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From the March 1999 MediaWatch

No "Moving On" to Chinese Espionage

Stolen Bomb Secrets Draw Less TV News Than Monica's Book

Last year, The New York Times broke the story that two defense contractors were kept from prosecution by the Clinton White House despite giving China knowledge that advanced their ballistic missile technology. On March 6, the Times landed another shocking scoop: "Working with nuclear secrets stolen from an American government laboratory, China has made a leap in the development of nuclear weapons: the minatiurization of its bombs."

Put the two together — miniaturized nuclear warheads on improved ballistic missiles — and you have an American security nightmare. So did the networks leap into a post-impeachment frenzy of substance on the story? No. In the first ten days of the story, the Big Three aired only 11 stories, six of them on the CBS Evening News. ABC’s World News Tonight arrived first on the story but aired only three reports, and NBC Nightly News did just two, even though NBC Vice President Tim Russert told MSNBC’s John Hockenberry the charges were "dead serious."

The morning shows were worse, airing only six full news reports and one interview in the first ten mornings. ABC’s Good Morning America carried three, NBC’s Today two, and CBS’s This Morning one. As the China story sat unaddressed, ABC had to air a half-hour on weight loss, CBS asked O.J. Simpson lawyer Johnnie Cochran about his upcoming appearance on the CBS soap Guiding Light, and two networks urgently discussed the 40th anniversary of the Barbie doll.

Only NBC’s Today aired an interview. On March 9, Katie Couric helped Energy Secretary Bill Richardson make excuses for the breach: "Isn’t there a possibility that China could have done this on its own? After all, you’ve got the U.S., the British, the French, and the Russians all able to make these warheads without spying."

Even when the networks touched the story, reporters sometimes stressed uncertainty. On March 11, Anne Thompson reported on NBC Nightly News: "The doubts expressed here are also being voiced in Washington. Senior law enforcement and intelligence officials tell NBC News neither the CIA nor the FBI is at all sure Lee is the source of the leaks, if there are any leaks at all." Well, if there weren’t any leaks, how did the Chinese leap 15 years ahead of themselves in warhead technology? The grave prospect of a Chinese missile threat to America has drawn less morning and evening show coverage than Barbara Walters’ interview with Monica Lewinsky. So much for "moving on."



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