Darth Vader vs. Johnny Chung
Op-ed by MRC Vice President Brent Baker
as run in the May 19, 1999 edition of The Washington Times
By Brent Baker
What is more important, for Americans to learn that their President may have lied to them about ongoing espionage on his watch and that a top General in China’s army tried to impact Clinton’s 1996 campaign by giving $300,000 through a man who was welcomed into the White House over 50 times -- or to get barbecuing tips and be treated to a discussion about "Star Wars" toys?
If you chose the latter topics then you are suited to become a television network news producer. In the last week or so several major revelations have occurred on the Chinese espionage and contributions fronts, but the networks have been too busy with these other subjects to bother reporting them -- even when one of their own breaks some news.
NBC’s Tim Russert got Energy Secretary Bill Richardson to concede on the May 9 "Meet the Press" show that spying took place on President Clinton’s watch, contradicting Mr. Clinton’s own assertion. Recalling a May 2 New York Times story about how a report delivered to the Clinton administration last November outlined ongoing espionage, Mr. Russert pointed out to Mr. Richardson how at a March 19 press conference Mr. Clinton insisted: "No one has said anything to me about any espionage which occurred by the Chinese against the labs, during my presidency." After much consternation, Mr. Richardson conceded espionage had taken place "during past administrations and present administrations." Mr. Russert exclaimed: "Finally, someone has acknowledged it."
But other than "Meet the Press" viewers, only Fox News Channel watchers saw the admission. "Richardson: China Did Steal Secrets" announced the front page headline in the next day’s Washington Times. "‘Damaging’ leaks occurred on Clinton watch" read the subhead. Yet no broadcast network, not even NBC, found Mr. Russert’s scoop worth reporting.
The morning after Mr. Richardson’s appearance, as Mr. Russert told radio’s Don Imus how Mr. Clinton has handled the espionage situation recklessly, NBC "Today" viewers were watching co-host Matt Lauer broadcast live from Mt. Everest, interrupted only for co-host Katie Couric’s interview with daytime talk show host Jenny Jones about a jury holding her show liable for a murder. ABC’s "Good Morning America" also featured a talk with Jones as well as, in its relatively more newsy first hour, tips on barbecuing.
Asked by Mr. Imus why Mr. Richardson was so reluctant to tell what he knows, Mr. Russert asserted: "Because if he does, then he has put the President of United States in a position where he is lying about national security." Mr. Russert scolded the Clinton team: "You don’t spin your way out of national security breaches. It happened on their watch and they’re trying to spin their way out of it. You confront ‘em, you accept responsibility."
Though he carries the title of NBC News Vice President, hours after Mr. Russert offered his grave assessment "NBC Nightly News" skipped the China story. Instead, NBC featured an "In Depth" segment on how a deadly Louisiana bus crash demonstrated the need for more regulation of buses. ABC’s "World News Tonight" also ignored Chinagate and allocated nearly six minutes to how retirees are becoming more active. The "CBS Evening News" explored whether more regulation is needed to protect consumers from aggressive credit card pitches.
Democratic fund-raiser Johnny Chung told a House committee on May 11 how the head of intelligence for the Chinese military, Gen. Ji Shengde, gave him $300,000 to funnel to entities aiding Mr. Clinton’s re-election efforts, though he only actually donated $35,000. Mr. Chung also related how an associate of Ji’s passed along a threat on his life for talking to U.S. authorities. ABC and NBC carried a story each that night, but not CBS or any of the morning shows the next day. Instead of covering Chung, the "CBS Evening News" previewed the expected record summer travel by car and showed viewers a new robotic toy dog from Japan.
While Washington Times readers woke up to the headline "Chung tells of China cash connections," the three morning shows did not utter a syllable about his troubling allegations -- though even the New York Times put its story above the fold along with a color picture of Chung that network producers could not have missed. Nonetheless, "Good Morning America" viewers were treated to features about the Gulf Coast as the show broadcast from Biloxi, Miss.
The ABC program managed to squeeze in an item about how a Massachusetts chain of furniture stores flew all 1,300 of its employees to Bermuda for a one-day beach party. "Today" devoted most of the show to live segments with Matt Lauer on an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean Sea. Yet "Today," which ignored Mr. Chung, found time for Miss Couric to talk with Latin singer Ricky Martin. "This Morning" allocated an interview segment in its prime 8am half hour to whether Star Wars movie toys are worth collecting.
Last week ended with an ominous New York Times story on Friday about how "China is close to deploying a nuclear missile with a warhead whose design draws on stolen American secrets." Network reaction: "Today" gave it twelve seconds even though the show had Lauer live from the Great Wall in China. "Good Morning America" allocated a piddling ten seconds and "This Morning" skipped it altogether.
Friday night: Not a word on ABC, CBS or NBC -- shows which had room for pieces on the baby rescued from the well in Kansas, record snowfall on a mountain in Washington state and people waiting in line to buy "Star Wars" movie tickets.
A lesson in current television network "news" priorities.
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