Hume, Krauthammer misrepresented poll numbers to falsely suggest widespread support for warrantless wiretapping

››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

Fox News host Brit Hume and nationally syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer misrepresented public support for the Bush administration's warrantless domestic surveillance program, claiming that Americans "overwhelmingly" support the program. In fact, while Americans generally support spying on suspected terrorists, polls consistently show that most Americans disapprove of conducting surveillance without seeking or obtaining a warrant.

On the March 19 edition of Fox News Sunday and the March 17 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, commentators continued to misrepresent public support for the Bush administration's warrantless domestic surveillance program. In discussions of Sen. Russ Feingold's (D-WI) call to censure President Bush for "authoriz[ing] an illegal program to spy on American citizens on American soil," both Fox News host Brit Hume and nationally syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer claimed that Americans "overwhelmingly" support the program. In fact, while Americans generally support spying on suspected terrorists, polls consistently show that most Americans disapprove of the tactics the administration has used in conducting surveillance -- specifically, conducting surveillance without seeking or obtaining a warrant.

On Fox News Sunday, Hume, who heads Fox's Washington bureau, claimed the wiretapping program "has proved surprisingly, not to say astonishingly, popular with the public." And on Special Report, Krauthammer stated, "If you ask people, 'Do you want the government listening in when Al Qaeda calls somebody in the United States?' the answer is logically and overwhelmingly, yes." Both statements are misleading.

As Media Matters for America has documented (here and here), most recent polls show that the public opposes the warrantless eavesdropping authorized by President Bush in apparent violation of the law. A Quinnipiac University poll conducted February 21-28 found that while 79 percent of "American voters say the government should continue monitoring phone calls or e-mail between suspected terrorists in other countries and people in the U.S.," 55 percent say "that the government should get court orders for this surveillance." A CBS News poll conducted February 22-26 asked respondents: "Regardless of whether you approve of the President authorizing the wiretaps, do you think the President has the legal authority to authorize wiretaps without a court warrant in order to fight terrorism, or doesn't he?" Fifty-one percent said the president does not have the legal authority to do so. A February 9-12 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll reported that 50 percent of respondents believed the Bush administration was "wrong" to wiretap "conversations without a court order," while 47 percent said it was "right."

Further, as National Public Radio (NPR) senior correspondent and Fox News contributing political analyst Juan Williams noted in his rebuttal to Fox's bureau chief, Hume appeared to have made the assumption that because the public approves of spying on suspected terrorists, it approves of whatever means are used by the administration to conduct the eavesdropping. Williams stated, "But you've mixed up two things. You've mixed up the idea of the popularity of the program with its legality. I don't think I've met any American who says we shouldn't be doing everything we can to prevent another terrorist attack against this country, including surveilling these conversations. But it's not the question of people say[ing], oh, yeah, therefore, we don't need the judges, we don't need the Congress, we don't need anything but to put our trust in the president." As the polls show, one can believe the president should conduct surveillance on suspected terrorists and at the same time believe that he should obey the law in doing so.

Media Matters has documented additional instances of the media mischaracterizing Americans' support for Bush's wiretapping program here, here and here.

From the March 19 edition of Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday:

WILLIAMS: But what you do see here is that someone is saying that the president has to be held accountable, and there's no question -- no question -- that there was unauthorized use of wiretaps. No warrant granted.

HUME: Yes, there is.

WILLIAMS: That argument is so weak, that's why I think Bill [Kristol] says the president and the Republicans will lose that argument because if you ask people about it, what they'll say is well, on the basis of it -- we impeached President Clinton for what, messing around with the intern, but we're not going to impeach a president who's actually violating the laws of the United States? There's something out of kilter here.

HUME: I agree with Bill that this is good politics in terms of the Democratic Party for Feingold, and the survey you showed backs that up.

I don't agree, however, that this is a smart move on his part in terms of damaging the president on this issue. Yeah, it gets a couple of days with people talking about the illegality of the wiretap program, but that program has proved surprisingly, not to say astonishingly, popular with the public. Should we listen in on Al Qaeda conversations in the United States or Al Qaeda-related conversations? And the answer is overwhelmingly yes.

Senator Feingold is in a peculiar position, as you pointed out in your interview with Senator [Richard J.] Durbin [D-IL], to be talking so confidently about how illegal all this is when he is not among those who has been briefed on the program and is essentially, therefore, talking through his hat.

I don't think that's a winner in the long term for the Democrats, although, you know, all kinds of wacky ideas, including impeachment, have a great deal of traction in the Democratic Party.

[NPR national political correspondent and Fox News analyst] Mara [Liasson] referred to some in the Democratic base who feel that way. I would say that a majority, and probably a quite distinct majority, in the Democratic base feel that way, which is, depending on how you look at it, either a burden for the party in general or perhaps, in the case of Senator Feingold, a blessing.

WILLIAMS: But you've mixed up two things. You've mixed up the idea of the popularity of the program with its legality. I don't think I've met any American who says we shouldn't be doing everything we can to prevent another terrorist attack against this country, including surveilling these conversations.

But it's not the question of people say oh, yeah, therefore, we don't need the judges, we don't need the Congress, we don't need anything but to put our trust in the president.

From the March 17 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:

KRAUTHAMMER: Look, Democrats understand the problem of overreaching. The Republicans overreached with Clinton, with impeachment and censure and all that, and they suffered.

Americans are uneasy about Bush, generally speaking, about the war, about other stuff. But it's only the hard-core left that actually really hates him the way that many in the Democratic Party do. And when you act on that hate and you're out of control, it's gong to hurt you in the polls. That's why Democrats are not on this train.

Also, the NSA issue is one in which, on the substance, Democrats are very weak. If you ask people do you want the government listening in when Al Qaeda calls somebody in the United States, the answer is logically and overwhelmingly, yes. So, on that issue, on the substance, it's a loser.

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