© The Joan Shorenstein Barone Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy
John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
Research funded by a grant from The Ford Foundation
June, 1992

Marvin Kalb
June 6, 1992

For those of us at the Shorenstein Barone Center who have been working on this report on U.S. press and tv coverage of the Tiananmen crackdown on June 4, 1989, it would be unseemly to allow this weekend to pass so quietly, so unremarkably, without a nod in the direction of that extraordinary time. It's exactly three years since Chinese troops attacked anti-government students in downtown Beijing, using tanks and machine guns. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of Chinese were killed or wounded, and the words of a popular song became their battlecry: "We will never forget!" But we do forget.

For a time the battlecry sounded from one end of the world to the other: newspaper headlines insistently demanded popular attention and governmental action, especially in the United States and Western Europe; Tiananmen produced "live" and dramatic television pictures; news magazines felt obliged to redo their covers. One picture especially, of a single man in an unbelievable standoff with a column of tanks, seemed destined for the history and journalism books. And yet, to judge from this weekend's newspapers and newscasts, this special moment in Chinese history, when students and workers both struggled for a new definition of freedom, is being ignored, even by many of the reporters who covered the event.

There are a few exceptions. Nicholas D. Kristof of the New York Times remembers Tiananmen. In a recent article called "Beijing Journal," this winner of a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the crackdown notes, with a degree of wonder, that while there are Chinese who will never forget the events at Tiananmen, there are many more, in the vast stretch of China outside of Beijing, for whom the rage has subsided, the propaganda has dimmed the sharpness of memory and the daily grind of life has shifted priorities from the uplifting whiff of freedom to the deadening, everyday burden of simply making ends meet.

In Beijing, this weekend, there has been extra security--and no demonstrations. A minor incident occurred last Wednesday. An American reporter was beaten by plainclothes policemen while covering a very small protest. In Hong Kong, there was a demonstration, but it was quickly suppressed. Beijing warned Hong Kong of "unhappy consequences" after the 1997 turnover of power. But nothing more. Why? Why nothing meaningful here in the United States? Why nothing there in Beijing?

In China, the one country in the world that still professes an official allegiance to Marxism-Leninism, the economy, believe it or not, is booming, and the Chinese people are not now banging their pots in a widespread demand for political change. Fat bellies don't normally spark insurrections. Official propaganda effectively focuses on the economic upheavals in Eastern Europe. The implication is clear: such chaotic deprivation is the natural result of an end to socialist rule. Some intellectuals even rationalize that in the spring of 1989 the students mindlessly backed the hardliners into an untenable corner, leaving them no choice other than to re-establish order through a brutal and continuing crackdown.

Here, in the U.S., there's barely a thought reserved for China, except for the Bush Administration's automatic efforts to extend most favored nation treatment to the Beijing regime. We're absorbed in the unpredictable miracles of American politics, we are selecting a President, and for now anyway the concerns of the rest of the world seem the stuff of fairyland, so far removed from our immediate interests. One day, though, the new President will have to deal with China. His aides may then recall the extraordinary spring of 1989, when Chinese students startled and frightened their aging leadership and, unbeknownst to them at the time, sent an encouraging message to students in Russia, Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe by way of radio, television and fax that the age of the Communist dictator was passing from the scene and that a new age of post-Communist political possibilities was dawning. Would it be a new form of despotism? Would it be democracy?

Now, in the relative quiet of June, 1992, Kristof quotes one Chinese professor who remembers the time, three years ago, when China lurched forward towards open defiance of Communist rule, only to retreat since then into a twilight zone of political uncertainty. "The pendulum will swing back," the professor predicts optimistically. "I'm sure of it. I still believe that the Tiananmen demonstrations will go down in history as the greatest democracy movement in Chinese history."

The Americans who covered the Beijing spring of 1989 reported a great story. They functioned not as historians, or as the pamphleteers of any political movement, but rather as professional journalists. They covered the student demonstrations in Beijing in much the same way they would have covered an earthquake in California, or a political convention in Houston. Sometimes, in the excitement of deadlines and competition, using wondrous technology that obliterated time and distance, making Tiananmen as near or far away as Washington, DC, they lacked perspective, and they made mistakes--who wouldn't?--but they had no ax to grind, and their coverage inspired many other journalists and students, stimulated second thoughts on Capitol Hill about U.S. policy toward the Beijing regime and brought a message of hope to others around the world while setting new journalistic standards for the reporting of other international crises. From the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe to the Persian Gulf War, the power of telecommunications has since been awesome. Eyes have been opened, politics has been expanded, and free and independent reporting has again proven its value.

This is a report dedicated to the journalists who covered Tiananmen. They were on the frontline of history.


In the fall of 1989, the Joan Shorenstein Barone Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy launched a project to examine press and television coverage of a series of international crises--and the impact of that coverage on public opinion, politics and policy-making. Our object was to monitor the changing nature of media coverage of global events, explore the impact of that coverage and offer a forum for discussing lessons learned from the press-policy interaction. The first stage of our exploration spotlighted United States media coverage of the "Beijing Spring" of 1989.

During that spring, the whole world watched as Chinese students protested and stunned the government of Deng Xiaoping (once widely popular for his economic reforms and open door policy), disrupting a Sino-Soviet summit meeting, widening their efforts into a nation-wide urban mass movement that demanded major change, and ultimately encountering government violence and repression on and after the night of June 3-4.

As the political and human drama unfolded, American broadcast media brought powerful images and slogans into living rooms and the offices of politicians and foreign policy-makers, with an immediacy unprecedented in the coverage of an international crisis. The Beijing Spring became a universal moment as young China cried out its concerns and the American media and people around the world recognized that cry as one for freedom and democracy.

The Chinese government had done horrible things to its citizens before--in Tibet, the starvation that followed the follies of the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s, episodes of the Cultural Revolution, in labor camps--but never before in front of a world audience. Shen Tong, one of the student leaders, in retrospect told our project: "We found a very powerful feedback from the foreign coverage to our movement...." For the first time--thanks to the media---Chinese politics had confronted the complication of world public opinion.

The United States was not involved in the events (no troops, money or even diplomatic maneuvers) and yet the power of the American media made Americans deeply involved in them. To make the American public care as much as it did about the Chinese students was itself an achievement. The story lent itself to the building of bridges between Communist China and democratic America, because the Chinese students marched, organized, and declaimed in demand of democracy (even if it wasn't exactly our kind of democracy) for their own land. The media unconsciously formed that bridge. Day by day in Tiananmen Square the reporters and camera technicians, not American diplomats, were the tangible sign to the Chinese that America cared about their struggle for democracy. The media drove home to the old men of the Chinese government that in resisting democracy they fight an uphill struggle against the power of information across national borders.

To look back on Tiananmen is to review a story of how China nearly changed. Did the media, foreign and Chinese, help bring China to the brink of that change? Next time dissent rises to the surface, will the media be an ingredient in whether or not change will occur?

The crisis called into question much about China, and the coverage of it, too, brought to the surface the media's new role and responsibility in international affairs. Among the "firsts" in the coverage were the presence of television anchors night after night in an East Asian nation, use of new communications technology, and the scope and duration of the "live" coverage, which involved a massive influx of journalists and held Americans spellbound for more than a month. Seldom had the American press been plunged into a story so gripping, so unexpected in its twists, and so consequential for relations between two of the world's largest nations. The rule book had to be rewritten every day.

As Vito Maggioli, a producer at CNN--whose role in the path-breaking coverage was crucial--said of one high moment in the television drama, when the Chinese pulled the plug on live coverage from Tiananmen Square: "To the American public, that was truly an extraordinary event, to sit there and watch U.S. media people literally arguing with the Chinese on the air saying, you know, finding excuses to stay on the air. That was certainly gripping television. And a historic event journalistically. The president of the United States sat there and watched it happen and then statements immediately came out from the White House."

The impact of media coverage of the Beijing spring influenced coverage in Panama, Eastern Europe, the Persian Gulf and the former Soviet Union in a number of ways. Violence and repression had been covered before, but seldom reported live to a global audience, on all four major American television networks, over an extended period of time. Governments drew lessons from the media access to instant images in Beijing. Media used their China experiences as a basis for technical preparations and staffing for their coverage of other international events.

The volume and immediacy of the reports from China helped ensure that the coverage itself--beyond the actual events in Beijing--would become a major factor in the formulation of American public opinion and foreign policy toward China.

The American media's treatment of the crisis had a large impact on Chinese politics, Chinese society, and Chinese foreign policy as well. Referring to the coverage, the Chinese foreign minister, Qian Qichen, said Sino-American relations were shaken because of U.S. sanctions imposed as a result of "distorted news reports and lies" about the events at Tiananmen Square. A different Chinese view came from young journalist Yeng Louqi, who told this project: "The Western media deserves real credit.... It brought Tiananmen to the entire world, and Tiananmen was a foreplay of the changes that later occurred in the communist countries."

The "China-type" crisis coverage has proved not to be an anomaly, but rather a significant new pattern for American media. Tiananmen sensitized the media to its growing power and threw up challenges that will take years to meet fully. "It was after the Tiananmen Square that we really redefined how we do television," Susan Zirinsky summed up. "Berlin Wall falling live on television; bombs over Baghdad, live; scud missiles in Israel, live.... It is a new universe. And this brings questions.... Do we risk lives? Are we risking national security? How are we influencing policy?"

Most of the reporters who covered the China story, and the executives of the news organizations they worked for, took a justifiable pride in the jobs they did and received praise in many quarters for accuracy, depth, and completeness. A Pulitzer Prize and other awards lauded the China coverage. And the United States media's coverage provided inspiration for Chinese journalists. Said Wang Yuguang, a Chinese journalist who worked for ABC during the crisis: "I served five years as a journalist in the national newsroom of China Daily. And in comparison, this [American media performance] is really an upbeat, uplifting experience."

The quality of the media effort stemmed from a stable of journalists with better background to cover China than in any previous era; an open-mindedness toward Chinese complexities that contrasted both with the simple-minded anti-Communist starting point of the 1950s and 1960s, and equally with the starry-eyed awe that marked some coverage of China in the early 1970s; and from a spirit that reflected the enthusiasm and vision of the American idealist tradition in approaching East Asia.

Understandably, but in the end not defensibly, many journalists involved in the coverage resist any attempt to criticize it. Susan Zirinsky of CBS said, "I apologize for nothing. I say that with a clear conscience. Television inspired the world. It was a weapon against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. Reporters of all the networks ... demonstrated the medium's extraordinary power to make students, who live on the other side of the planet, just as human, just as vulnerable as the boy on the next block. The miracle of television was that the tragedy at Tiananmen Square would not have been any more vivid had it been in Times Square."

However some media critics, China scholars and officials of both the Chinese and American governments criticized some aspects of the coverage, and maintained that distortions caused by the media prism had an unnaturally disruptive impact on public opinion and policy-making in both countries. Complaints included the following: that American news organizations failed to provide advance warnings of the anti-government movement; showed emotional bias in painting a too-absolute picture of good students against an evil government; exaggerated the democratic and anti-Communist goals of the protesters; overlooked the fact that street politics are not likely to overthrow a Communist regime unless an opposition group exists and is ready to move into the halls of government; ignored the rural aspects of the uprising; did not cover as early as it should have the underlying power struggle between political factions in the Chinese Communist Party; provided insufficient warning of the repression that eventually came; and gave an inaccurate account of the violence during the night of June 3-4.

It was the combination of unprecedented coverage, stunning impact, and differences of opinion over its quality and effect that prompted the Shorenstein Barone Center to embark on this study. The Center's function is to analyze the role of the media, as democracy evolves and the world shrinks, and to assist the press and policy-makers in finding the best ways to protect the public interest.

Our aim has been to help sort out the record, evaluate press performance (without pretending we could have done a better job--we could not have, we are not journalists) and offer suggestions for future United States media coverage of such critical international events. Among the questions considered were: Why was the China story approached as it was? Was anything missing from the articles and pictures that could have provided greater accuracy and understanding? Why was this source tapped rather than that? Did technology take over the story? If the public occasionally was misinformed, was this simply out of the press's eagerness to fully inform, or for a less praiseworthy reason? Was the public demanding such massive coverage; did the competition spur it; or did the story simply grow like a vine in the tropics and make its own space?

Over and above evaluation there is the issue of how the media pulled off the powerful role it did in the Beijing Spring, and the lessons in that effort for the future relationship among the press, public opinion, and foreign policy-making. So we probed the deployment of personnel, the use of evolving technologies, the nature of the varying roles of bureau chief, editor, "parachutist," visit journalist, anchor person, and producer. We took into account the high expectations of the Chinese students of what the American media could and would do.

This is a report which raises as many questions as it resolves. The final truth about the Beijing Spring and its terrible denouement is not yet established, and may never be. Nor is the Sino-American relationship a static phenomenon, but rather a constantly evolving and perhaps very resilient one.

The report points beyond the case of the China crisis to the constantly growing and changing role of the press in the public life of our time. What can we learn about the different roles of camera, tape recorder, and notebook? We ask a question that Walter Goodman of the New York Times posed in a different context (that of the Kurds): "Should American policy be driven by scenes that happen to be accessible to cameras and that make the most impact on the screen?" The China event produced a spiral of press/politics of a kind which should be understood better than it is.

If there is a certain presumption in the Joan Shorenstein Barone Center's seeking to evaluate the performance of the highly professional journalistic force which covered the China crisis, we hope to justify that presumption by offering an objective study of issues which the working press and policy-makers have not had the time or distance to evaluate on their own.


The aim was to review a variety of media organizations whose coverage of the events in China had the most impact on large segments of the American population, and upon the elites involved in the U.S. political and policy decisions that stemmed from those events. We reviewed the output of eight of these: the television news of the American Broadcasting Company, Columbia Broadcasting System, and Cable News Network; the print coverage of the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Associated Press, and Time magazine. Allowing for the fact that no sample can represent the whole, it is only the output of these eight news organizations to which we refer when we comment on United States media coverage of the events in China (it would have been useful to have included a non-American media organization in order to isolate the cultural component in United States media performance and the exact relation of press to public policy, but this was beyond the Center's resources).

We chose CNN because of its key role as a source of live coverage to the grass-roots public, policy-makers, and editors of other news organizations; CBS because it dispatched its anchor to Beijing at the height of the crisis; and ABC because it offered the added dimension of a body of reflective and background coverage through its "Nightline" program.

Among newspapers, we selected the New York Times and the Washington Post in part because of their impact on policy-makers. The Los Angeles Times offered geographical balance, a different deadline schedule, and the added dimension of its role as a provider of copy for a major wire service used widely by other newspapers across the United States.

The Associated Press and Time magazine were logical choices because of their market dominance, which translates into maximum impact, direct or indirect, on the American audience. It should be borne in mind that the Associated Press, Time, and the supplementary wire services run by our three newspapers together reach the majority of the American reading audience.

The period of time chosen for the study was April 15, 1989, the day the first student activities began, through June 30, 1989, an arbitrary end-of-month cutoff, almost a month after the military crackdown stunned the world.

Because we focused on impact on American audiences, we used the final editions of the three newspapers (plus the Los Angeles Times afternoon replate), the domestic edition of Time magazine, and the Associated Press domestic "A" wire. [The AP copy in our study included, for the most part, only what was preserved in the AP's own computer database from the 1989 period. That was limited to the final version of the main China story and final versions of sidebars in each of the two cycles (AMs and PMs) each day. We asked AP to provide us with its full coverage for June 3, 4 and 5 (including bulletins and advisories). This was done, though it was difficult, time-consuming and costly for AP to generate the material. We were unable to consider including radio coverage -- National Public Radio in particular -- because there was no viable access to NPR news material in such bulk.] We looked at all China-related materials, including opinion pieces, letters to the editor, and stories in other sections of the newspapers and magazine (such as arts and business) that dealt with China.

We viewed and logged all evening news shows of CBS and ABC, plus the CNN "Prime News" shows (through June 15), which are aired at 8 p.m. on the East Coast. [Because of its 24-hour format, CNN presents a problem of sheer volume for the potential archivist. One archive, the Media Research Center in Arlington, Va., tapes the "Prime News" shows but has limited capacity to cross-index and disseminate selected spots. The Vanderbilt Archive coverage of CNN is similarly limited.] We also viewed all "Nightline" and prime time "specials" by the networks (including some of the special reports that intruded into regular network programming with news of emergency situations). We did not include the morning news shows on ABC and CBS, nor the Sunday "talk" shows.

By any measure, the scope of the American television and print coverage of the China crisis was immense, equal in volume to that accorded a United States national political convention or a NASA moon shot. By one measure, the evening news shows of the three major networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) totaled five-hundred-seventy-seven China stories in the first six months of 1989, by comparison with forty-four stories in all of 1988. There were three hundred ninety-seven stories on these shows in the month between May 14 and June 14, 1989, by comparison with three hundred forty-four stories in the ten years (1972-1981) before China was opened to American television coverage. The total air time for those six months was 6 hours 45 minutes on CBS, 6 hours 25 minutes on NBC, and 5 hours 16 minutes on ABC. (1)

Another survey showed that over the two months between April 18 and June 18, 1989, the evening news shows of these three networks averaged five minutes and fifty seconds per night on China coverage, or 23 percent of all news broadcast. China led the news shows more than half the time in that span. CBS ran 5 hours and 17 minutes total, NBC 5 hours and 11 minutes, and ABC 4 hours and 15 minutes. (2)

Our own calculations showed that during the period of our study, from April 15 to June 30, CBS ran 6 hours and 8 minutes of China stories on the evening news shows, NBC ran 5 hours and 52 minutes, and ABC ran 5 hours and 10 minutes.

We have not tabulated the space allocated to China in the print media, but the story commanded one or more full pages in the three newspapers we surveyed on most days of the month between May 15 and June 15, 1989. It remained on the front page throughout that period, usually as the lead story. A similar volume of coverage was offered by Time and the Associated Press. In print media, however, the proportion of total non-advertising space (known as the "news hole") devoted to China was far less than was the case for television news. The scope of the coverage was all the more significant because it was a story in which the United States was not directly involved, unlike the Iran hostage crisis or a NASA moon shot.

We assumed from the start that it would not be sufficient to study what had been written or aired at the time. So we interviewed some seventy media practitioners---reporters, editors, producers--responsible for the China coverage, China specialists, media specialists, government officials and observers of the processes of public opinion, politics and policy-making. We wished to find out what we could about the decisions made in supervising and covering the story, who made them, and why they were made. We wished to look at the nature of the expertise the reporters had, what methods were used, how reporters found and dealt with their sources, how technology influenced the coverage, the constraints on the press, and other questions that could only be answered through interviews. We also relied on interviews for information on the impact of media on politics and policy. The interviews we conducted included discussions with both field and home office representatives from all eight of the news organizations in the sample (see Appendix A for alphabetical listing).

In addition to the interviews, a workshop and public forum were held at the Center during which the eight media in the sample reacted to a draft of this report, together with sinologists, Chinese involved in the democracy movement or its coverage, and other press practitioners and theorists. In this report, the quotation of an oral source refers either to one of the interviews or to a contribution at the Workshop or Forum.


The concept for this project was initiated by Marvin Kalb, Director of the Shorenstein Barone Center, and preliminary planning and discussion went on through the fall of 1989 and the first two months of 1990. The Center's inquiry began formally in March of 1990 with the gathering of the media output from libraries and archives. An Advisory Board composed of academic specialists on China (both American and Chinese), media specialists and media practitioners was convened in April. [Those invited to Board meetings and consulted regularly were Akira Iriye, Roderick MacFarquhar, Ernest May, Dwight Perkins, Eugene Wu and Huang Yasheng of Harvard University, Harry Harding of the Brookings Institution, Merle Goldman and James Thomson of Boston University, Chinese journalist Wu Guoguang, Voice of America correspondent Mark Hopkins, author Ross Terrill, journalist and author Stanley Karnow, and Marvin Kalb, Ellen Hume, Michael J. Berlin and Linda Jakobson from the Joan Shorenstein Barone Center.] The Board members helped to define the scope of the media output to be covered, the issues that should be examined, and the organization of the work.

Between April and June the media output was read and viewed. Interviews and round-table discussions with media practitioners, government officials and China specialists, including all Advisory Board members, were completed by August in Hong Kong, Beijing, Boston, New York and Washington.

Rather than take a wholly quantitative approach to our content analysis of the media output, and risk losing the spirit of the coverage in a measurement of minutiae, we looked for patterns, underlying assumptions, omissions, and individual examples of journalistic excellence which might serve as desirable norms. We focused on those aspects of the coverage that were seen as crucial to the policy process or the understanding of the protest movement. We analyzed and compared the treatment of these focal points by the media in our sample. In selected instances, we did use quantity to help measure performance. We focused as well on the use of language.

An initial draft of the report was completed in August 1990 by Michael J. Berlin, its research director, with contributions from Akira Iriye, Amy Zegart (who conducted a number of the interviews) and Benjamin Huang. Jonathan Moses, Linda Jakobson, Deborah Ullrich and Zhiqiang Wang also contributed to the project. Essential administrative and proofreading services were provided by Joy Gragg, Edie Holway, Brenda Laribee, Nancy Palmer, and Justin Suran of the Center staff. The report was revised by Ross Terrill, in consultation with Professor Berlin, Ellen Hume, and Marvin Kalb, to incorporate comments and suggestions from the Advisory Board as well as some of those interviewed and cited in these pages. Finally in the winter of 1991-1992, after the Workshop and Forum, parts of the report were again rewritten by Ross Terrill and Ellen Hume, and edited by Marvin Kalb.

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