Today’s New York Times includes a letter to the public editor from Craig Adams of Egg Harbor, N.J., that highlights an ongoing dilemma for those who edit letters: How much fact-checking should be applied to vox populi? Adams’ letter — in which he objects to certain aspects of the Times’ reporting on the NSA no-warrant wiretaps — reads in full:
Was The Times, in the timing of publication, trying to deflect the importance of a story (the Iraqi parliamentary elections) that may have slightly benefited the Bush administration? The Patriot Act debate was particularly interesting, since many Democratic senators referred to the Times article in their effort to maintain the filibuster.
You did not address whether this leak disclosure was beneficial to the public. Given that a recent survey has shown that the majority of Americans think the surveillance was proper and justified, why wasn’t that point of view addressed?
What is the survey to which Adams refers? Certainly it’s not the one reported in this Associated Press story:
… 56 percent of respondents in the AP-Ipsos poll said the government should be required to get a court warrant to eavesdrop on the overseas calls and the e-mail messages of US citizens, when those communications are believed to be tied to terrorism.
Agreeing with the White House, 42 percent of those surveyed do not believe the court approval is necessary.
The “War On Terrorism” section of the maniacally updated PollingReport.com leads with the results of that poll. Scroll down, and you won’t see any other questions pertaining specifically to the warrantless searches. However, there is an interesting finding from a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted Dec. 16-18 in which respondents were asked:
Which comes closer to your view? The government should take all steps necessary to prevent additional acts of terrorism in the U.S., even if it means your basic civil liberties would be violated. OR, The government should take steps to prevent additional acts of terrorism, but not if those steps would violate your basic civil liberties.
The answer: “Take ALL Steps Necessary,” 31 percent; “Don’t Violate Basic Liberties,” 65 percent. A rare landslide for the Bill of Rights.
Now, back to Mr. Adams. Is there actually a legitimate poll he could cite to support his contention? If there is, shouldn’t an editor at the Times have insisted on including the details of that poll? Conversely, is this something Adams just thought he heard while listening to Sean Hannity for a few minutes while driving home from work? Could Adams simply be referring to polls showing that President Bush’s approval rating has gone up recently? Did an editor even ask Adams to substantiate his claim?
If Adams is right, I’ll be happy to correct the record. But, on the face of it, this strikes me as sloppy editing in the name of letting the readers have their say. No one benefits from such an exercise — especially the readers.