Who Makes or Breaks a Scandal?
The Cox Report vs. The Iran-Contra Report
July 6, 1999
By Tim Graham, MRC Director of Media Analysis
Introduction: The Power of Neglect
Who makes or breaks a scandal? On the June 20
Meet the Press, former Republican Senator Warren Rudman explained his investigation of Chinese espionage for the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board this way: "It's hard for me to say this, but I will say it anyway. The agenda for the body politic is often set by the media. Had it not been for
The New York Times breaking the story of Chinese espionage, all over the front pages, I’m not sure I’d be here this morning. I’m not sure that report would have been written. And that is not the way that government ought to operate."
The media do not and cannot make scandals happen by themselves. For scandals to penetrate the political culture, and travel from the consciousness of Washington insiders to the public at large, other actors, usually in government, must verify the scandal’s importance by launching official investigations, which give the media an orderly process to follow — if they choose to follow. Although newspaper reporting led to official investigations, the scandal has not captured the public’s attention. Why? Because 70 percent of Americans get all or most of their news from television, and ABC, CBS, and NBC have buried the story when they could, and downplayed its importance when they couldn’t.
To probe the Chinese thefts of strategic technology, first broken in the April 15, 1998
New York Times, the House of Representatives created a select committee to investigate "U.S. National Security and Military/Commercial Concerns with the People’s Republic of China." Five Republicans, led by Rep. Christopher Cox, and four Democrats, led by Rep. Norman Dicks, were asked to determine the severity of strategic damage done by two American defense contractors in assisting Chinese satellite launches. In the midst of their work, they discovered very serious espionage and security breaches at America’s nuclear laboratories as well, which first came to light in the March 6, 1999
New York Times, which noted the Chinese had lifted details of the W-88 nuclear warhead.
But when the committee released its findings — known as the Cox Report — with a unanimous bipartisan set of conclusions and recommendations on May 25, the networks barely noticed, disposing of the findings with a story or two, often heavily laced with skepticism toward the scandal’s seriousness. Then they dropped the story and attempted no follow-up on the 700 pages of detail.
This is a vastly different media response to foreign-policy scandals than was witnessed during the Reagan administration. When the joint congressional investigation into Iran-Contra concluded in 1987, the media erupted in outrage at a constitutional crisis. Put these anguished reports side by side with the brief, dismissive dispatches on Chinese espionage, and you have a case study in network news bias, journalism in each case calculated to achieve a political advantage for the Democratic Party.
That pattern of neglect continues to this day. The Big Three neglected the President’s June 25 press conference admission his "choice of wording was poor" in denying he knew of espionage on his watch. Two days later, the
New York Times struck again, finding top officials learned of espionage losses in July 1995, months before they claimed they were told. The broadcast network evening newscasts were still silent.
What follows is a case-by-case elaboration of the double standard in foreign-policy scandal coverage. The
Media Research Center has identified the following network methods in deflating the Chinagate story, especially in stark contrast to its Reagan-era methods. CNN was not included in this study due to its broader 24-hour coverage of some Chinagate details.
1. Hard news coverage:
When forced to include the story, keep it brief.
Theoretically, the release of a summary of the Cox Report on December 30, 1998 could have been the first occasion for in-depth coverage, but it wasn’t. That night, ABC gave the story 22 seconds, NBC 26. Only CBS aired a full report. The night of the complete Cox Report’s release, the Big Three evening shows aired five stories (ABC 2, CBS 2, NBC 1), and only ABC led with it. CBS and NBC led with gun-control stories, and NBC also placed a New York City police brutality trial in front of it. On November 18, 1987, the night of the release of the Iran-Contra report, all three began with it and each did five segments on it, devoting more than half the newscast to the ramifications.
The Cox Report met the same one-down-and-punt fate on the morning shows. On May 25, ABC’s
Good Morning America aired a 1:45 piece about Cox at 7 a.m. by Linda Douglass and a 1:15 story by Ann Compton at 8 a.m., for a total of three minutes on espionage. The show's first 7 a.m. half hour interview segment dedicated eight minutes to a story about the dangers of professional wrestling followed by an interview live from Calgary with the mother, father, brother and widow of Owen Hart, a pro wrestler killed in a fall from above a wrestling ring.
CBS’s This Morning interviewed Energy Secretary Bill Richardson for about three minutes during the 7 a.m. half hour. Two news stories at the top of the 8 a.m. half hour lasted four minutes and 24 seconds. Those seven minutes approximately equaled the seven minutes CBS gave to a Georgia high school principal to discuss security measures against school shootings. While Richardson took questions for three minutes, William Shatner got nearly five to discuss his new book about
Star Trek fans, Get a Life.
NBC’s Today aired a news story by Joe Johns, a brief interview with Tim Russert, and an Ann Curry anchor update at 8 a.m., totaling four minutes and 22 seconds. Curry called it "a huge and devastating spy scandal," but the Owen Hart wrestling accident story drew almost triple the air time, taking up 11 minutes of the 7:30 half hour.
On May 26, all the morning shows conducted interviews with major figures in the scandal. ABC and CBS interviewed Congressman Cox. NBC brought on Congressman Dicks and Energy Secretary Richardson. (Once again, the time allotted did not match more attractive Nielsen-grabbing topics. ABC gave multiple segments to a family with sextuplets, CBS gave more time to genetic testing and to a former nun in business, and NBC spent more time with Geraldo Rivera on police brutality.) All told, since the first
Times warhead scoop on March 6 of this year, the network morning shows have aired six interview segments on Chinagate (not counting in-house network chats). All three interviewed Richardson. NBC’s
Today never interviewed a Republican. There have been no morning show interviews since May 26.
So what about the day after the report? Surely, the network evening shows would put their Pentagon-beat producers to work reading through these 700 pages to get a better look at what the Cox Report contained. No. NBC was done. ABC did a story on the second night about how suspected Chinese spy Wen Ho Lee will never be prosecuted. The next night, CBS marked the end of the Big Three stories with a dismissive Eric Engberg report (more on that in section #3).
But on Iran-Contra...
Compare that to November 18, 1987, the night the joint Iran-Contra committees released their report. The networks each aired five segments apiece, and devoted more than half the program to the probe and its aftermath. Each network sounded the alarm in unison across their Washington beats. The majority report dominated the analysis, and the minority report was relegated to a few sentences.
ABC’s World News Tonight ran through Brit Hume at the White House, Sam Donaldson on Capitol Hill, an interview with Republican Sen. Warren Rudman, John Martin with the big picture, and Dennis Troute on the court beat with Lawrence Walsh.
CBS Evening News began with Capitol Hill reporter Phil Jones, followed by White House man Bill Plante, Eric Engberg on still-unanswered questions, and court reporter Rita Braver. CBS ended the half-hour with a summary/commentary from Capitol Hill reporter Bob Schieffer. Not only that, CBS aired a half-hour late night report to drive home the findings.
NBC Nightly News started with John Dancy on Capitol Hill, Chris Wallace at the White House, an interview segment with then-Rep. Dick Cheney and then-Sen. George Mitchell, court reporter Carl Stern, and ended with a commentary by John Chancellor.
Clearly, these two reports seem different in political magnitude. The Iran-Contra report’s release came at the end of a year of very well-promoted political drama, complete with weeks of live hearings coverage in the summer. Several network reports gave viewers an update on all the people made at least temporarily famous by the hearings. By contrast, the Cox committee did all their investigation in private, holding no public hearings, and 30 percent of their report remained classified. The White House delayed the report’s release for months. After the report came out, Congressman Cox said on
Fox News Sunday that if they had caved in to administration demands, "there would be nothing out" anyone could call a report, but the networks never pressed the President to stop putting off the people’s right to know. The scandal’s major figures remain nearly anonymous to Americans.
But the strategic magnitude of the charges in each case are also dramatically different. Nothing in Iran-Contra threatened the security of the United States. Iran used the missiles it acquired from the U.S. to attack Iraq and the Nicaraguan rebels ultimately forced elections. The Cox Report detailed a systematic theft of a gamut of strategic secrets that directly threatens the United States and the balance of power in Asia.
2. News Analysis A:
Spread the blame around to other Presidents.
Since March 6, 1999, when The New York Times revealed the theft of nuclear-warhead secrets, President Clinton and his aides have insisted that all or most of the espionage occurred in the Republican administrations that preceded him. When the White House allowed release of the Cox Report after censoring some 375 pages, the panel listed 11 cases of espionage, and noted eight took place during the Clinton era. In the June 9
Investor’s Business Daily, Washington Bureau Chief Paul Sperry reported that "the vast majority of leaks over the past 20 years have sprung up on Clinton’s watch, and nearly all the old leaks have shown up since then...At least 24 times, the declassified version of the report states: ’The Clinton administration has determined further information cannot be made public.’ Left out are details about Chinese espionage that took place in the ‘mid-1990s’ or ‘late 1990s.’" But the networks made the administration line their own.
The night before the Cox Report came out, Dan Rather introduced the story as long-leaked old news: "With twenty years worth of blame for both Republicans and Democrats to go around, some in Congress are now singling out Attorney General Janet Reno for what they see as her failure to investigate the long-leaked nuclear secrets."
After the report was released, Rather briefly noted how the report found lax security to this day, that the espionage goes back two decades and four administrations, and that China did most of its spying through students, scientists and visitors. Rather added: "Now congressional Republicans and others have put a large share of blame on President Clinton for all of this. In response, top Clinton [administration] members dispute that. They say much of the stealing was done during the Reagan and Bush years, and they claim that, secrets are still spilling out of U.S. weapons labs, well they say that simply isn’t true. They also question some of the report’s other findings and criticisms." Seconds later, Rather promoted a report by David Martin noting CBS was going "beyond the blame game."
On NBC, reporter Andrea Mitchell found one candidate’s outrage a little surprising: "Although the report says the espionage began at least under Jimmy Carter and went on under four Presidents including George Bush, Bush’s son, a likely candidate, leaped to blame this White
But on Iran-Contra...
On November 18, 1987, these networks did not hesitate to carry the Iran-Contra majority report’s heated blame of the Reagan team. On NBC, Tom Brokaw underscored the depth of the congressional investigation: "After interviewing 500 witnesses, after 40 days of public hearings, after reviewing 300,000 documents, the committees investigating the Iran-Contra scandal today issued their final report signed by all of the Democrats and three of the Republicans. There is no smoking gun, no indisputable piece of evidence directly linking the President to the diversion of proceeds from the Iran arms sales to the Contras. But this report is a sharp indictment of the President and his men. According to the report, the common ingredients of the scandal were secrecy, deception, and disdain for the law. It went on to say that when the goals and the law collided, the law gave way. And the report concluded the ultimate responsibility for the results of the Iran-Contra affair must rest with the President. NBC’s John Dancy reports tonight the two committees blamed President Reagan again and again."
On CBS, Dan Rather took all the heated language blaming Reagan for shredding the Constitution and made it his own. He began the newscast: "Now it’s up to the special prosecutor and the grand jury. Congressional investigators have put out their final official report. In secretly sending weapons to Iran and looking after taxpayer money, the report concludes that President Reagan failed to do what the Constitution requires: that he is ultimately responsible for what happened. From his secret policy of paying ransom to Iranians to swap U.S. weapons for hostages, to the secret skimming of profits to Nicaraguan rebels and others, that if he didn’t know, he should have. The bipartisan majority also concluded flat out that top officials around President Reagan plotted a coverup. From Capitol Hill, Phil Jones begins our coverage of Congress’s conclusions about where the money went, who got the cash, who broke the law, and what did President Reagan know."
Jones began like an echo: "And the final report of the Iran-Contra committee released today laid the blame for the scandal in President Reagan’s lap. It was, in the opinion of the majority who signed this report, the President who had set the tone that allowed a cabal of zealots to seize control. It was the President who had not lived up to his constitutional responsibilities."
In a late night special titled "Divided Judgment," Rather reiterated: "Congress had its say today about President Reagan’s secret sale of arms to Iran and who got the money. A year after Mr. Reagan’s weapons-for-Iran debacle exploded, the House and Senate select committees put out their assessment of what went wrong and who was responsible. For President Reagan, the words sting. The 700-page report is filled with words such as ‘deception,’ ‘dishonesty,’ and ‘coverup.’ It talks about, and this a quote, a ‘cabal of zealots inside the White House who believed the ends justified the means.’ The report tells of disdain for the law. Top presidential aides destroying evidence and other official documents, and contempt for the democratic process. It talks about a President, at the very least, out of touch, neglecting his constitutional responsibilities. A President making wrong statements to the American people, and winding up in one of the worst credibility crises in U.S. history. In the end, as Bruce Morton reports, the congressional conclusion says responsibility for the fiasco lies with Ronald Reagan."
Rather ended the special with the majority report's quotation of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: "Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher, for good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example. Crime is contagious. If the government becomes a law-breaker, it breeds contempt for law. It invites every man to become a law unto himself. It invites anarchy."
3. News Analysis B:
Obscure the findings as unproven or trumped-up.
The Iran-Contra report spurred a round of media lectures casting grave doubts on the Reagan administration’s truthfulness and respect for the law. But these same networks downplayed the Cox Report, suggesting the strategic picture after these espionage losses was far too murky for grand conclusions, and labored to avoid judgment on the Clinton administration’s competence or truthfulness.
There would be no lectures about the President’s meddling in a criminal investigation of two defense contractors, one of whom was headed by a major Democratic donor. None of the reports rained criticism on the administration’s slow response to evidence of espionage, or the President’s dishonest denials that he had been told about espionage on his watch. Instead, some reporters dismissed the report as overblown and under-documented.
On the May 27 CBS Evening News, reporter Eric Engberg’s "Reality Check" implied that the Cox committee findings were far too incomplete to be taken seriously: "As the release of the Cox Report again demonstrated Washington’s love of a good spy story, the consensus gelled: Chinese agents have stolen something. But after that many of the report’s scary findings are open to question. Were actual weapons plans among the purloined secrets? The report takes the worst case view: Probably. But a blue ribbon panel of outside experts advising the CIA looked at the same question and decided there is just no way to know. The same group concluded the Chinese spying ‘has not resulted in any apparent modernization of their deployed strategic force or any new nuclear weapons deployment.’"
Engberg added: "Did the Chinese steal the key to building a neutron bomb? Cox talks darkly about a theft, but like all the spy talk it’s pretty murky." He concluded: "The Cox Report says China uncovered the secrets of seven U.S. nuclear warheads, but the intelligence evidence is unclear. It may be as low as four, two of which are obsolete. Amidst all the voices raised in alarm there is a bottom line: Unlike many of the things in the Cox Report there's no argument here. Number of strategic nuclear weapons? U.S.: six thousand, China: less than two dozen."
This is the same reporter who appeared on November 18, 1987 to address the "unanswered questions" of the Iran-Contra report, not to critique the report, but to attack an administration that threatened to create "a private government beyond the reach of due process." On May 4, 1989, Engberg was in a familiar lecturing mode on Oliver North’s Iran-Contra trial. Dan Rather announced that Engberg "has investigated the use of secrecy, lying and deception as instruments of ideology and policy." Engberg sermonized: "Once secrecy is embraced, rather than public debate and compromise, the freewheeling covert operators can do as they wish because an invisible policy can’t be questions....But secrecy leads to deception...deception leads to lies. Lies tear apart the rule of law." He then asked: "Could it happen again? Scholars say yes, until Presidents accept the need to compromise with Congress."
Koppel’s Contrast. Unlike Engberg’s report, ABC
Nightline host Ted Koppel’s programs have included some worried talking heads. (CIA counter-intelligence specialist Paul Redmond compared this case to the Rosenbergs.) Koppel has offered a few tough questions. (He asked National Security Adviser Sandy Berger about the dramatic increase in foreign scientists at the nuclear labs.) But Koppel has offered very few shows on Chinagate, and their tone has been mostly dismissive.
Although the first of the New York Times stories on missile technology losses appeared on April 15, 1998, Koppel introduced his first show on June 3, 1998 with this disclaimer: "It has the potential of being a terrific conspiracy story. Several members of Congress, including Speaker Gingrich, have called on President Clinton not to go to China this month as planned until he answers to Congress. But the story may not have the additional advantage of being true."
Koppel went to reporter Chris Bury, who began by contending: "For all the sound and fury here in Washington, no concrete evidence has yet emerged to support the two most damaging allegations. It is not certain any classified missile technology was transferred to China. And no one has produced any proof that President Clinton changed policy because of campaign contributions."
Since the latest set of stories erupted in The New York Times on March 6, through July 2,
Nightline has devoted 48 of 85 shows to the war in Kosovo, but produced just three shows that dealt with Chinagate. On March 12, Koppel explained some of the allegations, then warned: "It all seems to fit so perfectly, especially when you consider the additional charge that the administration told an intelligence official at the Department of Energy not to share what he knew with Congress. There is probably plenty of incompetence and partisanship to go around, but it is not quite as clear-cut as it may seem."
Koppel dropped the matter until ten weeks later. The night the Cox Report came out, Koppel did not begin by scrutinizing the administration, but by deploring the diplomatic state of affairs: "There is, these days, a certain pouting sullen quality to Sino-American relations in which each side is playing to its home crowd. The Chinese should know that NATO planners and pilots never intended to bomb their embassy in Belgrade, but they’ve deliberately been acting as though they knew it was intentional. We, on the other hand, are shocked to learn that the Chinese have been stealing every military secret of ours that they can lay their hands on. We might more appropriately be shocked were we to discover that the United States is not doing everything it can to steal Chinese military secrets."
Koppel and Bury deplored the scandal’s political effects. Bury concluded one report: "Now that the highly damaging report is finally out, the administration is on the defensive, of course, and Republicans on the attack. Once again, much of Washington is engaging in one of its favorite rituals, the search for someone, anyone, to blame." After a commercial break, Koppel added: "The Cox Report makes clear that China’s spying on US nuclear secrets occurred during the watch of two Democratic and two Republican Presidents. You’d think that might cut down on the political opportunism. Think again."
On June 28, Nightline devoted a half-hour, not to exploring the veracity of the espionage charges, but how Asian-Americans are discriminated against thanks to the scandal. The
Nightline Web site described the show: "It’s not a great time to be Asian-American in the United States. So often, it seems, the face of wrongdoing, the face of evil, has been
But on Iran-Contra...
On November 17, 1987, the night before the Iran-Contra report’s release, Koppel started the media chorus in putting the onus of blame on Ronald Reagan: "From the public genesis of the Iran-Contra affair — when Attorney General Meese announced that U.S. weapons had been sold to Iran, and the profits from those arms sales had been diverted to the Nicaragan contras — from the beginning, the central question has been that echo from Watergate: how much did the President know and when did he know it? Tomorrow, the congressional Iran-Contra committtees release their findings, apparently without any conclusive answer to that question. But early leaks, and what would Washington be without leaks of one kind or another, suggest that the majority findings are not kind to President Reagan. Reportedly, one conclusion is that the President may indeed have been aware of possibly illegal diversions, and if he didn’t know, then he should have. If that sounds rather familiar, even stale, it has nevertheless enraged a number of Republican Congressmen and Senators, who have issued a dissenting report."
Later in that show, Koppel shared his puzzlement with then-Rep. Dick Cheney about why Republicans would dissent from a report that charged a cabal of Republican zealots had no respect for the law or the Constitution: "To begin with, Congressman, I’m not so sure that I understand what it is you object to so violently. Basically, it sounds to me — and I haven’t seen the majority report, you have — as though the committees have come up with fundamentally the same conclusion as the Tower Report reached, namely that the President was disengaged."
Koppel tried to get Cheney to agree "that there were a number of people who were making end runs around the Constitution, and that the President was disengaged, and then add one third element, namely, that the President should not have been disengaged and should not have permitted his senior staff to be making those end runs, don’t we then come a little closer to what the majority report seems to be saying?"
In the past two years, Koppel hasn’t been in the habit of asking questions about whether President Clinton has been disengaged, or whether he was involved.
4. Follow-up coverage:
Pretend the story doesn’t exist.
Since May 28, three days after the Cox committee reported, only
CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News have aired a single story on Chinese espionage among the Big Three, despite ongoing congressional investigations and government reform initiatives. The isolated exceptions to the daily blackout dealt with the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, chaired by former Sen. Warren Rudman. Only
CBS Evening News covered the initial report on June 15, and only NBC Nightly News caught up with a full story when Rudman appeared before an unprecedented four-committee Senate hearing on June 22. (CBS did note that development for 42 seconds.)
NBC Nightly News gave 19 seconds each to developments on June 25 and 27. ABC’s
World News Tonight aired nothing in all of June. The morning shows also have aired less than a minute on Chinagate since May 26. ABC’s
Good Morning America and NBC’s Today each gave the Rudman report 23 seconds on June 16.
The blackout comes despite the Fox News Channel’s continuing efforts to report new developments. Take a look at recent FNC stories the Big Three networks could have been pursuing:
May 24: A Beijing-Coordinated Coverup? The day before the Cox Report release, reporter Carl Cameron found evidence suggesting a capital-to-capital coverup strategy. In a transcript of a call to Johnny Chung, Chinese operative Robert Luu told Chung to credit the source of donations to the "princelings" (children of People’s Liberation Army officers in front companies). Luu said: "Chairman Jiang agreed to handle it like this. The President over here also agreed." (Clinton and Jiang were meeting when the call took place.) Imagine the reaction if someone had charged that Ronald Reagan had agreed on spin control with the Ayatollah. Big Three network coverage? Zero.
May 27: More Labs Investigated. Cameron outlined his exclusive: "FBI counter-intelligence sources have told Fox News about two more previously undisclosed open investigations into Chinese nuclear espionage at the national labs during the Clinton administration. Sources say both the Argonne National Labs in Illinois and Idaho and the Sandia National Lab in New Mexico have been compromised and that both weapons secrets and detonation technology have been passed to China since 1993." Cameron added that 80 House members led by Republicans Cliff Stearns and J.D. Hayworth demanded the resignations of National Security Adviser Sandy Berger and Attorney General Janet Reno over their handling of Chinagate. Big Three network coverage? Zero.
June 3: Testing a Second Missile. Cameron reported: "This has caught U.S. military and intelligence officials off guard. China now plans to move up its development timetable and later this year will test not one, but two new intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of hitting the U.S. The second is particularly surprising because it comes years before any U.S. analyst had predicted China would be able to do it and because of how similar it will be to the top weapon in the U.S. arsenal." Cameron added: "Frustrated FBI agents say the Justice Department should have already asked a grand jury to indict fired Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee. Counter-intelligence sources say a sting operation caught Lee mishandling secrets in 1997." Big Three network coverage? Zero.
June 8: O’Leary’s Leak. Cameron reported allegations made by Republicans on the Cox committee, such as Rep. Curt Weldon: "Now come allegations that former Clinton administration Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary leaked classified nuclear weapons information personally in 1995 to
U.S. News & World Report. After the magazine published this classified design information on the W-87 warhead, an investigation began to find the leak. Sources say DOE brass abruptly canceled the probe to prevent O’Leary embarrassment. Lawmakers now want that suspected cover up investigated." Big Three network coverage? Zero.
June 9: Deliberate Incompetence? A week-and-a-half after he promised to fire Energy Department officials responsible for lost secrets (a promise he has yet to fulfill), Energy Secretary Bill Richardson appeared before the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence. It was an open hearing with cameras taping footage any network could use, but only one bothered. Richardson told Senators he opposes new security proposals because they "undermine and micro-manage him."
Cameron moved on: "The chief of Energy Department counter-intelligence, Ed Curran, accompanied Richardson and found himself under fire for claiming several days ago that the Senate knew about China's spying in 1996 and failed to act. The Vice Chairman of the committee, Democrat Bob Kerrey, scolded Curran for being both inaccurate and too partisan." Kerrey said: "It carried a tone that sounded as if it was written by the political shop over at the White House." Cameron added: "Curran sat by and watched as his boss acknowledged that the comments and the facts were wrong."
Cameron explained how the House unanimously passed new security measures proposed in the Cox Report and then concluded with exclusive information about more malfeasance: "In rare closed-door testimony, Fox News has learned that frustrated rank and file FBI agents told lawmakers that they found ample evidence of Chinese espionage, but felt thwarted by senior Justice Department officials. Now sources say lawmakers will look into the possibility of what’s called, quote, ‘deliberate incompetence’ by Justice Department officials to sweep it under the carpet." Big Three network coverage of any of this? Zero.
June 10: Trie Destroyed Evidence. Cameron reported how Charlie Trie destroyed documents, which was reported in newspaper accounts of his plea deal, but not mentioned elsewhere on TV, and added fresh information about how the FBI was thwarted:
"The President appointed his long-time friend and fundraiser Charlie Trie of Little Rock to a trade commission to deal with Hong Kong and other Asian nations. Trie has pleaded guilty to fundraising violations and is cooperating with investigators, but in 1997 FBI surveillance observed Trie’s employees destroying evidence in the campaign fundraising investigation. At the time, the Justice Department sent two officials to Little Rock to get search warrants and intervene. But on the eve of Senate hearings into campaign finance abuse, the Justice Department pulled back on the warrants and the search of Trie’s office and frustrated FBI agents watched as more documents were destroyed." Big Three network coverage? Zero.
June 25: Clinton Admits Poor "Choice of Wording." At a late-afternoon press conference, FNC’s Wendell Goler asked: "Do you still maintain that you were not told anything about these Chinese efforts to spy at the nation’s nuclear labs during your administration?" Clinton claimed he’d learned of Wen Ho Lee’s transfer of computer codes since March: "I think my choice of wording was poor. What I should have said was I did not know of any specific instance of espionage because I think we’ve been suspicious all along." Big Three network coverage? NBC’s Claire Shipman noticed for 19 seconds.
June 27: Very Early Notification. Contradicting White House claims that they first learned of Chinese espionage in April 1996,
The New York Times reported the White House was told about Chinese nuclear thefts in July 1995, "soon after it was detected by the Energy Department and the Central Intelligence Agency...interviews with current and former officials show that warnings about possible Chinese nuclear espionage received high-level attention within the Clinton administration early in the government’s investigation of the matter."
Fox Weekend Report led with the story, noting it had already reported on the shifting date story. Big Three network coverage?
NBC Nightly News anchor Kelly O’Donnell noted it for 19 seconds.
June 29: Punishing Whistleblowers. Cameron revealed what went on behind the scenes at a House Government Reform Committee hearing the week before: "Democrats and Republicans say the secret testimony of Energy Department counter-intelligence agent Bob Henson caught them completely off-guard. Lawmakers are mum on the classified details which sources say involve weapons labs, like Los Alamos, over the last five years and may have been part of China’s nuclear espionage. The Energy Department’s top spy catcher, who admits security cannot be guaranteed, said he was unaware of his agent’s testimony until Fox News told him."
Cameron added this bit of intrigue: "At the exact time Defense Department analyst Peter Leitner was telling Congress that his bosses have in the past planted evidence in his desk to discredit him, over at the Pentagon those supervisors were allegedly trying to get into his computer without proper permission. A trail of e-mails obtained by Fox News indicates that several Defense Department officials were involved. Ultimately they did not gain access, but the Defense Threat Reduction Agency has announced an investigation and pending the outcome Leitner’s supervisor at the Pentagon has been transferred to another post. Congress continues to investigate alleged reprisals and has subpoenaed Leitner’s supervisors to explain their actions next week." Other network coverage? Zero.
Conclusion: Who Needs This Scandal?
In the stories that do touch on Chinagate and the Cox Report, network journalists have left the distinct impression that they’re disappointed this story has to be done, that Chinese espionage has to be made an issue on which this administration should be held accountable.
On the November 17, 1987 Nightline, then-ABC reporter Jeff Greenfield concluded his summary of the congressional Iran-Contra probe by decrying the media’s expected failure to keep riding the Iran-Contra story to the end with the same intensity it had shown for the previous year: "The report also raises, unintentionally, another issue: the attention span of the media and the American public. Within a few days, this once-dominant story will most likely be shunted onto the back pages of our newspapers. It is after all not about a sex or drug scandal or dramatic crime. It is instead about how a great nation defends its vital interests while keeping faith with its highest values."
Those high-minded concerns apply just as well to the current espionage fiasco. Has this administration defended our vital interests or kept faith with our highest values? Is this administration’s need to be held accountable for its actions on the world stage so much less important than the Reagan administration? If the American public had a better grasp of the outlines of this scandal, they too might ask: Where are the networks?
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