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MediaWatch: June 15, 1998

Vol. Twelve No. 9

Networks Prefer Monica News to Missile News

The Monica Lewinsky saga is completely unique in the annals of Clinton scandal coverage. Even after disparaging Ken Starr's focus on what Dan Rather insists is the President's "personal life," the networks have shown much more interest in Monicagate than the ongoing fundraising scandal. As NBC's Claire Shipman explained in February, "Who's thinking about Buddhist nuns when the issue is illicit sex in the White House?"

The fundraising scandal returned in the evolving story of Chinagate. On April 4, The New York Times noted President Clinton's waving through missile technology transfers by Loral to the Chinese government, and the related fact that Loral CEO Bernard Schwartz was the Democratic National Committee's leading donor. The networks (except for Fox News Channel) said nothing, in the morning or evening.

On May 15, the Times revealed that Clinton fundraiser Johnny Chung told investigators he gave the DNC thousands of dollars from China's People's Liberation Army. Despite these bombshells, the Monica story has continued to take the lion's share of network scandal coverage. To document disinterest in the policy scandal, MRC analysts reviewed evening newscasts (ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, CNN's The World Today at 10pm ET, and NBC Nightly News) and morning shows (ABC's Good Morning America, CBS This Morning, and NBC's Today) in the three weeks from May 15 to June 5. Overall, the Monicagate story drew more than twice as much coverage as the Chinagate story on the evening news, and more than six times as many stories on the morning shows.

In the evening, the networks offered 38 full stories (featuring reporters in the field) on Monicagate to only 15 on the Chinagate angle, and seven of those were on ABC. (The disparity in brief items from the anchors was 15 to 10). ABC's World News Tonight went against the grain in airing six full stories on the Lewinsky case versus seven full stories on the China connection.The tone was not always critical, or even objective. On May 21, reporter Linda Douglass deflated the China issue by underlining partisan glee: "Republicans hope to make a big show of their hearings over the summer, and lay the ground work for a scandal that they can talk about during the fall election."

CBS Evening News aired eight full stories on the Lewinsky probe to three on Chinagate. Their first full Chinagate report came on May 20, five days after the second New York Times story appeared. NBC Nightly News (with 12 stories on Monicagate, and only two on Chinagate) didn't air its first China report until May 21. CNN's The World Today (with a story ratio of 12 to 3) jumped on the May 15 Times story, but hasn't pursued the China angle, not running a piece since May 22.

The Big Three morning shows focused much more on Lewinsky, airing 40 full segments (21 reports and 19 interviews) on Monicagate to only six (four reports, two interviews) on Chinagate. (The disparity in anchor-read items was 32 to 4.) As with the evening shows, ABC's Good Morning America aired the most on Chinagate, with two full reports and the only two interviews on morning TV, including a Memorial Day panel with Rep. Christopher Cox and Chinese human rights activist Harry Wu. ABC aired more than twice as many segments on Monica, four reports and six interviews.

CBS and NBC each aired only one full report on Chinagate - no interviews, and no brief items from anchors. CBS This Morning aired nine reports and one interview on Monica, but only touched on China with a Sharyl Attkisson report on Memorial Day. NBC's Today had the widest disparity of coverage with 20 Monica segments (including 12 interviews), to just one David Bloom report, also on Memorial Day, the morning after Loral CEO Bernard Schwartz and other Chinagate players appeared on the Sunday talk shows.

Since May 15, Chinagate developments have continued to tumble out with little network followup. On May 22, the White House briefed reporters on Chinagate, which led to major newspaper stories the next day. On June 7, NBC Meet the Press host Tim Russert underlined the importance of the briefing when he asked NBC White House correspondent David Bloom: "The issue of Chinese money and whether or not national security was compromised. David Bloom, how concerned is the White House about this issue getting legs and resonance with the American public?"

Bloom answered: "I think deeply concerned, and I think that the evidence of that was the fact White House immediately came out and made available to those of us who were reporting at the White House all the internal, top secret documents that the White House used in order to make their decision on whether that satellite technology from Loral should indeed go to China. They've never done that before with us. They brought us all in and said 'look at all the evidence.' They don't do that unless they think there's a problem." But on May 22, NBC led with the Secret Service ruling, and didn't mention Chinagate. CNN ran a full report and CBS aired a couple of sentences. ABC provided a full story the next night, but not NBC.

The New York Times followed up on June 1. Reporters Jeff Gerth and John Broder noted from their review of the documents that Bush and Clinton both approved satellite waivers with little debate, but the Loral waiver "was not routine," since Loral was under criminal investigation by the Justice Department. National Security Adviser Sandy Berger learned the State Department found Loral's offenses to be "criminal" and "knowing" of the damage it could cause. The Pentagon told the NSC that Loral provided "potentially very significant help" to Beijing's ballistic missile program, although a White House official claimed the NSC never received the official Pentagon report.

In a June 4 front-page article ignored by the networks, Washington Times reporter Bill Gertz revealed "U.S. intelligence agencies are tracking a Chinese ship carrying weapons materials and electronics destined for Pakistan's major nuclear weapons laboratory." Clinton administration actions may have increased the possibility of a south Asian nuclear conflagration and may have resulted in increasingly accurate Chinese missiles aimed at American cities, but the networks still prefer the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal they've repeatedly emphasized that the American people don't care about. They ought to pursue both scandals.