The following article appeared in
Investor's Business Daily on May 10th, 1999
"For People Who Choose To Succeed"
TV's Blackout on China Spying
Big Three Networks Bypass Blockbuster Scandal
By Paul Sperry
Communist China plays a central role in three of the most alarming scandals facing the Clinton administration: campaign finance fraud, satellite technology transfers and nuclear weapons espionage.
Yet when Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji visited the White House early last month, TV newscasters by and large passed on the story, now known as Chinagate, focusing instead on issues like China's entry into the World Trade Organization.
It's not as if they didn't have a new scandal hook.
Earlier in the week the Los Angeles Times dropped a bombshell: ''The chief of China's military intelligence secretly directed funds from Beijing to help re-elect President Clinton in 1996.''
Network coverage of the scoop? Not a peep. The Big Three - ABC, CBS and NBC - all blacked out the story on both their morning and evening news shows.
Surveys show Americans get most of their political information from these networks' evening newscasts, which reach a combined audience of nearly 30 million.
''The perfect time for them to have gotten into the story was during the recent visit of the Chinese premier,'' said Richard Noyes, an analyst at the nonpartisan Center for Media and Public Affairs. ''And they didn't.''
Analysts at the two major partisan media watchdogs - the conservative Media Research Center and the liberal Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting -are also scratching their heads over the dearth of TV coverage.
''This story should have gotten more coverage,'' admitted FAIR senior analyst Steve Rendall, though he doesn't suspect any bias among anchors and executive producers.
At the request of Investor's Business Daily, CMPA audited nightly newscasts dating back to March 6, when The New York Times first broke the story of Red spying at Los Alamos National Lab.
It found that ABC, CBS and NBC together have aired an average of just half of one story a night on the Chinese espionage scandal, or 31 total segments.
''There's almost nothing on TV, certainly nothing that's caught my eye,'' Noyes said.
Why would the major networks beg off such a big story? Politics, contends MRC chief analyst Tim Graham.
''This shows the (TV) media doesn't have a liberal bias; it has a Democratic Party bias,'' he said. ''It gives complete, almost Secret Service-level protection to the president.''
Rendall argues that other big news, such as the Kosovo war and Colorado school shootings, have crowded out the China story. He says the heavier Kosovo coverage, at least, is justified.
The Big Three networks combined have devoted an average of 20 stories a night (699 total) to Kosovo since NATO bombing started on March 24, CMPA says. By contrast, they aired an average of 24 stories a night (73 total) on the Colorado shootings in the three days after the tragedy.
Graham argues China, not Kosovo, ''should be the most important news story of 1999,'' because it has more direct bearing on U.S. security.
''For 50 years we panicked over the threat of Soviet missiles targeted at us. This dramatic Chinese technological leap puts us back into that era of mutually assured destruction,'' he said. ''This could be the start of the next Cold War.''
Noyes agreed: ''It's a massive story.
''The parallel is the Rosenberg case back in the 1950s, when we figured out how the Soviets got our nuclear secrets,'' he added. ''And that scared the hell out of everybody.''
Even so, daily newspapers are covering the story, if in fits and starts.
Does it matter then that TV news producers are yawning? Yes, media analysts say. Fully 70% of Americans say they get their political information from the evening news - not newspapers, a 1992 University of Michigan poll shows.
''When the TV news passes on a big story, as it has on this China story, it has little chance of breaking into the public's consciousness,'' Noyes said.
The thin coverage contrasts starkly with that of past foreign policy scandals.
Consider the nonstop play received by Iran-Contra, which revolved around allegations that the Reagan White House was secretly selling arms to Iran and using the profits to back Nicaraguan freedom fighters. Another goal was to try to free hostages held by Islamic terrorists in Beirut.
The networks carried the 1987 congressional hearings live. In 1997, in contrast, they refused to provide live coverage of the GOP-led Senate hearings on illegal Chinese donations to the Clinton-Gore re-election effort.
Only the Fox News Channel offered live coverage.
''If this were Ronald Reagan accused of selling foreign policy to the highest bidder, it's a little hard to imagine this wouldn't have attracted more attention,'' Fox News' Washington bureau chief Brit Hume said at the time.
Some Washington media pundits intone that Chinagate is just too ''complicated'' for TV.
They point out that producers have, after commercials, just 22 minutes to pack in all the day's news. That's why most stories run just a few minutes long - hardly enough time to explain things like shell companies, straw donors, Byzantine money trails, nuclear codes and satellite-guidance systems.
But that excuse doesn't hold up to scrutiny, Noyes says. Producers broke format to get out the equally complex Iran-Contra story.
''There were some nights when it took up the entire newscast,'' he recalled.
''The Kosovo war is very complicated in the motivations and whatnot, but they still cover it,'' Noyes added.
The Chinagate story isn't as easy for TV newscasters to tell as ''two teen-agers shooting up a school,'' Graham allowed. ''But it's their professional obligation to explain to people, in terms they understand, what this means to their lives.''
Yet the opposite is happening. Graham says he's noticed that the more light the press sheds on the story, the more the networks back away from it.
He suspects it's a political reaction. ''The more damaging the news is to Clinton,'' he said, ''the less play it gets.''
Whatever the motive, Big Three snoozing on Chinagate shows a pattern. Consider that:
On March 29, Newsweek quoted intelligence officials saying that the Chinese
''penetration is total. They are deep into the (U.S. nuclear weapons) labs' black programs.''
Network coverage? Zero, a recent MRC report finds.
On March 24, The New York Times revealed that the Clinton administration promoted the suspected Chinese spy at Los Alamos and even let him hire a Chinese national as an assistant.
Nightly news coverage? Zip, although the Kosovo bombing started later that day. Still, the morning news shows didn't touch the story (informing viewers instead about, among other things, cherry blossoms and used-car buying).
During President Clinton's June 1998 trip to Beijing, ''the networks avoided the China scandals the entire time Clinton was on Chinese soil,'' MRC noted.
At the time, Clinton was drawing fire for relaxing controls on satellite exports, which helped China enhance its missile-guidance systems.
In April 1998, The New York Times reported that Clinton's policy change got top Democratic Party donor Bernie Schwartz's company out of hot water. Loral Corp. allegedly had given China restricted technology.
The networks did mention this story - six weeks later.
During the summer of 1997, Senate Chinagate hearings led off the evening newscast just five times, MRC found. By contrast, evening stories on gay serial killer Andrew Cunanan got the top slot on 30 shows.
The most recent bombshell - The New York Times' April 28 scoop that a Los Alamos spy in 1994 and 1995 downloaded U.S. nuclear codes to an open computer network - triggered some network coverage.
But it was spotty and unusually cautious.
Both CBS and ABC ran the story third in their evening lineups. And they cast doubt on any serious damage from the massive data transfer.
''The network news is constantly scaring us about fatty cheese fries and sport utility vehicles,'' Graham quipped, ''but not Chinese nuclear espionage.''
NBC's coverage? Not a word, though it found room to run a piece on the coming hurricane season.
(C) Copyright 1999 Investors Business Daily, Inc.
As seen in Investor's Business Daily on May 10th, 1999