Last year, The New York Times broke the story that two defense contractors were kept from prosecution by the Clinton White House despite giving China technology that advanced their ballistic missile guidance systems, missiles that could be aimed at the American mainland. But the networks were less than impressed. After more than six weeks of ignoring the story, the networks barely budged when Clinton fundraiser Johnny Chung told the Justice Department he gave the Democratic National Committee thousands of dollars from China's People's Liberation Army.
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 six on the China scandal. In three weeks, CBS and NBC each aired only one morning report on Chinagate.
On March 6, 1999, 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 minatiurization of its bombs."
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. In the first nine 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 in the first ten mornings. As the China story sat unaddressed, ABC had time for a half-hour on weight loss. CBS 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. The few China stories are easily outnumbered by ABC's pre- and post-Monica interview hype segments alone.
When the networks did touch the story, it came flattened by skepticism. Only NBC's Today aired an interview (after two days of interviews with Lewinsky co-author Andrew Morton). 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?" Anne Thompson's March 11 NBC Nightly News report suggested the U.S. has nothing on Wen Ho Lee, the Taiwan-born scientist fired last week.
In their first reports, the news magazines played down espionage and played up partisanship. U.S. News & World Report's headline read "Bulls in the China Shop: Republicans gore Clinton over China's espionage effort." The Internet update Time Daily carried the headline "China Spying Issue Threatens to Turn Into Partisan Battle." Tony Karon began: "Is post-Lewinsky Washington basking in bipartisan bonhomie? Not likely. Chinese espionage is quickly shaping up as the next partisan skirmish." Newsweek noted: "Republicans eager to score political points on foreign-policy issues prepared to release parts of a blistering 700-page report alleged a vast Chinese effort to spirit high technology out of the United States." Can a growing nuclear threat be dismissed as a partisan food fight? The Chinese elite hopes so. - Tim Graham