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

1. China's Army Funds the Democrats

When the Asian fundraising scandal story first gained traction in an October 8, 1996 Wall Street Journal article on the then-unknown John Huang, the primary concern was the acceptance of illegal foreign contributions. Strategic questions were very slow to surface. When Fred Thompson’s Senate Governmental Affairs Committee took up the matter in the summer of 1997, network coverage focused on alleged foreign contributions to both parties.

When Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour appeared before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee to address Hong Kong-connected contributions to an RNC think tank, the networks provided their fullest day of hearings coverage that month, with the exception of the opening day. But when Democratic National Committee Chairman Don Fowler appeared on September 9 to answer questions about his favors for foreign donors, the networks blacked it out.

Sen. Thompson’s opening statement noting intelligence reports suggested the Chinese government had attempted to influence the 1996 elections was presented as a blunder throughout the hearings. On September 9, the night they ignored Fowler, ABC’s Linda Douglass noted: "Senator Thompson is clearly tired of taking a beating from the Democrats, who every single day point out the fact that he’s failed to prove there is any Chinese plot in connection with the Democratic presidential campaign." Where were they when proof arrived?

• May 15, 1998: Chung’s Chinese Summer. The New York Times reported Johnny Chung told investigators that a large part of the almost $100,000 he gave Democrats in the summer of 1996 came from Liu Chaoying, who works on defense modernization for China’s People’s Liberation Army. Two days later, the Sunday Times added that Clinton overrode then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s decision to limit China’s ability to launch American-made satellites on Chinese rockets.

Network coverage? Would the networks who dismissed Thompson make up for lost ground? In the midst of heavy coverage of Frank Sinatra’s death, ABC devoted 75 seconds to the story, CBS 27, and NBC 15. After Sunday’s disclosures, ABC reported one story, but CBS and NBC ignored it. From May 15 to June 5, 1998, the network evening shows offered 15 full stories (featuring reporters in the field) on Chinagate, but 38 full stories on the Monica Lewinsky scandal. In the same time period, the network morning shows aired 40 Monica stories to only six on the China scandal. In three weeks, CBS and NBC each aired only one morning report on the fundraising revelations.

• April 4, 1999: Chung’s $300,000 Link to the Top. The Los Angeles Times published an Easter bombshell. "The chief of China’s military intelligence secretly directed funds from Beijing to help re-elect President Clinton in 1996, former Democratic fundraiser Johnny Chung has told federal investigators." Reporters William Rempel, Henry Weinstein, and Alan Miller reported: "Chung says he met three times with the intelligence official, Gen. Ji Shengde, who ordered $300,000 deposited into the Torrance businessman’s bank account to subsidize campaign donations intended for Clinton."

Did the government believe Chung’s testimony was credible? The Times also revealed the FBI monitored groups of Chinese visitors in California regarded as a possible hit squad: "more than 40 agents were assigned to guard Chung, his wife and three children for three weeks."

Network coverage? Nothing on any Big Three morning or evening show until Chung testified five weeks later, on May 11, before the House Government Reform Committee. In the days after the Los Angeles Times disclosure, none of these details, or the subsequent press conference and state dinner with Chinese premier Zhu Rongji later in the week, spurred interest. ABC’s Sam Donaldson got closest to touching the revelations five days later, reporting without even a raised eyebrow that Zhu "said he had no knowledge that the Chinese government had contributed money to Mr. Clinton’s 1996 campaign."

The day Chung testified over a month later, on CBS’s This Morning, reporter Bill Plante briefly previewed Chung’s appearance, but that night the CBS Evening News failed to tell viewers about his testimony.

ABC’s World News Tonight and NBC Nightly News aired reports on May 11 about Chung’s testimony, but neither mentioned the threats on his life from Chinese officials which he recounted before the House committee. The next morning: Not a word about Chung on ABC’s Good Morning America, CBS’s This Morning or NBC’s Today. Bottom line: No coverage yet on the CBS Evening News, ABC’s Good Morning America or NBC’s Today for the head of Chinese military intelligence giving Chung $300,000 to funnel to the DNC and Clinton re-election campaign.

• May 7, 1999: Chung’s Claims for Congress. The Los Angeles Times reported a preliminary outline of what Johnny Chung would tell the House Government Reform panel about his knowledge of the Chinese attempts to influence U.S. policy through contributions:

First, "He was told by an associate of Beijing’s military intelligence leader that China had funneled $500,000 to an international trading firm established by a former Clinton White House aide." Second, "A Beijing banker told Chung that a former Arkansas restaurateur who was a longtime friend of President Clinton approached the Chinese government sometime prior to February 1996 asking for $1 million to help support Clinton and the Democratic Party." Third, "Chung escorted the wife and son of the Chinese military intelligence chief to a political fundraiser in Los Angeles in 1996 at which Democratic officials insisted on a $25,000 campaign contribution for the opportunity to introduce his guests to the President."

Network coverage? Zero.