Who Makes or Breaks a Scandal?

The Cox Report vs. The Iran-Contra Report

1. Hard News Coverage: When forced to include the story, keep it brief

Theoretically, the release of a summary of the Cox Report on December 30, 1998 could have been the first occasion for in-depth coverage, but it wasn’t. That night, ABC gave the story 22 seconds, NBC 26. Only CBS aired a full report. The night of the complete Cox Report’s release, the Big Three evening shows aired five stories (ABC 2, CBS 2, NBC 1), and only ABC led with it. CBS and NBC led with gun-control stories, and NBC also placed a New York City police brutality trial in front of it. On November 18, 1987, the night of the release of the Iran-Contra report, all three began with it and each did five segments on it, devoting more than half the newscast to the ramifications.

The Cox Report met the same one-down-and-punt fate on the morning shows. On May 25, ABC’s Good Morning America aired a 1:45 piece about Cox at 7 a.m. by Linda Douglass and a 1:15 story by Ann Compton at 8 a.m., for a total of three minutes on espionage. The show's first 7 a.m. half hour interview segment dedicated eight minutes to a story about the dangers of professional wrestling followed by an interview live from Calgary with the mother, father, brother and widow of Owen Hart, a pro wrestler killed in a fall from above a wrestling ring.

CBS’s This Morning interviewed Energy Secretary Bill Richardson for about three minutes during the 7 a.m. half hour. Two news stories at the top of the 8 a.m. half hour lasted four minutes and 24 seconds. Those seven minutes approximately equaled the seven minutes CBS gave to a Georgia high school principal to discuss security measures against school shootings. While Richardson took questions for three minutes, William Shatner got nearly five to discuss his new book about Star Trek fans, Get a Life.

NBC’s Today aired a news story by Joe Johns, a brief interview with Tim Russert, and an Ann Curry anchor update at 8 a.m., totaling four minutes and 22 seconds. Curry called it "a huge and devastating spy scandal," but the Owen Hart wrestling accident story drew almost triple the air time, taking up 11 minutes of the 7:30 half hour.

On May 26, all the morning shows conducted interviews with major figures in the scandal. ABC and CBS interviewed Congressman Cox. NBC brought on Congressman Dicks and Energy Secretary Richardson. (Once again, the time allotted did not match more attractive Nielsen-grabbing topics. ABC gave multiple segments to a family with sextuplets, CBS gave more time to genetic testing and to a former nun in business, and NBC spent more time with Geraldo Rivera on police brutality.) All told, since the first Times warhead scoop on March 6 of this year, the network morning shows have aired six interview segments on Chinagate (not counting in-house network chats). All three interviewed Richardson. NBC’s Today never interviewed a Republican. There have been no morning show interviews since May 26.

So what about the day after the report? Surely, the network evening shows would put their Pentagon-beat producers to work reading through these 700 pages to get a better look at what the Cox Report contained. No. NBC was done. ABC did a story on the second night about how suspected Chinese spy Wen Ho Lee will never be prosecuted. The next night, CBS marked the end of the Big Three stories with a dismissive Eric Engberg report (more on that in section #3).

But on Iran-Contra...

Compare that to November 18, 1987, the night the joint Iran-Contra committees released their report. The networks each aired five segments apiece, and devoted more than half the program to the probe and its aftermath. Each network sounded the alarm in unison across their Washington beats. The majority report dominated the analysis, and the minority report was relegated to a few sentences.

ABC’s World News Tonight ran through Brit Hume at the White House, Sam Donaldson on Capitol Hill, an interview with Republican Sen. Warren Rudman, John Martin with the big picture, and Dennis Troute on the court beat with Lawrence Walsh.

CBS Evening News began with Capitol Hill reporter Phil Jones, followed by White House man Bill Plante, Eric Engberg on still-unanswered questions, and court reporter Rita Braver. CBS ended the half-hour with a summary/commentary from Capitol Hill reporter Bob Schieffer. Not only that, CBS aired a half-hour late night report to drive home the findings.

NBC Nightly News started with John Dancy on Capitol Hill, Chris Wallace at the White House, an interview segment with then-Rep. Dick Cheney and then-Sen. George Mitchell, court reporter Carl Stern, and ended with a commentary by John Chancellor.

Clearly, these two reports seem different in political magnitude. The Iran-Contra report’s release came at the end of a year of very well-promoted political drama, complete with weeks of live hearings coverage in the summer. Several network reports gave viewers an update on all the people made at least temporarily famous by the hearings. By contrast, the Cox committee did all their investigation in private, holding no public hearings, and 30 percent of their report remained classified. The White House delayed the report’s release for months. After the report came out, Congressman Cox said on Fox News Sunday that if they had caved in to administration demands, "there would be nothing out" anyone could call a report, but the networks never pressed the President to stop putting off the people’s right to know. The scandal’s major figures remain nearly anonymous to Americans.

But the strategic magnitude of the charges in each case are also dramatically different. Nothing in Iran-Contra threatened the security of the United States. Iran used the missiles it acquired from the U.S. to attack Iraq and the Nicaraguan rebels ultimately forced elections. The Cox Report detailed a systematic theft of a gamut of strategic secrets that directly threatens the United States and the balance of power in Asia.