBS Sunday morning showFace the Nation featured a discussion of NSA surveillance with the former head of the agency and two politicians who vigorously defend the agency’s mass surveillance programs.

The August 11 show featured a softball interview with Michael Hayden, who oversaw some of the most controversial Bush-era tactics at the NSA, including the warrantless wiretapping of American citizens (New York Times, 12/16/05). AsGuardian columnist Glenn Greenwald (8/12/13) observed, that eavesdropping was repeatedly found by federal judges to be unconstitutional and a felony.

But the person in charge of overseeing that program was not brought on to answer tough questions about the illegality of spying on Americans; rather, he was treated as an expert who can explain the program’s effectiveness and vouch for its lawfulness.

The two CBS guests who followed were from different political parties, but shared the same enthusiasm for boosting the NSA: Republican Rep. Peter King (“I fully support the NSA program. It’s been effective. It’s done an outstanding job”) and Maryland Democrat Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (“There are checks and balances that we have. We have congressional oversight which we need to do and we continue to do. We have the court oversight”). (Rupperberger’s district happens to include NSA’s headquarters.)

This was actually Hayden’s second appearance on the show to discuss the NSA controversies brought to light by the Guardian‘s Greenwald and based on documents shared by whistleblower Edward Snowden.



Face the Nation has also conducted two interviews (7/28/13, 6/16/13) with Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), another defender of the current NSA surveillance programs, as well as an unsurprisingly reassuring interview with White House chief of staff Denis McDonough (6/16/13) that dealt with many of the NSA issues.

Face the Nation hasn’t entirely excluded critical points of view. Reporter Barton Gellman, who also broke some of the NSA stories in the Washington Post, has been part of two roundtables on the show (6/16/13, 8/4/13). And Sen. Mark Udall, a longtime NSA critic, made one appearance on July 28.

But the program has put much more emphasis on hearing from NSA defenders, most noticeably the lopsided discussion presented on the recent August 11 program.



So why is that? During his earlier interview with Hayden (6/30/13), Schieffer thanked his guest for showing up, asking him, “Do you think the government ought to be doing more to help the American people understand what’s happening here?”

It is striking that a journalist would suggest that one should interview government officials in order to “help the American people understand” a secret surveillance program–one that it is seeking to jail a former employee for revealing.



But Schieffer’s view of Snowden, which he shared with viewers on the June 16 program, no doubt plays a role too. “I like people who are willing to stand up to the government,” he claimed. But real heroes, to Schieffer, don’t behave the way Snowden has:

I don’t remember Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks running off and hiding in China. The people who led the civil rights movement were willing to break the law and suffer the consequences. That’s a little different than putting the nation’s security at risk and running away.

He added that Snowden was “just a narcissistic young man who has decided he is smarter than the rest of us. I don’t know what he is beyond that, but he is no hero.”

Schieffer’s intense dislike for Snowden is clear. The problem is that Snowden’s revelations have transformed the political discussion of government surveillance–except for the one viewers are seeing on Face the Nation.

ACTION: Tell Face the Nation that the public deserves a more wide-ranging debate about the controversial NSA surveillance programs–especially after the show’s August 11 broadcast, which featured three NSA defenders.


CBS Face the Nation
Phone: 202-457-4481

Please leave copies of your messages to CBS, or comments on this alert, on the FAIR Blog.

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