When Johnny Chung arrives to testify before the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee about the Chinese plot to gain U.S. military technology through espionage and political contributions, will the mainstream media show up? Or will they repeat the pattern of 1997, when testimony like Chung's wasn't fit for broadcast, unlike the really important hearings on Capitol Hill like the one on "road rage"?
Critics within the media elite find nothing wrong with this utter lack of interest at Chung's charges or the evidence that establishes a China connection to the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton-Gore reelection campaign.Committees of "concerned journalists" have furrowed their brows instead at talk radio and the Internet, which they say are increasing the circulation of unverified rumors and forcing the gatekeepers of the mainstream media into a "journalism of assertion" instead of a "journalism of verification."
But they've done very little worrying over a more disturbing pattern: the journalism of avoidance. For over two years now, newspapers and news magazines have filed hundreds of verified stories on everything from illegal contribution schemes to satellite technology thefts. But the networks have failed to pick up or add to these reports. And no, to the best of my knowledge, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and the Washington Post have not been formally admitted into the membership of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy against the Clintons.
Studies have shown that as much as 70 percent of the American public gets the majority of its news from television. This means quite simply that the vast majority of Americans remain ignorant of these extraordinary stories. On a story like Chinese espionage, if it weren't for those dreaded alternative outlets of talk radio and the Internet, not even that self-selected elite of news junkies would have easy access to the stories being provided by newspapers.
Throughout the Clinton presidency, reporters have used the following circular defense. 1. Assail alternative media outlets for forwarding "unsubstantiated" stories. 2. Do absolutely nothing to attempt either to substantiate or discredit them. All of our scandals began as unsubstantiated charges. Substantiating them is what journalists do.
The same dynamic asserted itself on the story of Juanita Broaddrick, who came forward to tell her story of being sexually assaulted by Bill Clinton in 1978. Several newscasts - ABC's "World News Tonight" and "Nightline," NBC's "Nightly News" - decided they would just keep their viewers completely in the dark about it.
A panel of journalists met at the National Press Club last month to discuss why the Broaddrick story faced so much media resistance. The panel's primary source of "mainstream media" snobbishness, the chief Washington correspondent for Scripps-Howard Newspapers, Ann McFeatters, waved the white flag of surrender. "He's not answering the question. What more can we do?" She choked on the idea that somehow the Internet, this unreliable electronic fount of gossip, could advance the Broaddrick story. To her, the story began and ended with Clinton's denial.
So, too, have most journalists reacted to Johnny Chung's charge that the head of Chinese military intelligence gave him $300,000 to butter up the Democrats. Lapdog reporters seem to take denials from Jiang Zemin or Zhu Rongji, two lying communist dictators, as reason enough to stop pursuing the story. (As if they had ever started.)
When it comes to this ironclad pattern of omission - newspapers break new investigative ground, which the networks studiously ignore - the problem isn't a "journalism of assertion," since there is only omission. Conservatives, who can easily recall the entire national media's hunger for details on Iran-Contra or "Iraqgate," would call it a journalism of political calculation. But it definitely can be called a journalism of underestimation - of the audience's intelligence, Tabloid topics, like the overcovered deaths of Gianni Versace, JonBenet Ramsey, and Princess Diana, have far outnumbered the amount of time and money the networks have devoted to the China story. Urgent matters of life and death, like the guns and pipe bombs wielded by teenagers in Colorado, dominate the network airwaves for days. We feel that passionately about the murder of 13 Americans. So why can't we muster some passion about the potential threat of China pointing missiles armed with multiple nuclear warheads at millions of Americans? Missiles and warheads stolen while our government dawdled?
Clearly not every talk radio show or Web site is journalistically reliable. But the radio hosts and the online providers who have highlighted Chinese espionage - what should be the most important story of 1999 - are much more reliable than the "mainstream" press that washes its hands of any responsibility to alert the public of America's dangerously eroding strategic advantage.