Russert selectively cited new NBC poll to back up assertion that Americans, despite concerns, agree with Bush on domestic spying

Stating on Meet the Press that Americans support President Bush's domestic spying program, Tim Russert selectively cited data from an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll to prove his point. Russert cited a question about whether people support Bush's “approach” to the domestic spying program, while ignoring poll questions regarding privacy concerns raised by the program and whether warrants should have been obtained before wiretapping.

On the February 5 broadcast of NBC's Meet the Press, NBC News Washington bureau chief Tim Russert selectively cited the results of a January 30 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll on Americans' views on President Bush's warrantless domestic surveillance program as a preface to asking his panel whether “the president has turned the corner on that issue.” Russert reported the results of one question that showed a slight majority approving of the program, but ignored the next two questions in the poll, which produced contradictory results. Russert had previously cited the results of one of those questions in earlier appearances on NBC and MSNBC to discuss the poll, but the question he left unreported in those appearances and on Meet the Press was the question that more directly contradicted the finding that a majority approved of the domestic surveillance program.

Russert cited the poll's finding (question 23) -- that 51 percent approved of the “domestic wiretap program sponsored by the president,” while 46 percent disapproved, -- in order to ask Los Angeles Times columnist Ronald Brownstein, "[H]as the president turned the corner on that [issue]?" That question actually asked about whether people approved of Bush's “approach” on the issue of “using wiretaps to listen to telephone calls between suspected terrorists in other countries and American citizens in the United States without getting a court order to do so.”

In previous appearances on the January 30 editions of NBC's Nightly News and MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, and on the January 31 edition of NBC's Today, Russert reported that same poll finding to assert that Americans, while divided, slightly approved of “Bush's approach” in ordering the warrantless wiretaps. In those reports, Russert also noted the poll's finding (question 25) that a slight majority of Americans are concerned about the possible invasion of privacy: 56 percent said they were either “extremely concerned” (31 percent) or “somewhat concerned” (25 percent) that “the Bush administration's use of these kinds of wiretaps could be misused to violate people's privacy.” On the February 5 broadcast of Meet the Press, however, Russert did not note the poll's findings on this question.

Russert said that the first question indicated that a “slight majority” agreed with the “president's view” of the wiretapping issue. During his Nightly News report, Russert said that this question “is the president's view, in effect. Should there be wiretaps without a court order?” After reporting the results, he said, “That's the president's position in favor.” On Hardball, Russert said that the question indicated that “a majority believe with the president that you can, in fact, wiretap without a warrant.” And on Today, Russert said that “a slight majority do support the president's view” that the wiretapping program is a “terrorism issue” as opposed to a “civil liberities” issue.

However, in all four of these reports addressing the poll, Russert omitted any mention of another related question from the poll (question 24), which found that 53 percent of Americans agreed that the Bush administration “should be required to get a court order before wiretapping”; while 41 percent disagreed. The finding from question 24 appears to contradict the finding in question 23, which Russert reported in each appearance. Indeed, in contrast with Russert's suggestion, The Wall Street Journal -- which co-sponsored the poll with NBC -- reported in a January 31 news article that the poll's results showed that Americans' opinion on the warrantless domestic spying is “mixed”:

On the controversy over warrantless wiretaps by the National Security Agency, opinion is mixed. A narrow 51% majority says it approves of the Bush administration's approach to wiretapping international calls by suspected terrorists abroad and inside the U.S. But when asked whether the administration should obtain court orders for those wiretaps, the result is reversed, with 53% saying court orders should be required. Some 79% of Democrats, 58% of independents, and 27% of Republicans describe themselves as “extremely” or “quite” concerned that warrantless wiretaps “could be misused to violate people's privacy.”

From February 5 broadcast of NBC's Meet the Press:

RUSSERT: Gentlemen, let me show you the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll on domestic wiretap program [sic] sponsored by the president. Fifty-one approve, 46 disapprove. Ron Brownstein, has the president turned the corner on that?

BROWNSTEIN: I think, as the issue is now defined, the polls have been very consistent from the beginning. That's one of about five or six polls that have shown a narrow plurality or majority supporting it. And I don't think the Judiciary Committee hearing, at least as it's structured, is likely to change that. If the debate is over whether the president has this authority or not, I think that the evidence is, from the polling, slightly more Americans say yes then no. What might change it is evidence about how the program was actually implemented and used and whether it caught more Americans in its net than the administration has suggested, as suggested in a story by The Washington Post today. Those are the kind of questions that might move public opinion, I think, more than what the Judiciary Committee is likely to debate.

From January 30 broadcast of NBC's Nightly News:

BRIAN WILLIAMS (anchor): And, Tim, two issues have been hot domestically: domestic eavesdropping of late and the lobbying scandal in Washington. Where are they playing politically?

RUSSERT: Here's lobbying, Brian. Which party is more influenced by special interests? Twenty-two percent of Americans say the Democrats; 36 percent say, no, it's the Republicans; and 33 percent, a third of Americans, say both parties equally. Then --


RUSSERT: Yeah, we're talking about eavesdropping, Brian. It's very important. This is the president's position, in effect. Should there be wiretaps without court order? Fifty-one percent approve; 46 percent disapprove. That's the president's position in favor. But what about concerns? Fifty-six percent say they have concerns about wiretaps without warrants, 43 percent say they're not concerned. Brian, it's quite striking. Both those issues, lobbying and wiretapping, big in Washington debates, but on a list of priorities for America, on the bottom. And when asked whether they think that lobbying reform, if enacted by Congress, would change things, 65 percent of the American people say “wouldn't change things very much.”

WILLIAMS: Tim, thanks, as always. A fresh polling numbers out tonight. Tim Russert in our NBC News Washington bureau.

From the January 30 (7 p.m. ET) edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews:

CHRIS MATTHEWS (host): Who's winning this big fight here in Washington over domestic spying?

RUSSERT: Well, it's pretty interesting. We have asked people about spying issues, and a majority believe with the president that you can, in fact, wiretap without a warrant. However, when you ask the second question -- are you concerned by that policy? -- 56 percent say they are concerned by it. So the president has a slight majority supporting his policy. But there's a lot of tentativeness underneath the surface that if, in fact, something goes wrong or they learn more information, those numbers could swing.

From the January 31 broadcast of NBC's Today:

KATIE COURIC (co-host): Let's talk about the poll and, specifically, his approval rating, Tim. Thirty-nine percent approve of the job the president is doing; 54 percent disapprove. Put that in context for us, and is it true that the White House believes he has something like a 52 approval rate ceiling?

RUSSERT: Yeah, it's quite interesting. They realize that the two presidential races he was in he didn't pass that mark, and so it's impossible in their minds for any president to achieve the kind of levels that presidents in history did, of 60, 70 percent, or this president did after September 11th. But Katie, the administration and the White House believed they had made some progress. They were hoping that by now they'd be in the 40s or mid-40s with approval rating. Thirty-nine's a low number, and 54 disapproval is a very high number. They realize there's a long way to go in order to recapture the favorable rating and popularity the president once had.

COURIC: Why do you think the numbers haven't budged, Tim? As we know, last week the administration went on an all-out sort of counteroffensive to talk about domestic spying or terrorist surveillance, depending [on] who you're asking in terms of the name for that policy. I know that when asked about wiretaps without court orders, 51 percent approve, 46 percent disapproved. As I recall, it was pretty evenly split before this campaign embarked by the White House. So is -- should we conclude that wasn't particularly successful?

RUSSERT: Well, the president thinks that they gained a few points on that by making it a terrorism issue rather than a civil liberties issue. And a slight majority do support the president's view on that. But, Katie, the very next question -- are you concerned there could be abuses? -- 56 percent say that. And so, I think we're going to come down to on this issue is the courts. If the courts rule in favor of the president, he'll probably be OK on this issue politically. If they rule against him, if there is a suggestion that he broke the law, that could become a very lethal issue for the Democrats.