Who Makes or Breaks a Scandal?

As the Clinton presidency winds toward an end, reporters seem determined to banish scandal from the lame-duck era. The Cox Report drew only two stories on the NBC Nightly News, while ABC's World News Tonight and CBS Evening News aired three. Since then, their inattention has only grown.

A new MRC Special Report comparing coverage of the Cox Report's release on May 25 to the congressional Iran-Contra report's release on November 18, 1987 identifies four network methods in deflating the Chinagate story, which stand in stark contrast to their coverage of Iran-Contra.

1. When forced to include the story, keep it brief. The night of the Cox Report's release, the Big Three aired five stories, but only ABC led with it. On November 18, 1987, the night of the release of the Iran-Contra report, all three networks began with it and did five segments each, devoting more than half their newscasts to it.

2. Spread the blame around to other Presidents. When the White House allowed release of the Cox Report after censoring some 375 pages, the report listed 11 cases of espionage, and noted eight took place during the Clinton era. None of the major networks took issue with the Clinton administration's five-month delay in declassifying the report, and removing 375 pages of detail, some of which dealt with espionage in the last few years. But the networks spread blame equally across the last four administrations. When the Iran-Contra report was released, TV reports seized on the majority report's harsh criticism of the Reagan administration.

3.Downplay 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 when the networks touched the Cox Report, they suggested the strategic picture was far too murky for grand conclusions, and avoided judging the Clinton team's competence or truthfulness.

4. Pretend the story doesn't exist. Since May 28, only CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News have aired a single story on Chinese espionage among the Big Three. The isolated exceptions to the daily blackout dealt with the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, chaired by former Sen. Warren Rudman. The morning shows have aired less than a minute in total coverage since the Cox Report, despite Fox News Channel's efforts to report new developments. By contrast, the networks continued to make Iran-Contra an issue in both the 1988 and 1992 campaigns.

On the November 17, 1987 Nightline, then-ABC reporter Jeff Greenfield mourned: "Within a few days, this once-dominant story will most likely be shunted onto the back pages of our news-papers." But Iran-Contra dominated the news media for a year, while each network can count its evening coverage of Chinese technology thefts on two hands. - Tim Graham