by Randolph T. Holhut
is hard to get a modern American newspaper to go the distance necessary to print all the news about many topics," William Allen White once wrote. "On the whole, sooner or later in the long run, the American people do get the truth. But they often get it when it is cold potatoes, and does them no good."
White, the editor of the Emporia (Kan.) Gazette in the first half of the 20th Century, was a frequent critic of how the press rarely delivered the news that people needed to know until it was too late to make a difference. We still get more than our share of cold potatoes on too many issues.
The latest helping came on Feb. 4 and 5, when The New York Times finally got around to pulling together a lengthy report reexamining the hysteria surrounding Wen Ho Lee, the naturalized American citizen who was a nuclear scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and was accused of giving China classified information on the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
The Times had a huge role in setting up the Taiwan-born Lee as a treacherous spy who endangered the national security. On March 6, 1999, the Times reported that government investigators believed Lee was the prime suspect in the alleged theft of U.S. nuclear secrets. The Times' story uncritically repeated the government's claims against Lee; claims that had no credible evidence. The day after the story appeared, Lee was fired.
Conservatives picked up the ball from there. They claimed the U.S. was in danger of being incinerated at any moment by the Chinese, and that Lee was guilty of the worst breech of national security since the Rosenbergs. Of course, they blamed President Clinton for it all.
Lee and his family, friends and colleagues were subjected to harassment, bullying and intimidation for months by government investigators. When Lee was finally arrested in December 1999, he was charged with 59 felony counts and was held without bail for nine months in solitary confinement.
Unfortunately, the government didn't have a case. They had nothing to back up the most serious claim against Lee of sharing data on the W-88 warhead, the U.S.'s most sophisticated nuclear weapon. The "secrets" that Lee downloaded onto his personal computer -- data used to simulate nuclear explosions -- weren't secrets at all; the government classified them after Lee was taken in. The unclassified information that Lee downloaded appeared to be more an effort to polish up his resume for another job than to sell out the national security.
After more bullying by the feds, including being threatened with a trip to the electric chair, Lee agreed last September to a plea bargain for the one thing that he was apparently guilty of -- mishandling classified information -- and was sentenced to time served.
The Times made the first tentative steps toward admitting they made a mistake on Sept. 26, 2000, two weeks after Lee was acquitted. In an unsigned and ambiguous piece entitled, "The Times and Wen Ho Lee," the editors admitted that the paper could have done a better job of raising questions about the government's case and the political context surrounding it. The Feb. 4-5 stories were the second step the paper took toward trying to set the record straight.
During the period between first breaking the story and Lee's release, the Times did print some stories that were critical of the government's case. But the initial splash of the March 1999 coverage was hard to overcome, even after subsequent stories debunked it. Conservatives may always complain about the Times, but they are quick to use the seal of approval created when the Times' coverage lends credence to any of their crusades.
Like or not, The New York Times still has the power to shape and influence public perceptions of policy and public life. For example, when the Times first reported on Whitewater in 1992, it elevated a minor real estate deal into a scandal that would hound Bill and Hillary Clinton for years. There are many more examples that can (and have) filled numerous books, since second-guessing the Times is a favorite pastime of media critics everywhere.
While it's good that the Times went back over the Lee case and cleared up many of its inconsistencies, the damage has been done. The fear of China's nuclear capabilities is being used by the Bush administration to justify the ridiculous "Star Wars" missile defense plan that has infuriated our allies and has Russia and China threatening to restart the Cold War.
Even though one of our Trident submarines has more ICBMs than China's entire arsenal, billions of dollars are going to be flushed down the toilet for a weapons system that hasn't worked and shows no sign of working. Science has been hurt also. There has been an exodus of researchers from Los Alamos and other government labs. Who wants to be the next subject of a witch hunt, particularly if you are an Asian-American?
This is the cold potatoes that we citizens get too often from the press. It's good to set the record straight, but it's better to get information before things go awry. That's the mark of good journalism. As my friend George Seldes once said, "Democracy needs facts." Even more importantly, it needs those facts while they're good and hot.
February 12, 2001 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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