Who Makes or Breaks a Scandal?

The Cox Report vs. The Iran-Contra Report

Introduction: The Power of Neglect

Who makes or breaks a scandal? On the June 20 Meet the Press, former Republican Senator Warren Rudman explained his investigation of Chinese espionage for the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board this way: "It's hard for me to say this, but I will say it anyway. The agenda for the body politic is often set by the media. Had it not been for The New York Times breaking the story of Chinese espionage, all over the front pages, I’m not sure I’d be here this morning. I’m not sure that report would have been written. And that is not the way that government ought to operate."

The media do not and cannot make scandals happen by themselves. For scandals to penetrate the political culture, and travel from the consciousness of Washington insiders to the public at large, other actors, usually in government, must verify the scandal’s importance by launching official investigations, which give the media an orderly process to follow — if they choose to follow. Although newspaper reporting led to official investigations, the scandal has not captured the public’s attention. Why? Because 70 percent of Americans get all or most of their news from television, and ABC, CBS, and NBC have buried the story when they could, and downplayed its importance when they couldn’t.

To probe the Chinese thefts of strategic technology, first broken in the April 15, 1998 New York Times, the House of Representatives created a select committee to investigate "U.S. National Security and Military/Commercial Concerns with the People’s Republic of China." Five Republicans, led by Rep. Christopher Cox, and four Democrats, led by Rep. Norman Dicks, were asked to determine the severity of strategic damage done by two American defense contractors in assisting Chinese satellite launches. In the midst of their work, they discovered very serious espionage and security breaches at America’s nuclear laboratories as well, which first came to light in the March 6, 1999 New York Times, which noted the Chinese had lifted details of the W-88 nuclear warhead.

But when the committee released its findings — known as the Cox Report — with a unanimous bipartisan set of conclusions and recommendations on May 25, the networks barely noticed, disposing of the findings with a story or two, often heavily laced with skepticism toward the scandal’s seriousness. Then they dropped the story and attempted no follow-up on the 700 pages of detail.

This is a vastly different media response to foreign-policy scandals than was witnessed during the Reagan administration. When the joint congressional investigation into Iran-Contra concluded in 1987, the media erupted in outrage at a constitutional crisis. Put these anguished reports side by side with the brief, dismissive dispatches on Chinese espionage, and you have a case study in network news bias, journalism in each case calculated to achieve a political advantage for the Democratic Party.

That pattern of neglect continues to this day. The Big Three neglected the President’s June 25 press conference admission his "choice of wording was poor" in denying he knew of espionage on his watch. Two days later, the New York Times struck again, finding top officials learned of espionage losses in July 1995, months before they claimed they were told. The broadcast network evening newscasts were still silent.

What follows is a case-by-case elaboration of the double standard in foreign-policy scandal coverage. The Media Research Center has identified the following network methods in deflating the Chinagate story, especially in stark contrast to its Reagan-era methods. CNN was not included in this study due to its broader 24-hour coverage of some Chinagate details.