01/24/2006 11:18 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Heads Up: Bush Is Winning the NSA 'Headline War'

Millions of Americans never do more than glance at the headlines to form their opinions. The NSA scandal needs to be explained to them, and today's headlines give a misleading impression. Somebody needs to play District Attorney and make the case for the Constitution. It can't defend itself.

This morning's headlines don't present a the scandal as a dispute about illegal government behavior, or preserving constitutional safeguards. Instead, they suggest that the argument's about whether or not we should gather anti-terrorist intelligence in the US, which most Americans consider obviously necessary. Like the gambler says, read 'em and weep:

Bush presses case for spying

Chicago Tribune
In defense of taps
Bush defends eavesdropping
Seattle Times
Bush launches a bid to justify domestic spying
Boston Globe
President opens offensive to defend domestic spying

Houston Chronicle
Bush Says Battling Terrorism Requires New Tactics
White House steps up defense of domestic spying
USA Today
Dems rip Bush on wiretaps
Chicago Sun-Times
New York Post

According to these headlines, the White House isn't defending itself against accusations it made an illegal end-run around the law and the Constitution. It's defending "domestic spying," "wiretaps," "surveillance," "terror tracking," and "eavesdropping" - presumably against lily-livered ACLU lovers who would rather defend some Arab in the Gulf and his "sleeper cell" buddies in the O.C. than protect our national security.

The Bloomberg headline is the most egregious: There are no "new tactics" in this scandal, just old ones being done illegally. The Sun-Times overlooks Republican critics of wiretapping, and gives the impression it's a partisan scrap. But they're all misleading to one degree or another, and they're forming public perception.

You can condemn those who make judgements on such superficial information (unless you're a Malcolm Gladwell fan and want to argue that they're "blinking"). But like it or not, each headline is a reprogramming cue, altering people's thinking every time they pass a newspaper - on a coffee table, in a streetcorner dispenser, peering out from a birdcage ...

Here are two headlines that get it right:

Bush opens PR blitz on warrantless wiretaps
San Francisco Chronicle
Bush Insists Warrantless Searches Are Legal And Vital
The Moderate Voice

What a difference an adjective makes - in this case "warrantless." And even then, Administration critics will have to make the case. It's not safe to assume that the public will reject warrantless spying either. After all, this is a country that watches Kiefer Sutherland break laws in '24' to fight terrorism every week, and cheered as Denzel Washington cut a terrorist's fingers off to save a little girl. You want "framing," Lakoff fans? There it is.

If Democrats aren't careful, this will help fortify the GOP's reputation as the "manly, defend-America -at-all-costs party" and the Democrats as the "wring-your-hands-over-the-rights-of-terrorists" party. Don't be lulled into complacency by poll numbers that show public concern about the scandal. Republicans have turned those kinds of numbers around before. It pays to be vigilant.

An argument needs to be made that's simple and succinct, like a DA's closing argument, and "succinct" hasn't been the Democratic strong suit (to say the least). A suggestion: Tie the spying scandal in with other examples of GOP deception and abuse. "The Tom DeLay crowd wants to hides their spying from the courts. Why?" And go grab a headline or two:

"Bush Hides Dirty Tricks From Courts, Say Critics"
"Don't Abuse Constitution Without a Reason, Says Dems and Some GOP"
"Critics: Bush Program Rivals Nixon's, Has Similar Motives"

The truth is more complicated than any headline, but headlines are the battleground. Somebody, please: engage.

A Night Light