The Database Double Standard

Here is the most insincere question a liberal TV news star can ask: How can President Bush turn around his poll numbers? Imagine how they would have reacted if Rush Limbaugh had pretended to worry how Bill Clinton was going to turn around his fortunes. The media’s crocodile tears are not even laughable, just nauseating. Pushing down the president’s approval rating seems to be their daily task.

The newest manufactured brouhaha — over the National Security Agency (NSA) creating a database of phone records to track terrorist phone patterns — was just the latest in a long string of stories trumped up to make Bush look not just incorrect, but dictatorial, even evil. USA Today hyped the story, and the media pack lapped it up, but it failed the first test of newsworthiness: Is it new? No. USA Today’s scoop was mostly a retelling of what the New York Times reported last Christmas Eve, that the phone companies had given the NSA "access to streams of international and domestic communications."

If this wasn’t merely a partisan media ploy to pound Bush’s reputation into a finer powder, wouldn’t the networks hype a story whenever it felt a White House was intruding on the personal privacy of Americans? Yes, but we do not have an equal-opportunity media when it comes to scandal creation.  

For a sense of the Earth-shaking tone the anchors used against Bush, here’s how NBC anchor Brian Williams began his broadcast in 2006: "It started on page one of USA Today and exploded all over the morning news." The "super-secret National Security Agency is using phone company records, just about all the phone calls made in this country, to build a massive database of phone calls and e-mails."

Ten years ago, when the Clinton administration was rifling through the FBI files of former Republican officials, it was extremely distasteful to object. Here is Brian Williams in June of 1996, after the White House admitted collecting FBI reports on 338 GOP officials (later revised upward to more than 900), and after Bob Dole compared it to Nixon’s enemies list: "The politics of Campaign ’96 are getting very ugly, very early. Today Bob Dole accused the White House of using the FBI to wage war against its political enemies, and if that sounds like another political scandal, that’s the point."

At that time, Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz admitted the press blew the FBI-files story. Why? There was a "feeling that … a political snooping operation was not the kind of thing they expected from the Clinton White House, whereas if hundreds of files had been obtained by Ed Meese in the Reagan administration on Democrats, I think this story would have rocketed to the front page."

Now we’re observing that role reversal. Granted, the scope of the NSA database is much larger. But it’s also less personal than FBI files, full of raw personal allegations. How’s that for a double standard: The Clintons built a treasure-trove of personal data on their political adversaries, and the networks called the Republicans who objected "ugly"? But when the NSA builds a database to discover terrorists in America, it’s time to impeach the dictator.

The Clintons were absorbed in database creation — not to protect the country, but to protect and perfect their grip on power. "Secret System Computerizes Personal Data," declared a June 26, 1996, front-page article in The Washington Times. Reporter Paul Rodriguez detailed how the White House Office Data Base (WHODB) tracked personal information on those who visited the Clintons, including their Democratic National Committee donation records. Network coverage? Not a word on ABC, CBS or NBC.

Seven months later, the Los Angeles Times and Time magazine "broke" the story again, discovering the Clintonites routinely turned over personal information of supporters to the DNC, mingling White House funds and party-building activities. Then CBS and NBC aired one story. ABC did not. But again, it was a Republican allegation, not a Los Angeles Times story.

On CBS, Dan Rather found "Republicans have again attacked" on the database of 350,000 names, and "Republicans say that this was a blatant fundraising operation and that taxpayers were stuck with a $1.7 million tab to create it." That’s basically what the newspapers said, too, but CBS smarmily cast as a negative partisan campaign. Reporter Rita Braver concluded by spinning for Hillary: "Now the documents we obtained showed that the First Lady personally pushed hard for this system … she confirmed that. She also insisted she only wanted something to track who came to official White House functions."

It’s only when Republicans hold the White House that the networks fear an "imperial presidency." But the problem for Americans is an imperial media, so assured of its own self-congratulatory role as defender of America’s freedoms, but such an emperor with no clothes of fairness or balance.