USA Today is attracting a lot of attention for phone call data mining this week. Here’s the rub: To a lot of people who cover this subject closely the USA Today story didn’t break any news. It was just a more prominent story than the others that had been reported already this year.
As early as the first James Risen and Eric Lichtblau NSA wiretapping stories, they reported the NSA program involved “data mining” of thousands of phone calls. In January Shane Harris and Tim Naftali wrote a piece for Slate.com subtitled “Why the NSA’s snooping is unprecedented in scale and scope.”
Harris’ March National Journal story still “stands as the most comprehensive look at how all this pattern analysis and data mining actually works,” one emailer explains, and follow-up stories have shed even more light on it.
Plus Patrick Radden Keefe wrote about this in March for the New York Times magazine in its “Idea Lab” forum.
“So, why are so many in the media falling all over themselves to say USA Today ‘broke’ this story? The only real new items in the piece don’t substantively advance the story. For instance, they named three telecom companies in the lead. But so what? AT&T was implicated in this long ago, and is currently fighting a lawsuit about their work for the NSA. Verizon and Bell South have been named too, I believe. And go back to February in USA Today itself and you’ll see that these same reporters outted some major telecom firms, not all of which are in this new story,” says the emailer, who reports on intelligence matters. “The fact that NSA is doing pattern analysis on phone traffic is the substantive issue here, and that was reported months ago.”
“This is an example of 1.) some in the media’s very short memory, and 2.) a sad commentary, in my opinion, that in order for some journalists to really grasp an issue, you have to practically beat them over the head with old information wrapped up in a new and flashy front page story with a big photo on it. No one I’ve talked to in the intelligence community or on the relevant congressional committees believe this is a new story, and most of them are left scratching their heads. From the political perspective, some in Congress are just using this as an opportunity to raise hell at Mike Hayden‘s hearing. That’s to be expected; after all, USA Today has a huge reach and provides great fodder for lawmakers to wave around at the hearings. But the media reaction is far more troubling. When I hear Soledad O’Brien or even respected reporters on NPR going out and saying ‘USA Today broke the story,’ it makes them look stupid, and by extension the rest of us. It makes them look like they’ve had their heads in the sand about this NSA program. That’s not good! This is one of the most important public policy stories in years. Journalists need to be on the ball here.”
“Why are so many of our colleagues just going along with the notion that USA Today has blown the lid off something? Do we only read front page headlines anymore? Are we just willing to give credit to whoever has the biggest megaphone? There’s more at risk than danger to our egos and pride here. This is sloppy reporting, and if we keep it up as an institution, we’ll pay a price,” the source said.
One bright spot on the West Coast: Warren Olney‘s NPR show “To the Point” invited Harris on last night and concluded that this was mostly all old news.