Who Makes or Breaks a Scandal?

The Cox Report vs. The Iran-Contra Report

2. News Analysis A: Spread the blame around to other Presidents

Since March 6, 1999, when The New York Times revealed the theft of nuclear-warhead secrets, President Clinton and his aides have insisted that all or most of the espionage occurred in the Republican administrations that preceded him. When the White House allowed release of the Cox Report after censoring some 375 pages, the panel listed 11 cases of espionage, and noted eight took place during the Clinton era. In the June 9 Investor’s Business Daily, Washington Bureau Chief Paul Sperry reported that "the vast majority of leaks over the past 20 years have sprung up on Clinton’s watch, and nearly all the old leaks have shown up since then...At least 24 times, the declassified version of the report states: ’The Clinton administration has determined further information cannot be made public.’ Left out are details about Chinese espionage that took place in the ‘mid-1990s’ or ‘late 1990s.’" But the networks made the administration line their own.

The night before the Cox Report came out, Dan Rather introduced the story as long-leaked old news: "With twenty years worth of blame for both Republicans and Democrats to go around, some in Congress are now singling out Attorney General Janet Reno for what they see as her failure to investigate the long-leaked nuclear secrets."

After the report was released, Rather briefly noted how the report found lax security to this day, that the espionage goes back two decades and four administrations, and that China did most of its spying through students, scientists and visitors. Rather added: "Now congressional Republicans and others have put a large share of blame on President Clinton for all of this. In response, top Clinton [administration] members dispute that. They say much of the stealing was done during the Reagan and Bush years, and they claim that, secrets are still spilling out of U.S. weapons labs, well they say that simply isn’t true. They also question some of the report’s other findings and criticisms." Seconds later, Rather promoted a report by David Martin noting CBS was going "beyond the blame game."

On NBC, reporter Andrea Mitchell found one candidate’s outrage a little surprising: "Although the report says the espionage began at least under Jimmy Carter and went on under four Presidents including George Bush, Bush’s son, a likely candidate, leaped to blame this White House."

But on Iran-Contra...

On November 18, 1987, these networks did not hesitate to carry the Iran-Contra majority report’s heated blame of the Reagan team. On NBC, Tom Brokaw underscored the depth of the congressional investigation: "After interviewing 500 witnesses, after 40 days of public hearings, after reviewing 300,000 documents, the committees investigating the Iran-Contra scandal today issued their final report signed by all of the Democrats and three of the Republicans. There is no smoking gun, no indisputable piece of evidence directly linking the President to the diversion of proceeds from the Iran arms sales to the Contras. But this report is a sharp indictment of the President and his men. According to the report, the common ingredients of the scandal were secrecy, deception, and disdain for the law. It went on to say that when the goals and the law collided, the law gave way. And the report concluded the ultimate responsibility for the results of the Iran-Contra affair must rest with the President. NBC’s John Dancy reports tonight the two committees blamed President Reagan again and again."

On CBS, Dan Rather took all the heated language blaming Reagan for shredding the Constitution and made it his own. He began the newscast: "Now it’s up to the special prosecutor and the grand jury. Congressional investigators have put out their final official report. In secretly sending weapons to Iran and looking after taxpayer money, the report concludes that President Reagan failed to do what the Constitution requires: that he is ultimately responsible for what happened. From his secret policy of paying ransom to Iranians to swap U.S. weapons for hostages, to the secret skimming of profits to Nicaraguan rebels and others, that if he didn’t know, he should have. The bipartisan majority also concluded flat out that top officials around President Reagan plotted a coverup. From Capitol Hill, Phil Jones begins our coverage of Congress’s conclusions about where the money went, who got the cash, who broke the law, and what did President Reagan know." (With Real Video)

Jones began like an echo: "And the final report of the Iran-Contra committee released today laid the blame for the scandal in President Reagan’s lap. It was, in the opinion of the majority who signed this report, the President who had set the tone that allowed a cabal of zealots to seize control. It was the President who had not lived up to his constitutional responsibilities."

In a late night special titled "Divided Judgment," Rather reiterated: "Congress had its say today about President Reagan’s secret sale of arms to Iran and who got the money. A year after Mr. Reagan’s weapons-for-Iran debacle exploded, the House and Senate select committees put out their assessment of what went wrong and who was responsible. For President Reagan, the words sting. The 700-page report is filled with words such as ‘deception,’ ‘dishonesty,’ and ‘coverup.’ It talks about, and this a quote, a ‘cabal of zealots inside the White House who believed the ends justified the means.’ The report tells of disdain for the law. Top presidential aides destroying evidence and other official documents, and contempt for the democratic process. It talks about a President, at the very least, out of touch, neglecting his constitutional responsibilities. A President making wrong statements to the American people, and winding up in one of the worst credibility crises in U.S. history. In the end, as Bruce Morton reports, the congressional conclusion says responsibility for the fiasco lies with Ronald Reagan."

Rather ended the special with the majority report's quotation of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: "Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher, for good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example. Crime is contagious. If the government becomes a law-breaker, it breeds contempt for law. It invites every man to become a law unto himself. It invites anarchy."