ABC World News ignored Democratic criticism of detainee bill; NBC, CBS downplayed story altogether

››› ››› SIMON MALOY

In her report on President Bush's signing of the controversial detainee bill, ABC's Martha Raddatz noted Sen. Russ Feingold's general opposition to the bill but gave no indication of Feingold's specific criticism -- that the bill "allows the government to seize individuals on American soil and detain them indefinitely with no opportunity to challenge their detention in court." Nightly news broadcasts on NBC and CBS devoted little attention to the bill's signing and ignored Democratic criticism of it altogether.

In reporting on President Bush's October 17 signing of the controversial Military Commissions Act of 2006, ABC chief White House correspondent Martha Raddatz, on ABC's World News with Charles Gibson, noted that there were "only a few Democrats who released statements today critical of the bill. One of them, Senator Russell Feingold [D-WI], saying, 'We will look back on this day as a stain on our nation's history.' " Raddatz, however, did not say what Feingold's specific criticism of the bill was -- that it, in Feingold's words, "allows the government to seize individuals on American soil and detain them indefinitely with no opportunity to challenge their detention in court."

The October 17 broadcasts of NBC's Nightly News and the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric devoted little attention to the story and ignored Democratic criticism of the bill by Feingold and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, altogether.

As Media Matters for America has noted, under the Military Commissions Act, the president can simply designate any noncitizen in the United States or elsewhere an unlawful enemy combatant and lock that person away indefinitely, with no access to any tribunal to review his or her detention.

On ABC, Raddatz reported that "[t]he language [in the bill] is so vague, say some lawyers, you could drive a truck through it. Others say, it's just wrong." ABC then aired a clip of Thomas Wilner, an attorney who has represented detainees at the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility, saying: "What this bill does is reverse 500 years of common-law history and said the president, the king, the executive can throw somebody in jail without needing to justify it to a court. That violates the rule of law and it violates our Constitution."

Raddatz's report continued:

RADDATZ: What is clear is this: The government can now proceed with the prosecution of detainees such as Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, accused of masterminding the 9-11 attacks. Hearsay evidence, which would not be admissible in civilian courts, will be allowed if a judge deems it reliable. And detainees are denied habeas corpus so they cannot challenge their detention in court.

There were only a few Democrats who released statements today critical of the bill. One of them, Senator Russell Feingold, saying, "We will look back on this day as a stain on our nation's history." Charlie?

GIBSON: Martha, you mentioned there were only a few politicians who spoke out against it. Many more human rights people than politicians were objecting to this bill, and I suspect there's a reason for that.

RADDATZ: There is a reason, Charlie. This has not been a winning issue for the Democrats. In fact, in recent polls, 53 percent of Americans said it was OK to have secret prisons where U.S. laws did not apply. Basically, Charlie, Americans do not want torture, but they fear terrorist attacks even more.

Raddatz's quote from Feingold's October 17 statement gave no insight into what Feingold was protesting -- that the law does not apply only to detainees captured on overseas "battlefields" but to legal residents of the United States as well. Feingold's full statement makes this clear:

The legislation signed by the President today violates basic principles and values of our constitutional system of government. It allows the government to seize individuals on American soil and detain them indefinitely with no opportunity to challenge their detention in court. And the new law would permit an individual to be convicted on the basis of coerced testimony and even allow someone convicted under these rules to be put to death.

The checks and balances of our system of government and the fundamental fairness of the American people and legal system are among our greatest strengths in the fight against terrorism. I am deeply disappointed that Congress enacted this law. We will look back on this day as a stain on our nation's history.

Leahy's October 17 statement, which Raddatz ignored, was less specific, but Leahy's earlier statements on the detainee bill made clear that he shared Feingold's concerns. From Leahy's September 28 statement:

Going forward, the bill departs even more radically from our most fundamental values. And provisions that were profoundly troubling a week ago when the Armed Services Committee marked up the bill have gotten much worse in the course of closed-door revisions over the past week. For example, the bill has been amended to eliminate habeas corpus review even for persons inside the United States, and even for persons who have not been determined to be enemy combatants. It has moved from detention of those who are captured having taken up arms against the United States on a battlefield to millions of law-abiding Americans that the Government might suspect of sympathies for Muslim causes and who knows what else -- without any avenue for effective review.

Meanwhile, NBC and CBS barely covered the signing of the detainee bill. NBC's Nightly News devoted 69 seconds to the story, noting that the new law may not "pass the legal test." The CBS Evening News devoted 17 seconds to the story. Notably, both NBC and CBS devoted much more time to reporting on two recent studies on the seafood safety. NBC devoted 2 minutes and 18 seconds to the seafood story -- exactly twice the time it spent on the detainee bill. CBS devoted 1 minute and 37 seconds to the seafood story -- almost six times the amount of time its broadcast spent on the detainee bill.

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