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NBC Reports Rumsfeld Terror Policies Hurting Drug War
August 22, 2006
Maia Szalavitz
“In depth” report on allocating resources turns into advocacy as network fails to question data, quote experts or analyze terror needs.

On Sunday (Aug 20), NBC News aired a classic drug-war propaganda piece, complete with sourcing from only one side of the story and misleading statistical information. 

Opening its “In Depth” report, anchor John Seigenthaler said, “80 percent of the cocaine smuggled into the United States used to come from the Bahamas until a government operation forced smugglers to find different and more expensive routes.  But now, one important weapon in the war on drugs may be lost to the war on terror.”

The piece went on to detail how defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld wants to end an army program that sends helicopters to the Bahamas to fight drug trafficking because it “competes with” resources “necessary for the war on terror.”  It said that attorney general Alberto Gonzales “fired back,” resisting the shift – and went on to detail how law enforcement agents from both the U.S. and the Bahamas oppose it as well. 

But nowhere in the story did NBC note that this supposedly “important” weapon in the war on drugs did not produce either a decrease in the supply of the drug, nor an increase in its price – despite its claim that the shift made trafficking “more expensive.”

In fact, NBC ignored a front-page story in the New York Times published the day before which called into the question a far-larger cocaine-fighting operation, the $4.7 billion “Plan Colombia.” The Times said that “the government’s tracking over the past quarter century shows that the price of cocaine has tumbled and that purity remains high, signs that the drug is as available as ever.” 

Despite including sound bites from both a DEA agent and a Bahamian police official supporting the program and listing the amounts of drugs it had seized, NBC didn’t include a response from Rumsfeld’s office justifying the change. Nor did quote any drug war opponent or terrorism expert, even though there is clearly a debate over how to allocate resources in these areas.
In contrast to NBC, the Times included both critics and supporters of the drug war.  Unlike much of the coverage in this area, it also expressed skepticism about the entire enterprise:

“The lingering question is whether America’s drug problem would be worse today had the drug war, nearly 40 years in the making, never been waged. That may be unanswerable.
What is clear is that the war on drugs, the original open-ended war against an elusive and ill-defined enemy, has moved inexorably onward, propelled by decades of mostly unflagging political support on both sides of the Congressional aisle.”

NBC, on the other hand, closed its report with video of a trafficker who once enjoyed impunity in the Bahamas, quoting yet more unnamed law enforcement sources:  “Agents say this is no time to tempt [traffickers] back again by cutting resources.”  It didn’t quote anyone on the ground in Afghanistan or Iraq or any agents working anti-terror details about the resources they need. Surely the mission of in-depth journalism is to present the public with both sides of a complicated story?