mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

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China Coverage – Strong on What, Weak on Why?

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.

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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.

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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.

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