Mark Hertsgaard

The historic popular uprising in China that culminated in the massacre near Tiananmen Square on June 4th must rank as one of the biggest news stories of the decade. Because of its larger-than-life dimensions, Beijing Spring had all the makings of transcendent journalism: a fascinating cast of characters, a clash of great social forces and a story of uncertain outcome and far-reaching consequences, not to mention extraordinary human drama and life-and-death stakes.

For reporters on the scene, covering such a story was, in the words of ABC News producer Kyle Gibson, "a bizarre and frightening privilege." For their editorial superiors in the United States, the massacre was so riveting that even the death of Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini received far less than the saturation coverage one would normally have expected. Television viewers seemed equally entranced. NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw told me that not since the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger has a story "so penetrated the American consciousness. People everywhere I went were talking about it. I was doing a story about street gangs in Los Angeles, and one member of the Crips wanted to talk to me about what was going on in China."

Who didn't feel inspired by the lone white-shirted protester defiantly staring down an entire column of tanks the day after the massacre? At moments like that, television is matchless as a news-reporting medium. Indeed, the Beijing uprising was a perfect television story, filled with action, compelling visuals, nail-biting suspense and easily identifiable heroes and villains. And in many respects the networks did a fine job of covering it. They gave tens of millions of Americans front-row seats at one of the momentous events of our time.

Most impressive of all was how journalists of every stripe, broadcast and print alike, managed to gather, organize and deliver such massive quantities of generally accurate information so rapidly and under such trying circumstance. Neither gunfire nor police harassment - not even the loss of satellite capability - prevented reporters from getting the story out. It was an exemplary display of professionalism and dedication.

But there were problems with the coverage as well. While televisions excelled at the day-to-day reporting of the protest marches, hunger strikes and street battles, it was far less successful at putting those events in proper perspective. What did the students really want? And how accurate was it to call their movement "prodemocracy"? These were questions virtually ignored by the reporters covering the story. On the whole, the networks did a far better job of showing and describing the unforgettable events of Beijing Spring than of explaining what they meant.

Some reporters, caught up in the undeniable excitement of the moment, seemed to let their sympathies for the protesters divert their attention from certain inconvenient facts. Few initial reports mentioned that three out of four Chinese live not in cities, where the unrest was erupting, but in the countryside. Thus, early on, when students occupying Tiananmen Square were joined by workers, intellectuals and a broad cross section of urban residents, swelling the number of demonstrators to about 1 million, much of the coverage conveyed the mistaken impression that all of China was rebelling against the government. Yet it's doubtful that many Chinese peasants knew or cared much about what was going on in Beijing and Shanghai.

As a result, the coverage presented a wildly optimistic picture of the protesters' chances of victory. For American television viewers, setting up these false expectations would prove disillusioning but ultimately harmless. For the protesters, however, it may have been fatal. The American media's enthusiasm for the story may well have given the Chinese students a dangerously inflated sense of their own power - and of their immunity to the sort of vicious countermeasures that were eventually imposed. As David Ignatius later wrote in the Washington Post , "The media played the outside agitator role." Yet once the firing commenced, Western television cameras were revealed to be little more than paper shields.

In noting that some television correspondents sounded more like cheerleaders than analysts, I don't mean to suggest that the protesters didn't deserve support or that there's anything wrong with reporters having opinions about stories they cover. Like it or not, all journalism is subjective and informed by a point of view. But rarely has this been as evident as it was in China. In the days following the crackdown, for example, the networks repeatedly hammered George Bush for not condemning the violence more forcefully.

"What we saw with China for a brief tele-video instant was the animation of the American media's often submerged sense of moral indignation," said Orville Schell, who has written several books about China, including Discos and Democracy . "I'm all for democracy and human rights. But the specter of anchormen incensed with such righteous indignation about what happened in China, and indeed engaging in some biased reporting, albeit on the right side of the issue, raises the question of why they aren't on the right side with such righteous indignation more often. Pick any of your garden variety of dictatorships around the world. The very same members of the media who were so agitated about China stand at arm's length from those causes."

Schell pointed to Tom Brokaw's interview with government spokesman Yuan Mu, the first with a Chinese official after the massacre. Among other absurdities, Yuan denied that any protesters had been killed, charging that NBC had tampered with videotapes that plainly showed the murders. "I thought Tom was going to leap from his chair and eat this guy from the feet up," said Schell. "He was clearly incensed by what this man was saying, and he should have been. But there have been many other occasions where equally villainous world leaders, from Nixon and Kissinger to Pinochet and Somoza, have gotten off with hardly a glove laid on them."

Brokaw's response was that it was "appropriate" to have been "cast in the adversarial role" against Yuan. As for Schell's broader charge, he said, "We don't get many cracks at Pinochet. Give us a crack and see how we do."

I also asked the NBC anchor about Jesse Jackson's comparison of the media's coverage of China with its coverage of South Africa, where official press restrictions dating from 1987 have all but eliminated outside reporting. The networks, Jackson charged, failed to fight these press restrictions as aggressively as they did the Chinese news blackout.

"That's bullshit," said Brokaw. "We've worked to make sure that story has had consistent coverage. Every major correspondent I know, including myself, has been there. When the restrictions were put on, we kept on the story ... . Jesse feels it should be getting more coverage, but it's apples and oranges to compare South Africa to China. If Soweto were in flames and Bishop Tutu were in jail, we'd have people in there."

Ironically, American television almost missed the China story entirely. had news executives at CBS and CNN not decided to provide on-site coverage of Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev's visit to Beijing on May 15th, events might have taken a much different course. (Neither NBC nor ABC thought the Gorbachev visit warranted live coverage.)

"The only reason we were able to provide the scale of live coverage we had is because we had prior permission from the Chinese government to bring in our own satellite up-links for Gorbachev's visit," said Mike Chinoy, the CNN bureau chief in Beijing. "We set up to broadcast live from the rostrum at Tiananmen Square in anticipation of Gorbachev's arrival. But by the time his plane touched down, the students had that area occupied, so his arrival ceremony was canceled. We were still there, though, so we shot the scene and sent it off to the satellite. And later that week, when the crowds swelled to more than a million people, we were in a position to cover it live again. Neither we nor the Chinese counted on that happening.

By shaping people's perceptions of what was happening in China, television inevitably transformed the dynamics of the situation. The media-savvy students played to the cameras relentlessly. With signs and slogans in both English and French, the students clearly saw the international press corps as an ally. And television - through its magical ability to transport images across the globe and to tens of millions of TV sets simultaneously - helped create immense public sympathy for the protesters. This, in turn, altered the political landscape in which Chinese and American officials were operating. George Bush clearly did not want to risk offending Chinese authorities by strenuously criticizing the crackdown. But given the domestic political pressure generated by television's virtually nonstop coverage of the brutality, Bush had little choice but to speak out.

Of course, the power of television had its limits. The presence of Western journalists in Beijing did not keep Chinese authorities from ordering the murderous assault on June 4th. Indeed, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and the other brutes who engineered the crack-down may not have feared media exposure as much as the students apparently assumed. What may have kept Deng from moving against the students earlier was not the prospect of tarnishing China's image abroad but the reluctance of military leaders to carry out an attack on unarmed civilians. In fact, according to Tragedy at Tiananmen: The Untold Story , a special report produced for ABC News by Ted Koppel, Deng probably began lobbying key officers to enforce a crackdown a full week before Gorbachev arrived in Beijing.

"Deng lacked the media savvy to realize what the TV images of Tiananmen Square would mean to people around the world," Koppel later told me. "He remembers how a million people died in the Cultural Revolution [the violent purges of intellectuals and party bureaucrats of the late 1960s], so he sees the deaths at Tiananmen as relatively small potatoes. But of course he misses the point."

The Koppel report was the single best account I saw of the six tumultuous weeks leading up to the June 4th massacre. Aired in prime time on June 27th, its opening segment featured breathtaking footage that brought all the anger and mayhem of that fateful night at Tiananmen Square back into chilling focus. It's a shame ABC did not broadcast more of these pictures earlier in the crisis. But what most distinguished Tragedy at Tiananmen was that it put the massacre in some historical context. The Koppel report noted that Chinese students had begun demonstrating for free speech and against official corruption in the winter of 1986-87 and that the movement had been rejuvenated last April by the death of Hu Yaobang, a one-time protégé of Deng's who became a bitter rival. Hu had been removed as head of the Chinese Communist party partly because of prostudent sympathies.

The Koppel report unearthed two important new facts that suggested that the massacre might have been avoided. "If all had gone according to plan, the students would have left Tiananmen days before the shooting began," Koppel reported.

The students had planned to leave behind as their surrogate the Goddess of Democracy, the handmade statue they had fashioned in the likeness of the Statue of Liberty. At the last minute, however, a minority of students persuaded the others to stay in the Square.

Even then tragedy might have been averted, according to two experts featured on Koppel's broadcast. By the early-morning hours of June 4th, the People's Liberation Army had surrounded the square on three sides. There had already been hours of violence and some shooting, but relatively few deaths. Sensing the likelihood of catastrophe, one student leader negotiated with the army to allow the protesters to leave the square peacefully. They exited to the south through a corridor opened by the army. But as soon as the students had left the square, they encountered a group of tanks whose commanders supposedly had not been informed of the deal. The soldiers opened fire, and within minutes the streets were awash in blood.

There was one conspicuous failing in the Koppel report and indeed in the entirety of the broadcast and print coverage of the uprising. From the start, the protesters were referred to as "the prodemocracy movement," a phrase reporters used as if it were all one word. But what did it mean? What sort of democracy did the students have in mind - a substitute for socialism or an augmentation of it? Surely, these were fundamental questions, but they were all but ignored by mainstream news organizations. I watched dozens of hours of broadcast coverage and read every article published about the events in China in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal , Time and Newsweek without finding a single story about the ideology and political goals of the protest movement. It was as if journalists had become so enthralled by what the protesters were against - an authoritarian regime that called itself communist - it didn't matter what they were for.

"There were so many dramatic, visual events to follow day to day that the analysis of the goals of the movement was left behind," said ABC's Kyle Gibson. "It would have been a great service for someone to do a story on how vague the goals were, to point out that it depended on who you talked to and that not many of those students could come up with a very clear definition of what they meant by democracy ."

American journalists rightly pointed out the distortions in China's official news coverage, but their own treatment of the story revealed ideological biases as well. A clear implication of their coverage was that the protest movement was not only prodemocracy but also antisocialist. In fact, this was by no means clear. According to an article in the San Francisco Bay Guardian - the only comprehensive exploration of the movement's beliefs and goals I came across - many Chinese "have no complaints about socialism. They just want it to work for the people."

The article in the Guardian demonstrated that insightful journalism can be produced without high-powered technology and multimillion-dollar editorial budgets. Interviewing five Bay Area residents who had been in China during the uprising, including two Chinese students studying at the University of California at Berkeley, reporter Jean Tepperman made it clear that "when they talked about democracy, the students were not necessarily espousing U.S.-style capitalism." As one American law professor explained, the students saw some Communist-party officials "as honest, upright - people they wanted as leaders. [Premier] Li Peng they wanted out. It was less like a revolution than like an insurgency within the Democratic party."

Moreover, the students were joined in their protests by workers motivated less by the absence of civil liberties than by economic issues. American news reports generally equated Deng's economic reforms with prosperity and progress. But many average Chinese are unhappy about the effects of Deng's reforms - inflation, a widening income gap and profiteering by Communist-party officials and members of their families. Capitalism has spurred economic growth in China over the past decade, but it has also dramatically increased social inequality. Most of the newly produced wealth has ended up in the pockets of the Chinese elite, while the masses, caught between frozen wages and rising prices, have seen their real living standards deteriorate. The workers' decision to march with the students was a protest against privilege and inequality - a call for more socialism, not less.

As a whole, the American press corps embraced the reassuring - and condescending - notion that what the Chinese wanted was simply what we in this country have. "The American press is always fascinated when other people, especially in socialist countries, appear interested in becoming the way we think we are," said Orville Schell. "This is highly gratifying to most Americans, for it reaffirms us in our own beliefs. You'd have a very different situation if these students were demonstrating for some kind of socialist form of social justice or if they'd displayed a heavier tinge of anti-Americanism."

To grasp Schell's point, one need look no further than the hostile coverage of the Nicaraguan revolution's tenth anniversary or the neglect of human-rights struggles in Indonesia, Turkey and other American client states. Unfortunately, in the eyes of the American news media, not all struggles for social justice are created equal.


Mark Hertsgaard, Rolling Stone, 21 September 1989
Reproduced with permission of the author. All rights reserved.

Home | Film/Media | Tour | Themes | Chronology | Readings/Links | Site Map | Chinese
Frontline | ITVS | Center for Asian American Media | PBS

© Long Bow Group, Inc . All Rights Reserved.