MediaWatch: May 17, 1999

In This Issue

Sex Lies Draw More News Than Policy Lies; NewsBites; Starr an Abuser, But Clinton No Harasser?; Bias of the Century; NBC's Different Look at Guns

Sex Lies Draw More News Than Policy Lies

When he was forced to respond to press conference inquiries about newspaper scoops on Chinese espionage, Bill Clinton denied any knowledge that espionage occurred on his watch. On March 19, Clinton insisted: "Can I tell you there has been no espionage at the labs since I’ve been President? I can tell you that no one has reported to me that they suspect such a thing has occurred." He repeated later in the same event: "To the best of my knowledge, no one has said anything to me about any espionage which occurred by the Chinese against the labs, during my presidency."

On April 8, Clinton met the press with Chinese premier Zhu Rongji and denied knowledge again: "You know, China is a big country with a big government and I can only say that America is a big country with a big government and occasionally things happen in this government that I don’t know about. And so I think it’s important that we continue the investigation and do our best to find out what happened and I asked for his cooperation." That night, ABC and NBC ran clips of Clinton’s March 19 denial. But with the routine exception of FNC, the network evening and morning shows often failed to follow up when evidence emerged proving his denials were hollow:

April 28: The New York Times reported: "A scientist suspected of spying for China improperly transferred huge amounts of secret data from a computer system at a government laboratory, compromising virtually every nuclear weapon in the United States arsenal, government and lab officials say. The data – millions of lines of computer code that approximate how this country’s atomic warheads work – were downloaded from a computer system at the Los Alamos, N.M., weapons lab that is open only to those with top-level security clearances, according to the officials. The scientist, Wen Ho Lee, then transferred the files to a widely accessible computer network at the lab, where they were stored under other file names, the officials said. The Taiwan-born scientist transferred most of the secret data in 1994 and 1995, officials said."

Coverage of this evidence of espionage during Clinton’s first term? ABC’s World News Tonight aired a full story, the CBS Evening News mentioned it before its own exclusive report on nuclear lab security and CNN’s The World Today aired two reports. NBC aired nothing. None pointed out how the disclosure countered Clinton’s claim.

April 30: The Washington Post front page reported that Congress "erupted" with criticism against the FBI and the Justice Department. "After grilling FBI Director Louis J. Freeh for nearly three hours in a closed-door hearing, members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence from both parties appeared equally outraged at what they depicted as lax handling of past and present investigations into suspected leaks of classified data." Coverage? Only CNN aired a story.

May 2: The New York Times added new details about when the Clinton team learned about espionage: "A secret report to top Clinton administration officials last November warned that China posed an ‘acute intelligence threat’ to the government’s nuclear weapons laboratories and that computer systems at the labs were being constantly penetrated by outsiders.Yet investigators waited until March to search the computer of a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory who had been under investigation for nearly three years, suspected of spying for China. And it was not until April that the Energy Department shut down its classified computer systems to impose tighter security over their data....The classified report contains numerous warnings and specific examples showing that outsiders had gained access to the computer systems at [U.S.] weapons labs as recently as June 1998."

Network coverage? Only ABC reported it, for 40 seconds, but did not note it contradicted Clinton’s claims of ignorance.

May 5: The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee heard from nuclear lab directors and probed delays in warrants for Wen Ho Lee. The next day’s New York Times story began: "Scientists at the government’s weapons laboratories can still download nuclear secrets onto computer disks and walk out without being checked, the directors of three of the labs told Congress on Wednesday." Network coverage? CBS and NBC aired nothing. ABC’s World News Tonight provided a full story on the China hearing, but Bob Woodruff honed in on FBI bungling on the Lee case and bought the Justice Department’s claim that it twice turned down warrant requests simply "because the evidence against Lee was insufficient."

May 7: Washington Times reporter Bill Gertz summarized a bipartisan congressional finding of damage that was released later that day: "U.S. satellite technology transferred to China in 1995 and 1996 has improved Beijing’s rockets and missiles, according to a report to be released May 7 by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The bipartisan committee report sets out that the Chinese government is engaged in a covert operation aimed at influencing U.S. policies." Network coverage? Only CNN.

May 9: On NBC’s Meet the Press, host Tim Russert forced Energy Secretary Bill Richardson to admit that espionage had occurred "during past administrations and present administrations." Russert exclaimed: "Finally, someone has acknowledged it." Network coverage? Zero, even though the admission made the front page of The Washington Times and The Boston Globe.

May 10: New York Times reporters Jeff Gerth and James Risen expanded on espionage: "A scientist working on a classified Pentagon project in 1997 provided China with secrets about advanced radar technology being developed to track submarines, according to court records and government documents. Submarine detection technology is jealously guarded by the Pentagon because the Navy’s ability to conceal submarines is a crucial military advantage."

The reporters added context: "The information about the radar technology, which is considered promising and has been in development for two decades, was divulged to Chinese nuclear-weapons experts during a two-hour lecture in Beijing in May 1997 by Peter Lee, an American scientist, court records show....The Peter Lee case is also significant because it clearly demonstrates that the American government believed that China was successfully engaged in espionage – obtaining American defense secrets – during President Clinton’s second term." Network coverage? Zero. CNN did a story on espionage, but not this story.


$300,000 Delay

Johnny Chung testified May 11 before the House Government Reform Committee, recounting how the General who heads Chinese military intelligence gave him $300,000 to donate in 1996 to help President Clinton’s re-election efforts. But the CBS Evening News didn’t find it newsworthy and ignored his appearance that night. The next day none of the morning shows aired a word about Chung.

ABC’s World News Tonight and the NBC Nightly News did relay Chung’s story on May 11, but that meant it took them over five weeks to get around to it since the Los Angeles Times first disclosed the $300,000 story back on April 4.

In her story on Chung’s testimony, ABC’s Linda Douglass failed to note that he recounted how the Chinese General threatened his life if he talked about the money, but she ended by passing along Chung’s plug for campaign finance reform: "Chung blamed the flood of illegal contributions in the last presidential campaign on a political system that is addicted to money. And he told the House members, ‘I did not create the system, you did.’"

Feminist Honor Roll
100 Years of Great Liberal Women should have been the title of the April 30 Barbara Walters special on ABC, A Celebration: 100 Years of Great Women. Based upon a list compiled by Ladies Home Journal, the 90-minute show focused on the triumphs of liberal women, with Gloria Steinem and Jane Fonda the most frequently heard talking heads, ignoring any facts which might detract from their glory.

Two of the most flagrant examples came during the segments on Fonda and Hillary Clinton. Walters began, "But one woman on the list does seem to have it all, Jane Fonda. She has the career, the children and marriage, though she’s had more than one." After tracing Fonda’s movie career from Barbarella to her Oscar-winning performance in Klute, Walters continued, "In the ‘90s, Fonda has stopped acting and now spends much of her time on her favorite cause, preventing teenage pregnancy." No mention of Fonda’s anti-American, pro-communist activities during the Vietnam War, including her infamous trip to North Vietnam to denounce U.S. soldiers.

Then came Hillary the victim, with an uncritical look at the First Lady. "And what of today’s First Lady? Hillary Rodham Clinton. From the start, she has been more of a politician than a political wife....But early on, as we remember, she got in trouble for speaking her mind." Not to mention some other things. After glowing comments from Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham and columnist Ann Landers, Walters reported, "No First Lady has been more investigated or scrutinized." As if it were for no other reason than speaking her mind, and all those probes into her role in Whitewater, Travelgate, or Filegate were simply unfounded.

Libs Love Liddy
Elizabeth Dole knows how to earn media admiration: go left and bash a conservative group. On ABC’s World News Tonight on May 9 John Cochran played a clip of Dole declaring: "I don’t think you need an AK-47 to defend your family. And I do believe in the ban on assault weapons. I also favor safety locks, yes safety locks on guns to protect our children."

Cochran approvingly noted: "She gets the occasional boo, but more often she gets applause and in the wake of the Columbine school tragedy Dole’s aides believe her stand on gun control will resonate to voters." Cochran then set her up: "Do you think it’s time to stop being scared of the gun lobby?" She replied: "I do not think they should dictate to our party."

Cochran explained the strategy: "Until now Dole has looked soft, uncertain on many issues. And then there was the gender problem. She is popular with women, but polls show men have doubts about her. But now, by taking on the gun lobby, she hopes men will decide maybe she is also tough enough to take on Slobodan Milosevic."

After that stretch Cochran did wonder if "it really takes so much courage to go toe-to-toe with the gun lobby" when polls show public disapproval for the NRA, but he never questioned the validity of her prescription.

Starr an Abuser, But Clinton No Harasser?

Incurious Media Spin Julie Steele Trial as Starr's Last Gasp

Kathleen Willey may have been sexually groped by Bill Clinton in the White House, but she became another strange footnote in history when a jury deadlocked May 7 on whether Julie Hiatt Steele was guilty of perjury and obstruction of justice for recanting her support of Willey’s story.

Willey will never be as famous as Anita Hill, the media’s patron saint of sexual harassment, just named one of the top women of the century on ABC. In fact, a week after Willey told her story on 60 Minutes in March 1998, Hill sandbagged her on Meet the Press and claimed that even if Willey’s story was true, it wasn’t sexual harassment since it didn’t result in employment discrimination.

While the networks always allowed Saint Anita some interview time to discuss sexual harassment or promote her book deals, the Steele trial was no cause celebre for enemies of sexual harassment. The trial re-examined Willey’s claims of being groped, and whether Steele was intimidated out of supporting Willey by the White House. Steele signed an affidavit drafted by Clinton’s attorneys, and her former best friend said at the trial "she was afraid it was to her detriment if she took a position against the President."

The media’s double standard didn’t just emerge on sexual harassment by powerful men, but on independent counsels. Lawrence Walsh probed Iran-Contra for seven years without media catcalls, but the Steele trial was spun as Captain Ahab’s last gasp. Dan Rather began the only broadcast network story on the CBS Evening News: "The one and only criminal trial to result from Ken Starr’s year-long, four and a half million dollar investigation of the President and Monica Lewinsky, went to the jury today and Monica Lewinsky has virtually nothing to do with it." On CNBC, Geraldo Rivera again led the charge against Starr, this time touting a Willey expose by leftists at The Nation magazine.

At the Time Daily Web site, reporter Frank Pellegrini sounded like Rivera: "After losing the McDougal case with Steele herself testifying against him, and then telling Congress to scrap the law that pays his salary, Starr has taken on the air of an old crank screaming obscenities on a street corner. Starr, Steele has said, ‘is willing to use or abuse any man, woman or child who gets in the way of his prosecution of Clinton.’ That’s just what Susan McDougal said before a jury acquitted her, and just about what Clinton said before public opinion acquitted him."

Bias of the Century

ABC Book Replays Old Reagan Slurs

As the year 2000 approaches, the networks are seeking to sum up the century, and their review of history is not any fairer than their coverage the first time around.

Anchorman Peter Jennings headed up ABC’s massive undertaking, titled The Century, which began as a best-selling book by Jennings and Todd Brewster. The book was cross-promoted with excerpts on, as well as a 12-hour network special and a 16-hour one on The History Channel.

The mammoth, 600-page volume details the 20th century, decade by decade, examining major figures and events. But the chapter "New Morning: 1981-1989" recycles many of the liberal criticisms degrading the Reagan years as a time of naivete:

"In fact, it would be hard to imagine a time more devoted to historical revisionism than this decade, America, in particular, feelings of nostalgia for less complicated times ran so high it felt occasionally as if the society had been transplanted to the grounds of an elaborate theme park where a tidied-up, even cinematic, version of the past could be lived out in comfort."

The authors cribbed some of the worst diatribes from 1980s newscasts and cast them as history: "Finally, with the deepening of the chasm separating America’s rich and poor, the arrival of AIDS and a drug epidemic in the inner cities, the soaring deficits encouraged by Ronald Reagan’s ambitious defense spending" made it "hard not to feel that the nation was just pretending to be in better times, distracted by the fizz and bubble of its new wealth, tolerating the worst kinds of ethical and moral abuse, pushing aside bad news or, worse, delaying its full impact for future generations."

Toward the end of the chapter, in discussing Iran-Contra, the authors found doom for Reagan’s legacy, insisting the scandal "had portrayed the President as either a figurehead in a rogue government or an impotent and forgetful leader whose lack of attention to detail had finally caught up with him and the nation. To the problems of homelessness, AIDS, the skyrocketing budget deficit, and a frightening arms buildup could now be added a morally suspect foreign policy. And this, from the man who had made a return to an old-fashioned moral ethic central to his national plan."

NBC's Different Look at Guns

At a time when reporters were quick to blame access to guns for the Littleton massacre, NBC actually spotlighted positive aspects of gun ownership. NBC’s April 30 Nightly News ran four stories in which gun owners were depicted as normal, law abiding citizens and even heroes.

Pete Williams looked at an NRA-supported program being used with great success. "Not long ago Richmond had one of the nation’s highest murder rates. But now under Project Exile here in Virginia gun crimes are prosecuted under tough federal laws." Williams noted Richmond’s murder rate dropped by 30 percent. Williams showcased the brave actions of businessman Gary Baker: "He says he’s here today because of his guns. Four years ago as he opened his jewelry store two men with guns stormed in and started shooting. He fired back killing both of them."

Robert Hager picked up on the self-defense theme in exploring concealed-weapons laws. He profiled 71-year-old Ryland Moore, who "fended off a shotgun toting robber at a Texas diner with his concealed .22 caliber revolver," and Texas state representative Suzanna Gratia Hupp, who "remembers how her parents were killed with 20 others in a Texas cafeteria massacre in 1991. Says she had a shot at the gunman but wasn’t carrying her pistol because back then it was against the law."

Hager cited the rarely noticed research of University of Chicago professor John Lott, showing "states permitting concealed weapons murder rates declined nine percent, rape five percent, robbery three [percent]."

Roger O’Neil visited a Milwaukee hospital to interview an emergency room doctor about how the higher caliber bullets of today are doing more damage to victims, but then Kelly O’Donnell profiled a family that taught their children how to responsibly use guns. After airing soundbites from the parents stressing gun safety, O’Donnell concluded: "One estimate says 1.8 million kids between seven and seventeen use guns to hunt. Like millions of families, handing down an American tradition. A respect for weapons. A belief, this family says, that a parent’s guidance with guns can prevent what happened in Littleton."