MediaWatch: July 13, 1998

Vol. Twelve No. 11

TV Still Spiking Fundraising, Missile Scoops

When in China, Skip China Scandals

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 that the networks and news magazines helpfully said nothing about Iran-Contra, and praised the President for his "constructive engagement" toward a new "strategic partnership." Sound absurd? But that’s what these national media outlets did for President Clinton’s trip to China.

Before Clinton departed, Boston Globe Washington Bureau Chief David Shribman warned the trip was not politically smart: "Presidents usually go abroad to avoid their problems, not to underline them. No President has ever flown right into the winds of his problems the way Clinton does tomorrow.... Clinton is under fire for his fundraising practices. Many of them lead right to Beijing, the second stop on his China trip....He’s under fire for compromising American security by permitting China to enhance its missile capabilities. One of the principal rationales for this trip is American national security." While TV reporters intermittently focused on China’s poor human rights record, the networks avoided the China scandals the entire time Clinton was on Chinese soil.

Despite their tendency to reduce almost everything politicians do to political calculation, none of the networks noted the effect a China trip undisturbed by scandal could have. If Clinton could convince the public that China is not a potential enemy, but a "strategic partner," then their thefts of American technology or illegal campaign donations could seem less threatening.

On June 24, the day Bill Clinton left for China, Eric Schmitt of The New York Times reported a congressional hearing had revealed that the Chinese stole a secret circuit board from the crash of an American satellite. "For five hours, American officials said, Chinese authorities barred them from the crash site, saying it was for their own safety. 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." But only the Fox News Channel (and a night later, NBC) aired a report. ABC, CBS, and CNN aired nothing.

The fundraising scandal surfaced twice in connection with Chinese leader Jiang Zemin, both in events that provided ready-to-air video highlights. In the June 27 joint press conference, Jiang claimed without prompting that China had no role in the 1996 U.S. elections. CBS Evening News gave the comment one sentence leading into a quick soundbite, and Bill Plante mentioned it on Sunday Morning. But ABC, CNN and NBC didn't utter a word about it. At Clinton's wrap-up press conference on July 3, a reporter asked him if he had pressed Jiang Zemin about sending campaign money to America. That night, only CNN alluded to campaign donations funneled from China. In his story on The World Today, Wolf Blitzer led into a soundbite from Clinton on how he accepts Jiang's denial of any knowledge, observing: "On several sensitive issues Mr. Clinton seemed to take President Jiang at his word. The Chinese leader, for example, had forcefully denied China had funneled campaign cash into Mr. Clinton’s Democratic Party." But ABC, NBC, and CBS said nothing.

The satellite technology transfer only came up on NBC’s Today July 29, not as a dangerous strategic mistake, but as a foresighted political move. Geraldo Rivera boasted: "It is fair to say it is undeniable that the President has raised the issue of human rights. He hasn’t just raised it. He has trumpeted it from virtually every rooftop in China. Ninety percent of all Chinese homes have television. Interestingly one of our NBC national security experts tells me that but for that controversial transfer of satellite technology from our country to theirs, neither of those live broadcasts [press conference and Beijing University] would have been possible."

Not even fresh developments could prod the networks into caring about the China scandals. As Clinton’s trip was winding down on July 2, both The New York Times and The Washington Post delivered scandal revelations, but all the networks, both in the morning and evening, ignored them both. In the Times, Jeff Gerth reported that Shen Rongjun, the son of a commander in the People’s Liberation Army, had his State Department license "suspended last week, while Congress presses questions about the role of the United States in China’s rocket and satellite projects. Officials are examining Shen’s role in the project as well as the capabilities of the sophisticated satellites, which are to be the cornerstone of a commercial mobile phone network planned for China and 21 other Asian countries but which also could be used to eavesdrop on thousands of phone calls in the region."

Post reporter George Lardner added new details about Johnny Chung, who has admitted funneling thousands of dollars from the Chinese government into the DNC: "Johnny Chung, boosted by the Democratic National Committee, secured a meeting at the Treasury Department in the fall of 1995 on behalf of China’s biggest oil company, according to new information released by House GOP investigators....The documents from the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee reveal that then-DNC Co-Chairman Donald L. Fowler helped Chung arrange a meeting at Treasury for a delegation headed by Huaren Sheng, President of China Petrochemical Corp. (SINOPEC), a huge state-owned conglomerate that employs 900,000 people."

Not only did the networks ignore China scandals, they ignored small details of the trip, like the cost of the President’s huge delegation. Greg Pierce of The Washington Times noted Rich Galen of GOPAC compared that price tag to the Kenneth Starr probe’s alleged waste of taxpayer money: "1,200 people accompanied President Clinton on his vacation to China at a cost of upwards of $40 million. That, as luck would have it, is about the same amount as the White House Spinsters have been complaining Ken Starr has spent on investigating the same President Clinton." But the same networks which repeatedly remind viewers of Starr’s costliness ignored the story that the Clinton administration may have spent as much in nine days as Starr’s spent in the last four years.