The Relevance of the Western Left

Les Schaffer schaffer at
Sat Feb 17 06:30:55 MST 2001

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                            TURMOIL AT TIANANMEN

© 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


During the Beijing Spring of 1989, people around the world witnessed
powerful events unfolding in a remote and previously inaccessible
corner of the globe. This worldwide real-time audience had existed on
a few rare occasions before, for such events as the Americans' landing
on the moon in 1969. But there was something different this time. Many
in the audience were politically galvanized by what they saw.

Starting with Tiananmen, the reach of the press, especially
television, into virtually any country at any time became an important
new factor in international diplomacy. The global zoom lens which
focused on China soon moved on to Eastern Europe, the Persian Gulf and
the dissolving Soviet Union.  [For a discussion of how television
affected the reunification of Germany, for example, see "Window to the
West: How Television from the Federal Republic Influenced Events in
East Germany" by Dieter Buhl, Discussion Paper D-5, Joan Shorenstein
Barone Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy.]

To be sure, the United States media's attention to the China story was
fostered by a confluence of factors. These included preparations for
coverage of the Sino-Soviet summit that predated the outbreak of the
protests, and the unprecedented access to the dramatic fixed location
of Tiananmen granted in advance to American television networks by the
Chinese government. History never repeats itself exactly and Tiananmen
will not recur in its 1989 form, nor will the media's experience in
China ever be duplicated elsewhere in much the same fashion.

Yet the China coverage was in some ways a turning point for the media
as well as the policy-makers and the audience. "It was after Tiananmen
Square that we really redefined how we do television.... As I went to
cover the war in the Gulf, the lessons of China were with me every
moment," concluded Susan Zirinsky, who produced much of CBS's Beijing
Spring coverage.

I. The Quality of the Coverage

Working under intense, confusing and dangerous conditions, many
journalists performed beyond the call of duty to provide instant and
thoughtful coverage of the Beijing Spring to the wider world. As the
Pulitzer Prize and other awards granted to such coverage attest, it
was, for some journalists, the finest performance of their careers.

Nevertheless, critics have raised a number of issues which this study
attempted to address. In some cases, the complaints were not so much
about the coverage as about the fact that the Chinese government's
violent crackdown on the protesters was seen on television by a
horrified audience. It is unfair to blame the messenger--the
media--for the power of those images and their effect on the global
political landscape. Regrettably, it was beyond the scope of this
study to determine whether the journalists' pro-student framework for
coverage--or the powerful pictures themselves of the government's
crackdown--did more to shape public opinion about the events. More
than likely, both factors influenced public opinion.

The study was, however, able to examine and evaluate a representative
sample of the U.S. coverage. Some complaints did not hold up under
this scrutiny. In particular:

-- Some American government officials, China specialists and others
spoke of the-media failure to anticipate the incipient crisis. But
neither did China specialists, foreign governments, nor, for that
matter, most of the Chinese people.  All of the news organizations in
this study were alert to the possibilities of government use of force
to repress the movement, and reported the initial restraint exercised
by both sides. They offered repeated cautions in the two weeks before
June 3 about the prospect of repression and possibly violence.
Perhaps the American public itself, grasping hopes, ignoring dangers,
was inordinately swayed by the inspiring image of the "Goddess of
Democracy" that arose in Tiananmen Square at the end of May.

-- Likewise, the media cannot be blamed for running stories about the
prospect of civil war after June 4. The possibility was being taken
seriously by many Chinese, Western military attaches in Beijing and
governments around the world (including the United States State
Department and the French Foreign Ministry). The problem was the level
of attribution and the certitude that crept into the
stories. Ultimately, the possibility of intra-military strife was
stated as fact.

However our study did find some areas in which the coverage failed to
live up to expected Western standards of objectivity and accuracy. We
present these findings with the admitted benefit of hindsight, in
hopes that they will help journalists, policy-makers and scholars
understand and deal more effectively with the role of the press in
future international crises.

These findings are as follows:

-- Much of the coverage favored the protesters.  While a neutral
observer from a democratic society might naturally have sided with the
protesters, regardless of how the media filtered the events, the
coverage itself did at times violate journalistic standards of
detachment, objectivity and fairness. This was a function as much of
what was omitted as what was included in the coverage.

First, there was insufficient coverage of aspects of the student
movement that might have run counter to its positive image. "There was
clearly a need in the coverage of Tiananmen Square for skepticism, not
only about the Chinese government ... but also about the student
movement and the manipulation of the media--or effort to--that was
being done by the students," said Jeff Sommer of Newsday in

The students often were depicted, particularly on television, as the
righteous side of a Manichean conflict, rather than as a subject of
neutral scrutiny by the press.  Specifically, the press underreported
the pro-democracy movement's actions that were distinctly
undemocratic, hypocritical or elitist. Conflicts among the protesters
were downplayed, as well as the reluctance of some student leaders to
welcome workers into their movement. There were inadequate attempts to
report the source of funds the movement received, and whether they
were properly used and accounted for.

Fuller coverage of the government's reasons for fearing the student
demands, assuming the reasons were explained, would not have
constituted an apologia, but it might have led to a more sober
expectation by the American public of prospects for the movement's

It is the role of the editor or the executive producer in the home
office to keep field correspondents from "going native" and
identifying too closely with their beats. It is also the role of
editors and producers to welcome and encourage stories that run
counter to perceived truth, such as a few Chinese hunger strikers

-- The technology outpaced the journalism, which created some serious
problems.  By comparison with the media covering China in previous
decades, the resident Beijing press corps in 1989 was both larger and
better equipped, in language skills, cultural awareness, time in the
field and high-tech gear.  The use of new technology, including
cordless telephones, small "Handicams," faxes and "pixelators" that
send visual images over telephone lines, enhanced the quality of the
coverage and the access of both print and broadcast media to the

The contribution of television from China was enormous, especially in
breaking down the sense of China as remote and "exotic" and making the
cause of the Chinese students seem a universal cause. At the same
time, there seemed to be too much emotion in the reporting and too
little discretion in what was aired on TV.

The ease with which TV could go "live" created several problems: it
allowed the inclusion of misleading or irrelevant materials, including
unverified rumors that were hard to check and resist in the
competitive pressure to provide something new; it cut into texture and
context that would have provided a much fuller and more balanced
account; and it placed the lives of some people depicted in the news
accounts--wittingly or unwittingly--in danger. Some Chinese sources
who appeared in news reports suddenly found themselves in danger. They
were identified by authorities. Under U.S. norms, anyone is fair game
for news cameras.  But when covering such events as the Beijing Spring
protests and violence, news professionals should have been more
sensitive to the dangers to which their sources were subjected.

"Don't be afraid of pictures, but encourage us to be careful about
pictures," urged David Caravello of CBS. While decisions were made
hour by hour not to take certain pictures or not to air certain
pictures, others were broadcast that should not have been. One example
could be the June 14 footage of the Chinese man who tried
unsuccessfully to avoid Jackie Judd's ABC camera by putting his hand
in front of the lens.

At times the footage was misused to portray something other than what
was actually filmed. Some of this happened, because producers in New
York and Washington were compiling summary pieces without clarifying
what was happening where. Sinologist David Zweig, who was involved in
an ABC special that looked back at the crisis, told us, "I asked a
producer why they used footage of citizens beating soldiers when (the
script) was talking about violence by the army.  The answer was that
they had no footage of the army shooting people." This misuse of
pictures is not only unacceptable under Western journalism norms but
it seriously undermines the credibility of the media.

Much important news occurred off-camera, which added to the
distortions in the coverage. "If there were cameras at the Minzu Hotel
or elsewhere on the streets of West Beijing (that night), the reaction
of the public and government might have been different," remarked Jim
Mann of the Los Angeles Times. The cameras cannot film everything; the
inquiring mind must always seek additional information for context and

Broadcast journalists and audiences are just learning that in live
broadcasts, truth remains conditional. The mystery of what might
happen next is a part of the attraction. No one on either side of the
camera or microphone should assume the information is
complete. Broadcasters must evolve rules of behavior and coverage that
limit or cushion the impact of inadvertent dissemination of misleading
messages. Soon, print reporters may be carrying satellite dishes on
their backs and small cameras, doing what used to be the province of a
four-person television crew, and that will bring new challenges and
responsibilities. "I think we have to worry about that," said Al
Pessin of VOA. "I think the more live stuff that goes out, the more
mistakes are made, the more garbage that goes out. I did some live
stuff, but I very much valued that forty minutes to just sit, think
about it, put it down on paper, make a few changes before I went on
the air."

Certainly, when we really get to the stage that the satellite dish is
carried around with camera and cordless phone, editorial judgment will
need to be tighter and more sophisticated than it was in the China

"One of the great lessons of China," concluded Susan Zirinsky of CBS,
"is that because it can be live, doesn't mean you have to give it to
then live."

-- Lopsided access created lopsided coverage.  In international crisis
situations (in China and in subsequent locales, such as Panama, the
Persian Gulf and Russia), some of the "players" may not be accessible
to provide reporters with their sides of the story. The China coverage
was somewhat hampered by the fact that the conservatives in the
Chinese government refused to talk to the press, and the only
officials who did talk, even surreptitiously, to the press favored the
reformist faction. This led to false optimism at one point that the
reform faction might win the struggle. A more nuanced approach to such
sources, with a clearer sense of their own limitations and agenda,
would have improved the coverage significantly.

In addition, the press didn't reach adequately beyond the sources in
Beijing to examine what was happening in the rest of China. This was
partly due to understaffing, partly to geographic convenience: the
events in Beijing dominated the coverage because that was where the
press was gathered, and where the cameras were located. Thus there was
insufficient attention to the fact that the democracy upsurge was more
than a student movement, and more than a Beijing phenomenon. None of
the media dealt adequately with the role of workers and other
non-students in the movement. Only print made clear the particular
fear of worker participation that was felt by Deng and other leaders,
who were aware of the danger an independent labor organization--such
as Solidarity in Poland--would pose to the Communist Party's control
over China.

Only after the crackdown did some of the eight news organizations seek
to establish what the 75 percent of the Chinese people who live in the
countryside knew, believed or favored. It was too little, too late. If
the peasants didn't matter--an unlikely conclusion--the press should
have said so, and why.

-- "Parachute" and "visit" journalists were no substitute for
journalists with in-country experience.

Whenever there is an international crisis, whether it be in Panama or
the Persian Gulf or the former Soviet Union, the supply of journalists
with specialized skills will inevitably fall behind the demand, and
this happened in China.  A small army of "parachute" journalists, who
specialize in going from breaking news event to news event around the
globe, descended on Beijing in full force.  They are highly
professional, but they are not specialists. Therefore, it is not
surprising that reporters with China experience did a better job of
sifting rumors and judging news. A dearth of China expertise
occasionally diminished the networks' coverage.  Insights into Beijing
politics sometimes were unavailable or went unused.

The China experience underscores the time-tested observation that the
press should avoid covering any major country only from crisis to
crisis or by "parachute" journalism--the big correspondent who arrives
and says (in the words of Jim Mann of the Los Angeles Times) "Take me
to the repression!"  Deng had repeatedly emphasized his intolerance of
free speech as early in the reform period as 1979. Visiting
journalists often lost sight of such realities, thinking that China,
like Russia, was undergoing a profound liberalization. They thought
that communism was wafting away on the breeze. As Ted Gup of Time put
it, the media have to learn how to cover a "slow strangulation as
opposed to a blow on the head."

-- There were significant lapses in factual accuracy by some

The fact that other journalists got the story right undermines the
argument that the errors were due to the genuine danger and hardship
of the job. The need to fill a 24-hour news hole, to beat the
competition, to justify the costs of sending extra people to
Beijing--all this ended up driving much bad information into the
public record.

Some journalists risked their lives to cover the People's Liberation
Army's sweep through the streets of Beijing on the night of June 3-4,
1989. The accounts offered by reporters on the scene were often
accurate and compelling. The problem, as always in the midst of chaos
and violence, lay in the judgment of what use to make of accounts from
non-journalistic witnesses and participants.  Instead of erring on the
side of caution, some journalists simply passed on the latest
unverified rumors that crossed their paths.

Keeping in mind that hindsight often adds unfair advantages to any
analysis, this study nonetheless concludes that some of the media
should have come closer to a rounded appreciation of the events of
June 3-4 within the first week. Wildly inflated casualty figures and
the use of the geographically erroneous catch phrase "Tiananmen Square
massacre" gave the Chinese government a pretext for deflecting the
central moral issue raised by its brutal response to the
protesters. If some of the media were wrong about how many people
died, and where, were they also wrong about the significance of the
killings? No, they were not. But the exaggerations and the error of
geography permitted that question to be raised, and undercut the
media's credibility in some quarters.

-- The coverage was at times parochial.

At times shorthand catch-phrases, such as "pro-democracy"
movement--which meant one thing to American viewers and another thing
to the protesters--were over-used, eclipsing the complexity of the
protesters' viewpoints.

Several news organizations, allowing a Cold War framework to
oversimplify the struggle as one between democracy and communism, gave
the impression that the protesters were seeking the overthrow of the
Communist Party. Most students recognized that there was no immediate
alternative to Party rule, and were instead seeking greater Party
responsiveness to their needs and interests.

II. The Impact of the Coverage

While it is difficult to trace the actual impact of press coverage on
public policy, this study suggests that:

-- The coverage, particularly "live television," touched an emotional
chord with the American people and changed the political climate for
U.S.  policy-makers, making it more difficult for President Bush to
proceed with his policy of cooperating with China.

The sheer volume of reporting of the Chinese protest movement and its
suppression nay have intensified the swing of American public opinion
away from an accommodating view of China. While nearly three-quarters
of the American public had a favorable impression of China in early
1989, only one in three Americans now regard China favorably. Observed
Harry Harding in the Brookings Review (spring, 1992):

"Since the crisis in Tiananmen Square in June 1989... Americans have
perceived China in much darker terms: repressive at home,
irresponsible abroad, engaging in unfair commercial policies toward
the United States. Both houses of Congress have passed, by large
majorities, legislation that could cost China its most-favored-nation
trade status. Even the Bush administration, having spent enormous
amounts of its dwindling political capital to preserve a relationship
that so many Americans now question, seems disenchanted with Peking."

However, journalists told us they made no conscious decision to mount
a massive coverage; they merely followed the events. "Was the world
clamoring for more?"  asked Susan Zirinsky of CBS, when we asked her
about the motivation behind the saturation coverage. "It wasn't my
purpose to determine what the world was clamoring for. I saw a story
unfolding, and it was my job to give it to the world."

-- The Chinese media's coverage of the student movement had an impact
within China that was little recognized at the time.

The Chinese media's brief moment of freedom, which led to favorable
reporting on the protest movement, was incorrectly viewed by many
Chinese people as a signal that officials condoned the
movement. Research by Linda Jakobson for this study concluded that the
Chinese press coverage unwittingly may have misled peasants and
workers to believe that they could join the student protest without
penalty from the government.

The eight American news organizations in our study made reference to
the brief "window of freedom" the Chinese media enjoyed, but did not
emphasize that it was this press freedom that spread the word across

The Western media's coverage may have affected the student protesters
as well.  "Did we incite the demonstrations by being there? I don't
think so.  I will admit there was comfort for the students that we
were recording events," concluded Susan Zirinsky of CBS. Shen Tong,
who handled much of the public relations and press liaison for the
student protesters, observed that his comrades, having initially
focused their efforts on the Chinese press, changed their target once
they recognized the power of the world press to help them "make noise
through cameras and newspapers."

-- The Tiananmen Square coverage was a watershed moment in defining
different roles for television and print journalism. Television became
the raw "news" and print became the analysis and research-based
reservoir of facts.  While newspapers used to set the news agenda for
both television and print, that was reversed by the live shots from

As Daniel Southerland of the Washington Post put it, "I don't even
feel I'm in the same world with television. Some of that television
stuff was really moving in a way I don't think I could have achieved."
Jeff Sommer of Newsday confessed that "CNN is the key, actually to all
of it." CNN led the other networks to devote more live coverage to the
crisis and brought a worldwide audience together, thus "setting an
agenda for all of us," he said. "That is something new.... It just
began to take place in Tiananmen Square."

Jim Mann of the Los Angeles Times agreed. "At least for my newspaper,
Tiananmen represented the end of the old era of coverage. We covered
(China) with four reporters. In the Gulf War, you're talking about
twenty to twenty-five reporters.... More importantly, you're assuming
that the readership already knew the main news of the day by the time
it read the newspaper, and that what you were providing was
investigative work and context. I mean, we did a main news story each
day, but we just assumed that it was going to be the least read story
that there was. Yes, when you look back at Tiananmen, that was the end
of an old era."

This more dramatic separation of roles brought out the best and worst
in both media. It enabled television to do what it does best--provide
powerful pictures and immediacy--but occasionally at the expense of
comprehension. It enabled print to provide the facts and analysis, but
without the powerful images.  For example, the subsurface power
struggle within the Chinese Communist Party--prior to its emergence
into public view on May 19--was adequately reported by the five print
news organizations in our sample, but the three television networks
gave viewers only hints.

David Caravello of CBS defended the simplicity of television's
coverage. "People in the streets, no repression, these were remarkable
events. They are not very complicated. I think that was communicated
across the board, print, television, radio.... None of us are graduate
seminars.... That's why we need the experts. And I want to caution,
let's not say the media ought to be graduate seminars. I wonder if
we're not heading that way." This report concludes that while it may
be true that too much is expected of the media in the 1990s, it may
also be true that the media should take the responsibilities of their
increased influence on public opinion and policy into consideration a
bit more seriously.

The events of 1989 in China were themselves so powerful in political
as well as human or emotional terms that had there been no wobbliness
of the media prism, the result of China's image in the world might
well have been substantially the same. Still, news organizations can
benefit both themselves and the public interest by a periodic review
of their mechanisms and norms of coverage. The media have become too
important in today's world to simply turn to the next story and expect
to repeat the same triumphs--and perhaps repeat the same mistakes.

SPRING OF 1989 © 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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