Who Makes or Breaks a Scandal?

The Cox Report vs. The Iran-Contra Report

Executive Summary

On May 25, after months of White House delays over declassification, a special House task force led by Reps. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) and Rep. Norman Dicks (D-Wash.) released its final report on the Chinese government’s theft of nuclear warhead and missile secrets. But it made almost no difference in the calculated indifference to the Chinese espionage story at ABC, CBS, and NBC. NBC Nightly News ultimately aired only two stories on the Cox committee findings, while ABC’s World News Tonight and CBS Evening News aired three. The Media Research Center has identified the following network methods in deflating the Chinagate story, which stand in stark contrast to their approach to covering the Iran-Contra scandal.

1. Hard news coverage: When forced to include the story, keep it brief. The night of the Cox Report’s release, the Big Three aired five stories, but only ABC led with it. On November 18, 1987, the night of the release of the Iran-Contra report, all three networks began with it and did five segments each, devoting more than half the newscast to the ramifications.

2. News Analysis A: Spread the blame around to other Presidents. When the White House allowed release of the Cox Report after censoring some 375 pages, the report listed 11 cases of espionage, and noted eight took place during the Clinton era. But the networks spread blame equally across the last four administrations. When the Iran-Contra report was released, TV reports seized on the majority report’s harsh criticism of the Reagan administration.

3. News Analysis B: Downplay the findings as unproven or trumped-up. The Iran-Contra report spurred a round of media lectures casting grave doubts on the Reagan administration’s truthfulness and respect for the law. But when the networks touched the Cox report, they suggested the strategic picture was far too murky for grand conclusions, and labored to avoid judging the Clinton administration’s competence or truthfulness.

4. Follow-up coverage: Pretend the story doesn’t exist. Since May 28, only CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News have aired a single story on Chinese espionage among the Big Three. The isolated exceptions to the daily blackout dealt with the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, chaired by former Sen. Warren Rudman. The morning shows have aired less than a minute in total coverage since the Cox Report, despite Fox News Channel’s continuing efforts to report new developments. By contrast, the networks continued to make Iran-Contra a political issue in both the 1988 and 1992 campaigns.