by | May 2, 1999 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Which is more significant, a shooting in a high school or the possible destruction of the world?

Which has deeper ramifications, a president caught with his pants down or a nuclear weapons agency caught with its secrets stolen?

Which is more critical to your life, the opening of a “Star Wars” movie or the possibility that China might now have America’s most precious nuclear information — and could be selling it to our enemies around the world?

If you gave the obvious answer to these questions, then you are no doubt scratching your head right now. And you might wonder about the following:

You might wonder how a single scientist named Wen Ho Lee could download the most precious U.S. nuclear secrets from a highly classified computer to a widely accessible one.

You might wonder who the unknown party was who accessed those secrets before anyone caught on.

You might wonder if those secrets are now with the Chinese, as many believe.

And you might wonder how Lee, under suspicion for spying, was still allowed to keep his job and security clearance.

Mostly, however, if you’re a thinking, breathing, intelligent human being, you might wonder why you haven’t heard more about this.

Doesn’t the end of the world count as a news story anymore?

The inside story

Apparently not as much as our fascination with ourselves. The shocking revelation of this nuclear secrets bungle was front page last week in the New York Times, whose reporters did the uncovering, but it was inside-page status in most other newspapers around the country.

If you turned on CNN, you saw endless features on the grief in Littleton, Colo., but only brief mentions of a colossal mistake that could kill us all.

USA Today, which bills itself as “the nation’s newspaper,” has been running a daily front-page countdown to the new “Star Wars” movie but has given almost no space to the FBI, Justice or Energy departments’ mishandling of Lee, who single-handedly spilled codes to virtually every nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal.

Why don’t you read more about this? If the violence in Littleton makes us fear for the safety of our schools, then shouldn’t leaky nuclear secrets make us fear for our planet? Why isn’t this the lead story on every TV station in America?

Well, I’ll give you a few reasons. No pictures. No heartstrings. It has become much easier to ship a planeload of reporters to a disaster site, stick cameras in the faces of weeping parents, stand outside funerals and churches and make poignant statements about our declining society, than to do any real investigating.

A story about nuclear secrets being stolen? How do you sell that on the evening news? A boring shot of a reporter in front of a government agency? A terse denial from a government official? A stream of “no comments”?

Where’s the sex? Where’s the sizzle? Where are the pictures?

When President Clinton admitted his sexual dally with Monica Lewinsky, it was lead story, bold type, all day, all night. It spawned books, news specials and the careers of many “insider” analysts.

But the fact that Clinton has long denied that nuclear secrets were stolen under his watch, the fact that he has now begrudgingly confronted it, the fact that under his administration, the Justice Department has had a strangely benevolent approach to spying accusations against the Chinese — who happened to give a lot of money to re-elect the president — none of this gets much attention.

We’d rather hear about a movie.

Our enemies list

Now, let me ask you something. A Taiwan-born scientist downloads nuclear secrets that represent 50 years’ worth of U.S. research, and it’s not a big story?

China possibly having those secrets and putting them, as one government official put it, “in the stream of commerce and probably on to Iran and North Korea and Libya” — that isn’t a big story?

Every nuclear weapon in our arsenal, including our latest, lightest, fastest missiles, able to be duplicated by anyone who has these codes — that’s not a big story?

That’s not more important than a ninth day of standing outside a high school, or a ninth week of “Star Wars” previews, or a ninth month of talking about oral sex in the White House?

Maybe I’m missing something. Or maybe we’ve become so lazy in our priorities that we let the New York Times do the reporting, and figure sooner or later, when ratings sweeps are over or the polls show people care, then we’ll deal with it.

Let’s just hope that by the time we do, the first word of the story isn’t

MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 1-313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Hear
“Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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