All The News That's Fit to Skip:
Network Apathy Toward Chinese Contributions and Espionage
May 14, 1999: Updated Edition
By Tim Graham, MRC Director of Media Analysis
Introduction: Hazardous to Your Health,
TV News Judgment on National Security
The networks suspect foreign policy bores viewers to death, even foreign policy scandals. Instead, network newscasts thrive on warning the American public about the more visible threats to their everyday lives. On an almost nightly basis, TV anchors suggest viewers should worry about spoiled hamburgers, pesticide-tainted fruit, caffeine, tobacco, flammable children’s pajamas, unsafe bottled water, "monster" sport utility vehicles, unused seat belts, negligent nannies, "road rage" and global warming. Sensational murders outside bars or inside schools, whether the victims are celebrities or obscurities, can dominate the news for days.
Would any network executive dare to suggest that improved Chinese missiles are somehow not as threatening to the public as the "news-about-you" nightmares they present on a regular basis? Their lack of coverage would seem to say so. The nation’s most prestigious newspapers — the
Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington
Post, The Washington Times — have published scoop after scoop detailing the connections between Chinese contributions and espionage efforts. But the ABC, CBS, and NBC morning and evening shows have aired next to nothing of these reports. (CNN and FNC did cover many of these disclosures, but we’ve targeted the Big Three newscasts.) The
CBS Evening News, it should be noted, has run two exclusive pieces in the past month about security lapses at the nuclear labs and Energy Dept.
While network reporters crusade against tobacco companies and SUV salesmen, malignant meat-grinders and disgruntled drivers, couldn’t they add to their list of people to hold accountable the foreign-policy experts and politicians who have allowed a potentially life-threatening erosion of our strategic advantage?
With the end of the Cold War, the networks seem to have abandoned the idea of covering threats to America’s national security. After years of Democratic foot-dragging, Congress recently held a surprising bipartisan vote to build a strategic missile defense. But the networks did not explain what caused this stunning policy shift: reports of Chinese espionage inside the United States. Republicans and Democrats agree the communist government of China has made leaps and bounds in developing more sophisticated missile-guidance systems to improve their aim, and miniaturized multiple warheads to increase their deadliness.
Network apathy on Chinese espionage would seem less irresponsible and less unfair if the networks hadn’t doggedly pursued foreign-policy scandals during Republican presidencies with a curiously partisan sense of geopolitics. What the President knew and when he knew it was an absolutely central tenet of the Iran-Contra story. Why are the same networks now so uninterested in Clinton’s knowledge of Chinese espionage? These new disturbing discoveries and their lack of TV coverage can be broken down into four subject areas:
1. China’s Army Funds the Democrats.
When the Asian fundraising scandal story first gained traction in an October 8, 1996
Wall Street Journal article on the then-unknown John Huang, the primary concern was the acceptance of illegal foreign contributions. Strategic questions were very slow to surface. When Fred Thompson’s Senate Governmental Affairs Committee took up the matter in the summer of 1997, network coverage focused on alleged foreign contributions to both parties.
When Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour appeared before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee to address Hong Kong-connected contributions to an RNC think tank, the networks provided their fullest day of hearings coverage that month, with the exception of the opening day. But when Democratic National Committee Chairman Don Fowler appeared on September 9 to answer questions about his favors for foreign donors, the networks blacked it out.
Sen. Thompson’s opening statement noting intelligence reports suggested the Chinese government had attempted to influence the 1996 elections was presented as a blunder throughout the hearings. On September 9, the night they ignored Fowler, ABC’s Linda Douglass noted: "Senator Thompson is clearly tired of taking a beating from the Democrats, who every single day point out the fact that he’s failed to prove there is any Chinese plot in connection with the Democratic presidential campaign." Where were they when proof arrived?
• May 15, 1998: Chung’s Chinese Summer.
The New York Times reported Johnny Chung told investigators that a large part of the almost $100,000 he gave Democrats in the summer of 1996 came from Liu Chaoying, who works on defense modernization for China’s People’s Liberation Army. Two days later, the Sunday Times added that Clinton overrode then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s decision to limit China’s ability to launch American-made satellites on Chinese rockets.
Network coverage? Would the networks who dismissed Thompson make up for lost ground? In the midst of heavy coverage of Frank Sinatra’s death, ABC devoted 75 seconds to the story, CBS 27, and NBC 15. After Sunday’s disclosures, ABC reported one story, but CBS and NBC ignored it. From May 15 to June 5, 1998, the network evening shows offered 15 full stories (featuring reporters in the field) on Chinagate, but 38 full stories on the Monica Lewinsky scandal. In the same time period, the network morning shows aired 40 Monica stories to only six on the China scandal. In three weeks, CBS and NBC each aired only one morning report on the fundraising revelations.
• April 4, 1999: Chung’s $300,000 Link to the Top.
The Los Angeles Times published an Easter bombshell. "The chief of China’s military intelligence secretly directed funds from Beijing to help re-elect President Clinton in 1996, former Democratic fundraiser Johnny Chung has told federal investigators." Reporters William Rempel, Henry Weinstein, and Alan Miller reported: "Chung says he met three times with the intelligence official, Gen. Ji Shengde, who ordered $300,000 deposited into the Torrance businessman’s bank account to subsidize campaign donations intended for Clinton."
Did the government believe Chung’s testimony was credible? The
Times also revealed the FBI monitored groups of Chinese visitors in California regarded as a possible hit squad: "more than 40 agents were assigned to guard Chung, his wife and three children for three weeks."
Network coverage? Nothing on any Big Three morning or evening show until Chung testified five weeks later, on May 11, before the House Government Reform Committee. In the days after the
Los Angeles Times disclosure, none of these details, or the subsequent press conference and state dinner with Chinese premier Zhu Rongji later in the week, spurred interest. ABC’s Sam Donaldson got closest to touching the revelations five days later, reporting without even a raised eyebrow that Zhu "said he had no knowledge that the Chinese government had contributed money to Mr. Clinton’s 1996 campaign."
The day Chung testified over a month later, on CBS’s
This Morning, reporter Bill Plante briefly previewed Chung’s appearance, but that night the CBS Evening News failed to tell viewers about his testimony.
World News Tonight and NBC Nightly News aired reports on May 11 about Chung’s testimony, but neither mentioned the threats on his life from Chinese officials which he recounted before the House committee. The next morning: Not a word about Chung on ABC’s
Good Morning America, CBS’s This Morning or NBC’s Today. Bottom line: No coverage yet on the
CBS Evening News, ABC’s Good Morning America or NBC’s Today for the head of Chinese military intelligence giving Chung $300,000 to funnel to the DNC and Clinton re-election campaign.
• May 7, 1999: Chung’s Claims for Congress. The Los Angeles Times reported a preliminary outline of what Johnny Chung would tell the House Government Reform panel about his knowledge of the Chinese attempts to influence U.S. policy through contributions:
First, "He was told by an associate of Beijing’s military intelligence leader that China had funneled $500,000 to an international trading firm established by a former Clinton White House aide." Second, "A Beijing banker told Chung that a former Arkansas restaurateur who was a longtime friend of President Clinton approached the Chinese government sometime prior to February 1996 asking for $1 million to help support Clinton and the Democratic Party." Third, "Chung escorted the wife and son of the Chinese military intelligence chief to a political fundraiser in Los Angeles in 1996 at which Democratic officials insisted on a $25,000 campaign contribution for the opportunity to introduce his guests to the President."
Network coverage? Zero.
2. China Acquires U.S. Missile Technology.
Policy toward China may have been affected not just by Chinese donations, but by donations from Americans with business in China. But the nexus between campaign cash and policy actions rarely became a question on the broadcast networks. Since April 1998, the total network evening show coverage of Missilegate? ABC: 7. CBS: 3. NBC: 2. ABC outnumbered these 12 stories alone in one day of promoting their Monica Lewinsky interview. Take these examples of ignored newspaper discoveries:
• April 4, 1998: Loral’s Loose Lips. New York Times reporters Jeff Gerth and Raymond Bonner reported, "A federal grand jury is investigating whether two American companies illegally gave China space expertise that significantly advanced Beijing’s ballistic missile program, according to administration officials. But the officials said the criminal inquiry was dealt a serious blow two months ago when President Clinton quietly approved the export to China of similar technology by one of the companies under investigation." The
Times noted that company, Loral, has a chairman, Bernard Schwartz, who was the largest individual contributor to the Democratic National Committee in 1996.
Network coverage? Six weeks went by without a single word from the networks, until the Johnny Chung allegations were published on May 15. As President Clinton visited China at the end of June, the networks stayed similarly silent.
• June 11, 1998: Bush Basher’s Reverse. Washington Post reporter John Mintz revealed, "Months after denouncing President George Bush in 1992 for coddling ‘familiar tyrants’ in Beijing, newly-inaugurated President Clinton endorsed his predecessor’s policy in 1993 by approving deals with China to launch U.S.-made satellites. Clinton took the action, the first of many favored by U.S. companies, despite evidence that China had sold ballistic missile parts to Pakistan, declassified White House documents show."
Network coverage? Zero. The only network morning or evening mention of the satellite scandal in June came on NBC’s
Today June 11. Claire Shipman did not touch on the Mintz story.
• June 13, 1998: New Communications Skills. New York Times reporter Jeff Gerth found the conversion of supposedly civilian technology for military uses: "For the past two years, China’s military has relied on American-made satellites sold for civilian purposes to transmit messages to its far-flung army garrisons, according to highly classified intelligence reports. The reports are the most powerful evidence to date that the American government knew that China’s army was taking advantage of the Bush and Clinton administrations’ decisions to encourage sales of technology to Asian companies."
Network coverage? Zero.
• June 15, 1998: Pakistan Proliferation. Washington Times reporter Bill Gertz found White House documents showed that Clinton loosened the Bush export-control policy by allowing a Nov. 1993 satellite launch while sanctions were in place for exporting missile parts to Pakistan: "Congressional investigators said the document, released last week by the White House, contradicts recent statements by Clinton administration officials defending satellite export policies and claiming they were following procedures set by the Bush administration."
Network coverage? Zero.
• June 16, 1998: Helping Libya and Iran. Bill Gertz added more in the
Washington Times: "China is discussing sales of missile test equipment to Iran and is helping Libya develop its own missile program, The Washington Times has learned....The reports contradict administration claims that Beijing has improved its record on weapons proliferation."
Network coverage? Zero.
• June 18, 1998: The General’s Son. Jeff Gerth reported in
The New York Times that the Clinton administration was rethinking its approval of one of the largest satellite deals to that date: "Administration officials said concerns about the pending satellite sale had been deepened by American intelligence reports about Shen Rongjun, the Chinese Army general who oversees his country’s military satellite programs. The reports quote the general as saying he planned to emphasize the role of satellites in gathering information."
Gerth added: "In an unusual arrangement, Hughes Space and Communications hired General Shen’s son, a dual citizen of Canada and China, to work on the project as a manager. The company said it was aware of his familial ties; it is not clear whether the Clinton administration knew. Father and son were both directly involved in the project, and American officials said the intelligence reports said the general was pressing his son to move it forward."
Network coverage? Zero.
• June 24, 1998: The Missing Circuit Board. The New York Times reported that China barred American monitors from a previous rocket crash site: "When the Americans finally reached the area and opened the battered but intact control box of the satellite, a supersecret encoded circuit board was missing."
Network coverage? Zero.
All these stories were never factored into the network coverage of Clinton’s June trip to China. Imagine if, just a couple of months after the Iran-Contra affair broke, Ronald Reagan had planned a nine-day trip to Iran, with the President featured at a historic joint news conference with Ayatollah Khomeini. Then imagine if the networks helpfully said nothing about Iran-Contra, and praised the President for his "constructive engagement" toward a new "strategic partnership." That’s what the networks did for President Clinton’s China trip.
3. China Acquires U.S. Warhead Technology.
Then the newspapers began to piece together another story, of China stealing the technology to miniaturize their nuclear warheads. Put the two together — miniaturized nuclear warheads on improved ballistic missiles — and you have an American security nightmare. So did the networks leap at this horrendous security breach? No.
• March 6, 1999: Miniaturized Multiple Warheads. The New York 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 miniaturization of its bombs." The Times emphasized: "The White House was told of the full extent of China’s spying in the summer of 1997, on the eve of the first U.S.-Chinese summit meeting in eight years — a meeting intended to dramatize the success of President Clinton’s efforts to improve relations with Beijing....a reconstruction by
The New York Times reveals that throughout the government, the response to the nuclear theft was marked by delays, inaction and skepticism — even though senior intelligence officials regarded it as one of the most damaging spy cases in recent history."
Network coverage? In the first ten days of the story, the Big Three aired only 11 evening stories. The morning shows were worse, airing only six full news reports and one interview. As administration spokesmen went uninterviewed and unchallenged by the morning shows, ABC’s
Good Morning America had time for a half-hour on weight loss. CBS’s
This Morning asked O.J. Simpson lawyer Johnnie Cochran about his upcoming appearance on the CBS soap Guiding Light. Two networks urgently discussed the 40th anniversary of the Barbie doll. When the networks did touch the story, it came flattened by skepticism. Only NBC’s
Today aired an interview. On March 9, Katie Couric helped Energy Secretary Bill Richardson make excuses: "Isn’t there a possibility that China could have done this on its own?" Through May 13, this stands as the only interview segment about espionage on any of the morning shows since the
New York Times broke the story. Since the first ten days, the Big Three have ignored several subsequent significant revelations:
• March 24, 1999: Hand the Spy a Better Job? New York Times reporter James Risen revealed: "In spring 1997, Los Alamos National Laboratory chose a scientist who was already under investigation as a suspected spy for China to run a sensitive new nuclear weapons program, several senior government officials say. The scientist, Wen Ho Lee, asked that he be allowed to hire a research assistant, the officials said. Once in the new position, in charge of updating computer software for nuclear weapons, Lee hired a post-doctoral researcher who was a citizen of China, intelligence and law-enforcement officials said....the research assistant has disappeared."
Network coverage? Zero.
• March 29, 1999: "The Penetration is Total." Submerged across the bottom of two pages of the March 29 issue,
Newsweek correspondents John Barry and Gregory L. Vistica reported on a CIA probe of the compromised nuclear labs. Top nuclear experts "practically fainted" at how Chinese scientists routinely used U.S. lab phrases and concepts. One official announced: "The penetration is total...they are deep, deep into the labs’ black programs." They also learned "Beijing recently got hold of two U.S. cruise missiles that failed to detonate during last fall’s retaliatory attack on Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan," and officials want to know if the Chinese are copying that sophisticated technology.
Network coverage? Zero.
• March 31, 1999: Only Lee’s Wiretap Rejected. After several investigative news reports on the China connection by the Washington bureau of
Investor’s Business Daily, the newspaper’s lead editorial on March 31 revealed: "As part of the probe, the [FBI] requested a wiretap on Lee. Justice denied it, arguing it did not have sufficient grounds to take to a federal court to get the tap approved. But a look at the Justice Department’s record on wiretaps calls that argument into serious question. From 1993 to 1997, federal officials requested 2,686 wiretaps. For all its concern for probable cause and legal standards, the Justice Department turned down one request in those four years — Lee’s in 1996."
Network coverage? Zero.
• April 8, 1999: New Neutron Theft. New York Times reporters Jeff Gerth and James Risen began: "In early 1996, the United States received a startling report from one of its Chinese spies. Officials inside China’s intelligence service, the spy said, were boasting that they had just stolen secrets from the United States and had used them to improve Beijing’s neutron bomb, according to American officials." After repeated administration claims that all nuclear-weapons espionage happened in the mid-80s, the
Times found espionage happening in 1995.
Network coverage? In a press conference that day with visiting Chinese premier Zhu Rongji, both the AP and Reuters reporters on hand asked about the
Times charges. Still, the CBS Evening News ignored the story, except for one vague reference by Bill Plante: "Did China steal U.S. nuclear technology? Zhu Rongji said he didn’t know a thing about it." ABC and NBC covered the subject, though NBC did not give credit to the newspaper and concluded by stressing the White House spin that "there’s no evidence China’s neutron bomb was improved as a result."
The next morning, CBS’s This Morning ignored it. ABC’s
Good Morning America gave the Times story two updates totaling 30 seconds, and NBC’s
Today awarded one 38-second brief. But NBC spent two minutes and 43 seconds on beavers gnawing down cherry trees on Washington’s Tidal Basin.
• April 30: Communist China vs. Keystone Kops. The Washington Post front page reported Congress "erupted" with criticism against the FBI and the Justice Department. "After grilling FBI Director Louis J. Freeh for nearly three hours in a closed-door hearing, members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence from both parties appeared equally outraged at what they depicted as lax handling of past and present investigations into suspected leaks of classified data. Their concern was aroused in particular by Freeh’s testimony that the suspect, Wen Ho Lee, had been cited for suspicious actions going back almost 20 years."
Network coverage? Zero.
• May 7, 1999: The Senate Reports. Washington Times reporter Bill Gertz summarized a bipartisan congressional finding of damage that was released later that day: "U.S. satellite technology transferred to China in 1995 and 1996 has improved Beijing’s rockets and missiles, according to a report to be released May 7 by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The bipartisan committee report sets out that the Chinese government is engaged in a covert operation aimed at influencing U.S. policies. ‘Technical analyses and methodologies provided by American satellite companies to the [People’s Republic of China] during various satellite-launch campaigns result in the transfer to the PRC of technical knowhow,’ the report says. ‘Such transfer enables the PRC to improve its present and future space launch vehicles and intercontinental ballistic missiles.’"
Network coverage? ABC, CBS, and NBC ignored it, although ABC’s
World News Tonight aired a story on Wen Ho Lee’s claims of innocence.
• May 10, 1999: Scott-Free Peter Lee.
New York Times reporters Jeff Gerth and James Risen expanded the espionage story: "A scientist working on a classified Pentagon project in 1997 provided China with secrets about advanced radar technology being developed to track submarines, according to court records and government documents. Submarine detection technology is jealously guarded by the Pentagon because the Navy’s ability to conceal submarines is a crucial military advantage."
The reporters added context: "The information about the radar technology, which is considered promising and has been in development for two decades, was divulged to Chinese nuclear-weapons experts during a two-hour lecture in Beijing in May 1997 by Peter Lee, an American scientist, court records show....Despite the failure to prosecute Lee over the radar technology [due to Navy and Justice Department objections], the case shows that the scope of Chinese espionage is broader than the assertions of nuclear thefts at the Los Alamos National Laboratory....The Peter Lee case is also significant because it clearly demonstrates that the American government believed that China was successfully engaged in espionage — obtaining American defense secrets — during President Clinton’s second term."
Network coverage? Zero.
4. Clinton’s Denials Exposed.
When he was forced to respond to press conference inquiries about the newspaper scoops on Chinese espionage, Clinton denied any knowledge that espionage occurred on his watch. At a March 19 press conference, Clinton said: "Can I tell you there has been no espionage at the labs since I’ve been President? I can tell you that no one has reported to me that they suspect such a thing has occurred." He repeated later in the same news conference: "To the best of my knowledge, no one has said anything to me about any espionage which occurred by the Chinese against the labs, during my presidency."
On April 8, the day
The New York Times reported the theft of neutron bomb secrets in 1995, Clinton met the press with Chinese premier Zhu Rongji and again denied knowledge of recent espionage: "You know, China is a big country with a big government and I can only say that America is a big country with a big government and occasionally things happen in this government that I don’t know about. And so I think it’s important that we continue the investigation and do our best to find out what happened and I asked for his cooperation." That night, ABC and NBC ran clips of Clinton’s March 19 denial, but then failed to follow up when his denials became more obviously hollow.
• April 28: "Huge Amounts" Improperly Transferred. The New York Times reported "A scientist suspected of spying for China improperly transferred huge amounts of secret data from a computer system at a government laboratory, compromising virtually every nuclear weapon in the United States arsenal, government and lab officials say. The data — millions of lines of computer code that approximate how this country’s atomic warheads work — were downloaded from a computer system at the Los Alamos, N.M., weapons lab that is open only to those with top-level security clearances, according to the officials. The scientist, Wen Ho Lee, then transferred the files to a widely accessible computer network at the lab, where they were stored under other file names, the officials said. The Taiwan-born scientist transferred most of the secret data in 1994 and 1995, officials said."
Network coverage? Nothing on the ABC and CBS morning shows while NBC’s
Today gave it 15 seconds. ABC’s World News Tonight aired a full story.
CBS Evening News mentioned it before its own exclusive report on lax nuclear lab security.
NBC Nightly News referred to it in one sentence in a story broadcast nearly two weeks later, on May 11. But none of the network reports pointed out how the story undermined Clinton’s claim there was no espionage during his administration.
• May 2, 1999: What Did They Know and When Did They Know It?
The New York Times added new details about how and when the Clinton team learned about ongoing espionage last year: "A secret report to top Clinton administration officials last November warned that China posed an ‘acute intelligence threat’ to the government’s nuclear weapons laboratories and that computer systems at the labs were being constantly penetrated by outsiders. Yet investigators waited until March to search the computer of a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory who had been under investigation for nearly three years, suspected of spying for China. And it was not until April that the Energy Department shut down its classified computer systems to impose tighter security over their data. Meanwhile, in February, the scientist, Wen Ho Lee, tried to delete evidence that he had improperly transferred more than 1,000 files containing nuclear secrets, officials said. The classified report contains numerous warnings and specific examples showing that outsiders had gained access to the computer systems at United States weapons labs as recently as June 1998."
Network coverage? Only ABC’s
World News Tonight noted it, for 40 seconds, but failed to say a word about how it contradicted Clinton’s denials.
• May 9: Richardson Admits Clinton-Era Espionage. On NBC’s
Meet the Press, moderator Tim Russert prodded Energy Secretary Bill Richardson to admit that contrary to Clinton’s press-conference claims, espionage did take place in the Clinton years: "In November of ‘98, you received, the President received a report saying exactly something contrary. Senator Kerrey, Senator Shelby of the Intelligence Committee said they were aware and the President was aware. Why would he tell the American people in March that he wasn’t aware?"
Richardson: "Tim, what the President was referring to — and I was with him — he was referring to [how] this individual had not been charged with espionage."
Russert: "That’s not what he said. It’s not what he said, Mr. Richardson."
Richardson: "The President has been fully, fully briefed. The President has been..."
Russert: "He said, ‘Can I tell you that there’s no espionage at the lab since I’ve been President? I can tell you that no one has reported to me they suspect such a thing. To the best of my knowledge, no one has said anything to me about espionage.’"
Richardson: "Tim, it was the President..."
Russert: "...which occurred by the Chinese against the labs during my presidency."
Richardson: "Tim, it was the President that vigorously pushed for a decision memorandum, a PDD, in February. He set dramatic counter-intelligence measures at the labs. We moved ahead a month later and hired Mr. Curran, the best counter-intelligence person."
Russert: "But let’s clear up the record."
Richardson: "And when I came in, Tim, we have taken dramatic steps."
Russert: "Right. Let’s clear up the record. Let’s clear up the record. Did, in fact, espionage occur by the Chinese against the nuclear labs during the Clinton presidency?"
Richardson: "Tim, this is what’s happened."
Russert: "It’s a simple question."
Richardson: "No, no, no, this is what happened."
Russert: "Was there Chinese espionage..."
Richardson: "There has been damaging security leaks, number one."
Russert: "...during the Clinton administration?"
Richardson: "The Chinese did get W-88 information that is damaging. It started in the ‘80s, it’s gone into the ‘90s. The Chinese have obtained damaging information. We are..."
Russert: "During the Clinton presidency?"
Richardson: "We are addressing the problem."
Russert: "During the Clinton presidency?"
Richardson: "During past administrations and present administrations."
Russert: "Finally, someone has acknowledged it."
Network coverage? Despite this heated exchange, NBC and the other networks failed to report Richardson’s admission on their morning or evening shows, even though it made the front page in the next day’s
Washington Times, and even The Boston Globe.
Network Coverage of GOP Foreign-Policy Scandals
If the networks don’t trust congressional probes into foreign-policy scandals, as they have downplayed and dismissed the findings of House and Senate hearings into the China connection, then they ought to be devoting more resources and air time to investigating the charges for themselves. Clearly they did that in Republican administrations:
Iran-Contra. Network crusaders condemned the Reagan administration for sending TOW missiles to Iran in exchange for American hostages the networks had made famous. On the January 25, 1988
CBS Evening News, Dan Rather famously yelled at Vice President George Bush about selling arms for hostages to Iran: "You’ve made us hypocrites in the face of the world! How could you sign on to such a policy?" But when Rather secured the first exclusive post-impeachment TV interview with Bill Clinton, aired on the March 31 edition of
60 Minutes II, he asked nothing about fresh stories of Chinese espionage at U.S. nuclear labs.
David Frum compared that to the current China scandal in the June 8, 1998
Weekly Standard: "The essence of the Iran-Contra scandal was the charge that the Reagan administration had sold weapons to an unfriendly regime to raise money for illegal purposes. It now looks disturbingly plausible that the Clinton administration has over the past six years been engaged in something very similar: authorizing the sale of advanced military technology to China in exchange for dubious domestic and illegal foreign campaign contributions. The Reaganites, though, could at least offer this defense: However misguided, or even foolish their project was, it did not put the national security of the United States at risk." The TOW missiles were destined to blow up Saddam Hussein’s armies.
By contrast, as Frum pointed out, the Clinton administration has allowed China to acquire technology — "super-computers to simulate nuclear tests, satellite technology that might help aim ballistic missiles more accurately — that could easily be used against the United States and its allies."
Video of a Bias
Contrast: Iran-Contra a Scandal, But Not Chinagate. Watch via RealPlayer how Dan Rather attacked George Bush in 1988 over Iran-Contra but turned deferential this year, avoiding Chinese espionage and donations.
Iraqgate. Throughout 1992, the networks (especially ABC’s
Nightline and NBC’s Dateline) devoted massive resources to investigating the since-refuted charge that the Bush administration armed the Iraqis before they faced American forces in the Gulf War. On October 28, 1992,
Nightline host Ted Koppel declared that 18 months of ABC searching had revealed a series of "legal and illegal technology transfers" to Iraq, and presented a poll suggesting most Americans didn’t believe George Bush’s explanations. Two days before the election, CBS’s
60 Minutes featured Democratic partisan Henry Gonzalez charging Bush was guilty of obstruction of justice and "principally responsible for arming Saddam Hussein." (In his November 1994
American Lawyer expose of Iraqgate coverage, journalist Stuart Taylor called the CBS piece "a 20-minute tag team number on the Bush administration littered with distortions.") Mike Wallace’s first question: "Who are the main players who have tried to stop your investigation?"
Today, the networks have feigned no interest in the increasing evidence of Chinese espionage, or in those who would attempt to sidetrack investigating reporters or politicians, even as House Republicans and Democrats alike have agreed on the harm it’s caused American national security. When the subject comes up at all, it’s dismissed as a partisan plaything. ABC reporter Linda Douglass suggested on the March 18
World News Tonight: "Republicans...believe they’ve finally found an issue that will stick to the President...The charge that Mr. Clinton is soft on China is red meat for conservatives." Why isn’t an increased Chinese nuclear-weapons capability of interest to all Americans?
How to Cover Foreign Policy Fairly
If the networks desire to present the fullest and fairest portrait of all America’s foreign-policy imbroglios, it wouldn’t have to simply compare the Clinton administration to the Reagan or Bush administrations. It could compare them to the Clinton campaign manifesto from 1992,
Putting People First. On pages 133-139, the following promises were made:
• "Preserve the attributes that have made the American military the best in the world: the outstanding quality of our personnel and the overwhelming superiority of our technology...
• "Get tough with countries and companies that sell these [missile] technologies and work with all countries for tough, enforceable, international nonproliferation agreements...
• "Condition favorable trade terms with repressive regimes — such as China’s Communist regime — on respect for human rights, political liberalization, and responsible international conduct."
Political observers expect partisans to be partisan, whether they’re Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative. But they don’t expect the networks, which claim to be objective, to choose which scandal to cover based on whose ox is gored. If the networks see their role as holding accountable all branches and all administrations of the government, then their coverage ought to better represent a single strategic standard. If the network pundits can deplore the partisan back-tracking when Republicans chat up peace plans with dictators and deplore NATO adventurism, and Democrats no longer see the need for a War Powers Act to restrain the President’s powers, shouldn’t they first consider their own partisan track record on investigating and reporting foreign-policy scandals and counter-intelligence failures?
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