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All The News That's Fit to Skip: Network Apathy Toward Chinese Contributions and Espionage

Contrast: Network Coverage of GOP Foreign-Policy Scandals

If the networks don’t trust congressional probes into foreign-policy scandals, as they have downplayed and dismissed the findings of House and Senate hearings into the China connection, then they ought to be devoting more resources and air time to investigating the charges for themselves. Clearly they did that in Republican administrations:

Iran-Contra. Network crusaders condemned the Reagan administration for sending TOW missiles to Iran in exchange for American hostages the networks had made famous. On the January 25, 1988 CBS Evening News, Dan Rather famously yelled at Vice President George Bush about selling arms for hostages to Iran: "You’ve made us hypocrites in the face of the world! How could you sign on to such a policy?" But when Rather secured the first exclusive post-impeachment TV interview with Bill Clinton, aired on the March 31 edition of 60 Minutes II, he asked nothing about fresh stories of Chinese espionage at U.S. nuclear labs.

David Frum compared that to the current China scandal in the June 8, 1998 Weekly Standard: "The essence of the Iran-Contra scandal was the charge that the Reagan administration had sold weapons to an unfriendly regime to raise money for illegal purposes. It now looks disturbingly plausible that the Clinton administration has over the past six years been engaged in something very similar: authorizing the sale of advanced military technology to China in exchange for dubious domestic and illegal foreign campaign contributions. The Reaganites, though, could at least offer this defense: However misguided, or even foolish their project was, it did not put the national security of the United States at risk." The TOW missiles were destined to blow up Saddam Hussein’s armies.

By contrast, as Frum pointed out, the Clinton administration has allowed China to acquire technology — "super-computers to simulate nuclear tests, satellite technology that might help aim ballistic missiles more accurately — that could easily be used against the United States and its allies."

Video of a Bias Contrast: Iran-Contra a Scandal, But Not Chinagate. Watch via RealPlayer how Dan Rather attacked George Bush in 1988 over Iran-Contra but turned deferential this year, avoiding Chinese espionage and donations.

Iraqgate. Throughout 1992, the networks (especially ABC’s Nightline and NBC’s Dateline) devoted massive resources to investigating the since-refuted charge that the Bush administration armed the Iraqis before they faced American forces in the Gulf War. On October 28, 1992, Nightline host Ted Koppel declared that 18 months of ABC searching had revealed a series of "legal and illegal technology transfers" to Iraq, and presented a poll suggesting most Americans didn’t believe George Bush’s explanations. Two days before the election, CBS’s 60 Minutes featured Democratic partisan Henry Gonzalez charging Bush was guilty of obstruction of justice and "principally responsible for arming Saddam Hussein." (In his November 1994 American Lawyer expose of Iraqgate coverage, journalist Stuart Taylor called the CBS piece "a 20-minute tag team number on the Bush administration littered with distortions.") Mike Wallace’s first question: "Who are the main players who have tried to stop your investigation?"

Today, the networks have feigned no interest in the increasing evidence of Chinese espionage, or in those who would attempt to sidetrack investigating reporters or politicians, even as House Republicans and Democrats alike have agreed on the harm it’s caused American national security. When the subject comes up at all, it’s dismissed as a partisan plaything. ABC reporter Linda Douglass suggested on the March 18 World News Tonight: "Republicans...believe they’ve finally found an issue that will stick to the President...The charge that Mr. Clinton is soft on China is red meat for conservatives." Why isn’t an increased Chinese nuclear-weapons capability of interest to all Americans?