© The Joan Shorenstein Barone Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy
John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, 1992
All Rights Reserved


On June 12 on ABC, Peter Jennings gave the Beijing version of what happened (and did not happen) on June 3-4, then summed up his feelings (and those of many other journalists) by saying, "Not many outside China are likely to be impressed."

A significant divergence between print media and broadcast media in our sample came in their coverage of the Chinese government disinformation campaign that began on June 12. Television gave more prominent play to Beijing's attempt to redefine what happened on June 3-4, no doubt because it was virtually the only footage available at that time. Newspapers and the AP, however, stressed aspects of repression (arrests, threats, asylum for dissidents) that could be expressed in words but offered no footage.

Foreign governments had an impact on the situation after June 4 by providing shelter to dissidents. The most famous case was the American Embassy's decision to give refuge to Fang Lizhi, the astrophysicist, which was given ample coverage both in print and on television. Many stories provided good context by including historical precedents for the decision, such as the sheltering of Cardinal Mindzenty in Hungary and Pentecostals in the Soviet Union, They also mentioned Washington's fear of reprisal in the form of Chinese-sponsored demonstrations, and connected that fear to historical events such as the torching of the British Embassy during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and the siege of foreign embassies during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900.

The Chinese government's view of Fang as a traitor was reflected in the coverage. There were also perceptive references to the Chinese cultural context, such as the embarrassment the Chinese government felt at an act recalling the indignities of imperialist extraterritoriality. (30)

When the networks sent their "parachutists" into Beijing, one result was that "good television" tended to overwhelm the Chinese particularity of the story. One vivid photographic essay, by Bob Simon of CBS on June 16, showed how dramatic and effective television can be, even if at the expense of exactitude. Simon set the tone of emotion and personal opinion by referring to "the world's largest square and the year's most outrageous lie.... Even today you could see stains from the blood which was not shed, holes from the bullets which were not fired, treads from the tanks which did not charge.... " (The file footage showed troops advancing and firing, with casualties falling, and stains and bullet holes--on Changan Avenue, rather than Tiananmen Square.)

Simon said the square was "vast, cold, empty--the kind of grand open space which totalitarian regimes have always found so pleasing." The film showed the vast void of cement, with metal helmets making a regular pattern on part of it. For contrast, Simon switched to footage of banner-waving demonstrators and said the square seemed "smaller two weeks ago, warm, human, not empty...full of innocence and hopeless ideas.... For one doomed moment it was honest, warm, human."

As the footage returned to marching troops, Simon said, "They destroyed democracy that night. They knew what they were doing. They did not blink." The footage returned to the demonstrators, singing the "Internationale," and Simon said, "They cannot erase the memory or the desire for revenge," as the film shifted back to the empty square and the troops for the final scene--but with the haunting refrain of the anthem still rising, ghostlike, over all. Fade to black, then to Dan Rather, visibly moved.

Powerful stuff, but too partisan to be a news spot and perhaps better placed at the end of the show, tabbed as an editorial. Such images of absolute good and evil were the aspect of the coverage that some critics most objected to, and they do seem to have fallen outside the bounds of objective reporting. We feel the inherent emotional content of the crisis in China emerged from the event itself, and such dramatic taking of sides in a news report served to legitimize the Chinese government's otherwise exaggerated and even outrageous complaints about the coverage. We agree with the view of Al Pessin of VOA: "I think the emotion that's involved in a story ought to be the emotion of the players and of the event rather than the emotions of a reporter."

The last manifestation of the power struggle within the government in the time span of our study was the question of who would succeed Zhao Ziyang as Party chief and Deng's designated heir. Jiang Zemin, the Shanghai Party chief, was named on June 24, to the surprise of the experts and the journalists alike. None of the reporters in our sample guessed right on this. Most leaned towards Qiao Shi, the security chief; some (like Kristof of the New York Times on June 18) included Jiang among the candidates as "a long shot." Sinologists did no better than the press at predicting Jiang's ascent.


In the month after martial law was declared, the Los Angeles Times opinion page ran pieces on China from seventeen different people. They included two regular columnists and one staff reporter. The rest were from outside journalists (Edward Gargan), politicians (Tom Hayden), foreign policy specialists (Henry Kissinger), citizens of China, human rights specialists, and (most frequently) academics from Boston, New York, Washington, Chicago, Michigan and California.

Some of them had things to say that were not included in the news coverage: Lawrence Sullivan (Adelphi University)--"Many student leaders ... still consider China's rural population too ignorant to play a major political role." Perry Link (Princeton)--"Words, from the earliest times, have been understood [in China] as tools for moral guidance as much as for descriptions of fact." Dorothy Solinger (University of California, Irvine)--"What we see... is a very Chinese yearning for an improved 'government of men' but not, at this stage anyway [May 26], for a government of law or a government by regularized, predictable institutions."

The Washington Post and the New York Times each had about the same number of pieces on China in the same period, but they were almost all by regular columnists, such as (in the Times) Anthony Lewis, Flora Lewis, A.M. Rosenthal, and Tom Wicker and (in the Post) Evans & Novak, Jeane Kirkpatrick, David Broder, Richard Cohen, Jim Hoagland and William Raspberry.

There were also editorials, letters to the editor and editorial cartoons. One letter in the New York Times, from Donald G. Gillin, a Vassar College specialist on China, observed: "China has in American minds ceased to be a kind of Oriental wonderland, full of opportunities for play and profit, becoming instead what most of those compelled to live there always knew it was: a grim, often terrible place." The institutions of the opinion page and the letter to the editor proved their worth in the China context. Specialists provided an added dimension, complementing reportorial coverage.

On CNN, of the fourteen specialist interviews and sound bites we logged on the "Prime News" shows between May 13 and June 15, ten made points that clearly went beyond the news content to provide context. The other four (using as a standard a contribution that went beyond information available from news reports at the time) added little. It was not always possible to judge whether this was the fault of the questioner or the specialist.

CBS used twelve specialists (generally in shorter bites) between May 1 and June 21, and nine of them made contributions that went beyond what had been presented in the news. ABC brought on nine specialists between May 3 and June 11 and got original contributions from only three. Part of the problem in the case of ABC was that although Peter Jennings asked pertinent questions in his interviews with Michel Oksenberg, Mike Lampton, Harding, Doak Barnett and Kenneth Lieberthal, the information he was seeking was not available (or was outdated) in the United States and needed to be sought in China.

When asked to forecast how it would all turn out, specialists mostly either fudged (the eighty-four-year old Deng would not prevail "over time," as Lieberthal put it on "Nightline"), or offered the prevailing Beijing odds. While that is understandable, too few said that there was no way to know the answer.

Some critics have complained that the range of specialists used by television or welcomed by opinion pages was too limited. A number of experts--Harding, authors Ross Terrill and Orville Schell, exiled Chinese journalist Liu Binyan, Winston Lord, and Oksenberg--appeared to be ubiquitous. While over the period in question there were more than a score of different specialists interviewed, and they expressed diverse views, we suggest the use of more diverse (yet credible) voices in the mix.


There were long retrospective stories on the crisis by Kristof, Southerland, and a team at the Los Angeles Times that included Holley. Each offered a fresh look at the events of the Beijing Spring, with a comprehensive approach that added appreciably to an understanding of what had happened, and they deserve great credit for this extended coverage. (31)

The special section "A Shattered Dream" in the Los Angeles Times on June 25 was unprecedented for a foreign news story at that newspaper, and it became one of the basic options for the Times foreign desk on each subsequent major international story.

Kristof's initial reassessment of the June 3-4 events ran in the New York Times on June 21. In it he scaled back his estimate of the death toll to between four hundred and eight hundred, and dismissed accounts of mass killings on the square, saying they arose only several days afterwards and contradicted stories told immediately by "Chinese and foreigners who were on the square all night."

ABC's Ted Koppel, in a primetime special on June 27, tried to combine the immediacy of television with the historical chronicle usually delivered in print, and offered so-me new insights into the sequence of events. Koppel, like the Los Angeles Times supplement, tackled the question of whether a bloody confrontation between the army and the citizens of Beijing could have been averted, and concluded that the crucial decision was made on May 27 when a minority of the students on the square, most of them new arrivals from out of town, rejected the leaders' proposal to end the sit-in, and vowed to stay on until June 20, when a meeting of the National People's Congress was to have been convened.

"In hindsight," the Los Angeles Times report concluded, "the protesters might have done better to vacate the square during this last week of May. They could have declared victory for their democracy movement and vowed to return some day. By abandoning Tiananmen, they would have forced leaders like Li and Deng to defend their hard-line stance inside the Party, where their political position was still shaky. There would have been no street battles and no bloodshed." This may turn out to be a major point in the history books about the Beijing Spring.

The piecemeal, seemingly confused military approach to Tiananmen Square on the night before the massacre continued to remain a mystery. Koppel, in his special, suggested that it was an attempt to seize the square that failed because Beijingers had been drawn onto the streets in huge numbers by the incident on June 2 in which three civilians were killed by a military jeep. Some Chinese dissenters said the hesitation was a provocation designed to humiliate the soldiers involved and thus justify the violence used against civilians the next day.

Jeane Kirkpatrick, in a column in the Post on June 13, asked (as did a column by reporter Jim Mann in the Los Angeles Times) why the China specialists got much of the crisis wrong. "No one, including the experts," Kirkpatrick wrote, "expected the great uprising in the square, nor the brutality with which it was suppressed." In general, this was a fair characterization of the opinion pieces and interviews with sinologists we surveyed from our eight sample news outlets. But not even the Chinese had anticipated the uprising--any more than most Americans expected Dan Quayle's selection as vice-presidential candidate in 1988, or most British expected Margaret Thatcher's fall in 1990.


The Beijing crisis created a significant shift in American public opinion towards China, which affected United States policy toward the People's Republic. Public opinion polls showed China with a favorable rating of between 65 and 72 percent and an unfavorable rating of between 13 and 28 percent in the period from 1980 through March of 1989. After June 4, the favorable rating in three polls dropped to between 16 and 34 percent, while the unfavorable rating rose to between 54 and 58 percent, a swing of massive proportions, rarely encountered in opinion polling. [The data was compiled by the State Department Office of Public Affairs.]

A strong anti-Beijing coalition arose from nowhere. Until June of 1989, there was a generally positive attitude towards China in Congress, but it was more passive than active. Opposition came on special issues, such as Tibet and China's harsh methods of population limitation. It was based on the traditional anti-People's Republic forces on the right. Post June 4 elements in the anti-Beijing coalition included Chinese studying in the United States; Chinese-Americans, who ended their long political silence; protectionists who found imports from China a suddenly vulnerable (and quite sizeable) target; human rights interest groups, which escalated their attacks on a broad range of Chinese violations, in addition to the crackdown on the movement; and liberal Democrats in Congress, who had until then "carried water" for the Administration's China policy on Capitol Hill. There was also a partisan aspect to the shift--it was the only foreign policy issue on which George Bush was seen to be vulnerable over the following year or more. (32)

The impact of the crisis on policy was outlined by several Bush Administration policymakers we interviewed. "The big public opinion change knocked the policy tools out of our hands," said one. "Policy on China was unmanageable [after June 4] and will be unmanageable for a time." Said another policy-maker: "The major impact of the event is that it sets the conditions of debate. Look at Vietnam. The impact still conditions our policy on the boat people, on Cambodia. This [event in China] will have an effect [on policy-making] for five years and then will leave behind residual images. The impact is very powerful. Whether it will lead to bad policy, you evaluate case by case. It does take more effort on the part of the executive branch." But was the media responsible for the nature and degree of the impact?

Given the complex relationship between the event and the changes in public opinion/politics/policy, it is difficult to determine whether the media served simply as a messenger to convey the event to these audiences, or whether the manner in which the information was conveyed was a distorting prism that altered perceptions.

Television was surely the key to the impact on public policy. No images for years had been more stark than those emerging from China. And, as the Gallup poll of July 1989 established, 80 percent of those who followed the China story learned of the events initially from television, compared to 11 percent from newspapers and 5 percent from radio.

Tom Bettag, former executive producer of the CBS evening news, pointed out that television coverage of international crises is of a different order from print coverage, which set the norms for treating such events abroad until recent years (when American television covered South Korea, the Philippines and subsequently Eastern Europe). "Television was able to bring the people of China to life as real human beings," Bettag said. "Newspapers tend to leave them as conceptual figures, but television puts real flesh and blood on the people. The immediacy of television could make you feel like you cared about these people as if they were sons and daughters of your friends."

This meant, however, that there was no distance between the audience and the protagonist; that television had placed the public on the side of one faction in a political and cultural context that had been only fleetingly explained and was not easy to understand. Bettag realized the dilemma, saying that "there are huge dangers when one culture reports on another. People are not alike.... Maybe it will get better with time."

Among those who learned of the events from television were American diplomats in Beijing and Secretary of State Baker. The State Department spokeswoman, Margaret Tutwiler, was credited by the New York Times with persuading Baker to clap sanctions on Beijing, by saying to him: "You've got to turn on your TV set; you can't believe what's happening unless you see these tanks." (33)

The initial images viewed by politicians and policy-makers, those that "conditioned" the reactions which followed, were conveyed to Washington by CNN, because, said a Capitol Hill staff member, "the Times and the evening newscasts were a day late... [and] there was not much time to read or watch media. It was CNN that determined the base of events, throughout the Beltway. The images of that night were the primary stimulus for the feeding frenzy that took place here in Congress immediately afterwards." People on Capitol Hill "assumed that the camera did not lie and was basically accurate in the run-up to June 4, the events that night and after," he said.

Harding of Brookings pointed to the sheer scope of the coverage, noting that other acts of violence in China in the past, and such recent acts in other countries--for example, Burma--were given far less coverage. "What really affects public opinion and then policy is the enormous play this thing got," he said. The fact that such coverage was possible in the Beijing of 1989 was something to applaud, rather than bemoan. The limitations imposed by governments on media (especially television) coverage of similar situations elsewhere, before and after Beijing, only serves to prove that governments are aware of the power of the media's depiction of violence. It is a power the octogenarian leadership in China may have underestimated in 1989.

The specific claims of media distortion made by United States government officials included:
-The emotionalism of television reporting and the "hot images" of the hunger strikers, the "Goddess of Democracy" and the man stopping a column of tanks.
- The idealization of the students combined with the media's delegitimization of the regime, which artificially created a Manichaean conflict.
- The failure of the media to warn before June 4 that "bad things are coming."
- The showing of footage (by CNN and others) that misrepresented the time and place of violence. - The exaggeration of the casualty toll.
- "Discussion of civil war, hyped on CBS news, despite contrary indications from our Embassy, led to eight thousand calls a day at State. [It] panicked the American people. So we had to call and evacuate all of China. Sure we saw the risk in Beijing, but not elsewhere," said one government official.

Some of the government's complaints about media distortion were borne out in the emotionalism and bias shown by several reports in our sample, and by later statements by reporters. We noted, for example, the Bob Simon feature that allowed emotion to replace accurate facts about what happened on Tiananmen Square, and Jay Mathews' statement that "[w]e didn't make enough of a point that soldiers died too and parts of the crowd were real tough guys." But several other charges by government officials clearly are less legitimate. The rumors of civil war were spread by American officials before they appeared in the press, and the same was true for the exaggerated casualty toll. The media, we found, did indicate after May 26 and before June 4 that "bad things are coming," but given all the twists the story had already taken it would have been rash to have assumed before June 4 that violence on such a scale was inevitable.

One of the journalists from our sample who has been based both inside China and inside the Beltway, Jim Mann of the Los Angeles Times, pointed out another aspect of the debate over media impact on policy. "Press coverage always influences the way in which United States policy is cast and explained to the public. I think it has less of an influence--some, but much less--on actual policy. That is, sometimes policy changes, but not as often as public statements and explanations of policy change. It's the latter that changes in response to press coverage."

Mann's point seems to be borne out by the fact that even within the United States government there were different views of the media's role in creating China's changed image for the American public. In the White House the press was blamed for distortion that affected the policy level. But Mark Mohr of the State Department said: "In the end, the subtleties of the press, or whatever was reported in the press, didn't make a difference. The Chinese shot the people."

And in the end President Bush did not change his China policy despite the huge media impact on American public opinion. "With all the facts coming through," said sinologist Robert Ross, "what did Bush do with those facts? ... He might have been wiser, he might have been more knowledgeable, but he didn't change his policy."

As for the media's responsibility for political impact, David Caravello of CBS rejected the idea that the press should have realized in advance what a shock the crackdown would be to the American people and that the press somehow should have made preparation for that. "Don't turn the incredible emotionalism and power of the story upside down," he said, "by saying that somehow we [the press] didn't prepare the American public for the violence--that wasn't our job."

Al Pessin of VOA said: "If live pictures of things happening in Beijing or elsewhere are on the television at the State Department and it has an impact on their policy formulation, that's not anything we have to worry about." But Pessin added an important point which we would underline: "[O]ther than to make us--or television journalists--more precise, more careful ...."


After the dust settled, the conventional journalistic image of "the China story" had shifted. It was still the same country, but it was now characterized by "repression" instead of "democracy" and people's "power." To return to history for a moment, there was nothing new about such an image of China. These were the predominant themes in American writings on China during the warlord period and in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. Nor was there anything new about these characterizations replacing a totally different set of images that earlier had been presented to Western readers.

But how could this be? How, in a brief span of several weeks, could the imminent coming of a democratic China have given way to such a bleak picture? Veteran journalist Stanley Karnow reflected on the tough course of the American idea that the Chinese are "perfectible." He pointed out, "Henry Luce put his faith in Chiang Kai-shek, while Edgar Snow and others saw Communism as the instrument of salvation. Both proved to be wrong."

One solution to the puzzle was to revert to the concept of cycles; as Kristof put it in a May 21 New York Times article: "the cycles of hope and repression." Indeed, many Chinese did feel just that sense of China going nowhere, while the rest of the world, including the Marxist world, underwent enormous change. Yet to talk of cycles seemed tantamount to admitting that nothing changes, whether in China or in one's understanding of the country.

It was not in the nature of most American reporting to plunge into fatalism--that was a more Chinese response--and, again reflecting an earlier theme, a note of optimism remained even after June 4. Southerland in the Washington Post on June 28 wrote: "[The scenes at Tiananmen Square] were as old as the revolutionary ideas of freedom and democracy ... how easily Communist leaders can still resort to brute force when their power is threatened. But it is difficult to imagine how a totalitarian state can be rebuilt once it begins to crumble."

Perhaps such optimism was pre-mature, but all the same it was in the reformist tradition that had informed earlier American journalistic writings on China. For all of the differences between the tradition of the American pioneers in covering China and the more technically-oriented Journalists of 1989, an irrepressible spirit of progress did lie within much of the 1989 reporting. Some of it may have been inspired by changes in the Soviet Union and the growing democracy movements in Eastern Europe. It gave vision and a sense of the universalism of the Chinese students' cause to the articles and broadcasts. The same tradition may also have made some American reporters too optimistic about Zhao Ziyang's chances of besting the Leninist old guard, and too inclined to see Li Peng as a man with feet of clay.


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© The Joan Shorenstein Barone Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy
John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, 1992
All Rights Reserved

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