【 New York Times 】   Post Date: 6/2/2017
Born on June Fourth: an American Journalist Reflects on How Tiananmen Was Covered
Author
Ahead of the 28th anniversary of the June 3-4 military crackdown, Mr. Chinoy spoke with NYT Chinese about that time, and the lessons it holds for foreign journalists reporting on China today. Conducted through e-mail, the interview has been condensed and edited.

 June 2, 2017

 

 
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Mike Chinoy with CNN camerawoman Cynde Strand and soundman Mitch Farkas.

Courtesy of Mike Chinoy

 

Mike Chinoy was the CNN Beijing bureau chief from 1987 to 1995. In recent years he wrote and reported “Assignment China,” a 12-part documentary film series produced by the U.S.-China Institute at the University of Southern California on the history of American journalists in China from 1945 to the present day. The premise behind the project was that American reporters covering China have had a huge impact in shaping how China is viewed by the American public and the world. The series takes viewers behind the scenes and onto the front lines of how reporters told the China story over the course of many decades. Chinoy's episode about the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy movement is just one part of a much bigger story that depicts who these journalists were and how they did their jobs, especially during such a tense and pivotal period in modern Chinese history. Chinoy was there among them in 1989, and spent his birthday, June 4, covering the deadly military crackdown on the protests in Beijing.

 

Ahead of the 28th anniversary of the June 3-4 military crackdown, Mr. Chinoy spoke with NYT Chinese about that time, and the lessons it holds for foreign journalists reporting on China today. Conducted through e-mail, the interview has been condensed and edited.

 

A lot of people from around the world remember what happened in Beijing on June 4th 1989 because they watched it unfold on TV. Many people in China have no idea, because public discussion of the crackdown is forbidden. June 4th also happens to be your birthday. Tell us how you spent it 28 years ago and how the turn of events that day changed you and the way you understand China.

 

As CNN’s Beijing bureau chief from 1987-1995, I spent the entire spring of 1989 covering the student protests. From the beginning, I was convinced the Communist Party would not tolerate such an overt challenge to its power, and I had been worried for several weeks that the situation would end badly.

 

Because communications were so basic then as compared with today, in early May, CNN had taken a room at the Beijing Hotel with a good view down Chang An Boulevard in the direction of Tiananmen. We used the room as a place to recharge batteries for our camera equipment and briefly refresh ourselves before returning to the Square, which we staffed 24 hours a day. The room also had a phone which allowed us to be in regular contact with CNN headquarters in Atlanta. On the afternoon of June 3, as it became clear the crisis was reaching a climax, I returned to the Beijing Hotel. I stayed there the entire night, doing live broadcasts over the phone of what I saw from the balcony, and also conveying information that other CNN colleagues were providing from different places around Beijing. I was frustrated because I wanted to be in the middle of the Square. Like many journalists at the time, however, I was a prisoner of the need to communicate with the head office. But the room provided a vantage point from which I could watch the PLA’s move into the heart of Beijing and its occupation of the Square, all of which I was able to report live over the phone. Needless to say, it was not much of a birthday.

 

The events that day made clear what I had always assumed but had never witnessed so graphically- that the Party would do whatever was necessary to maintain its grip on power. Like many observers, I was not certain at the time that the crackdown would succeed. And I would never have imagined that, barely three years later, the economic reform process would be revived, let alone that it would prove as successful as it has been. While, in the aftermath of Tiananmen, many journalists and other observers focused on the repression, I think many of us missed the fact that the process of economic reform had not been halted. We were slow to recognize in the early 1990s that this dynamic was gaining new strength, and would lead to the amazing China boom that followed.

 

When you made the film and interviewed your colleagues from 1989, was there anything you learned that perhaps you didn’t know before or realize at the time? What were some of their key revelations or insights?

 

One of the things that comes through clearly in the interviews I did for Assignment China was just how difficult it was to cover, in real time, a story of such magnitude and complexity. There were huge crowds on the streets. You had an authoritarian government that was not exactly communicative towards the western media. Reporters were camped out in Tiananmen literally for days, exhausted, stressed, and under constant deadline pressure. With the benefit of hindsight, I would say the western press on the scene got the broad picture basically right. But there were many elements that we either missed or were unable to portray with as much nuance and detail as we should have.

 

One issue is the degree to which, as the demonstrations reached a peak in mid-May, many journalists believed this would have a “happy ending,” with the Communist Party backing down and offering sweeping concessions. There were explicit comparisons made to the “People Power” revolution that had peacefully toppled dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in 1986. To me, this showed a lack of appreciation for the way the Communist Party operated. Conveying this impression to news consumers around the world only accentuated the sense of anger and bitterness among audiences when the crackdown occurred.

 

Another is the debate about the use of the term “Tiananmen Square massacre.” This became a kind of press shorthand for the overall crackdown. It was widely used then, and is still used today. But, as several of the reporters who were actually in the Square that night told me, the fact is that, within the confines of Tiananmen itself, there was no evidence of widespread killing. Indeed, as some journalists noted, the worst of the violence came along Chang An Boulevard as the PLA moved towards the Square. Using this shorthand was understandable. But the lack of precision gave the Chinese authorities a weapon to discredit broader journalistic accounts. As Richard Roth, who was there for CBS News noted, this was a case where “getting the facts right matters.”

 

The most iconic image from the summer of 1989 was that of the lone man standing in front of the row of tanks. There were no digital cameras or iphones back then. Film had to be smuggled out by an American student in his underwear to the AP bureau. How did the limits of technology back then affect how you did your job covering a big story?

 

Today, news consumers take for granted that they will see live video from almost anywhere in the world, if not on TV than online. It is possible to do a live transmission with an Iphone. Everyone has a cell phone and wifi. Very little of that existed in 1989.

 

In the case of the man in front of the tank, the AP photographer gave his film to a student who brought it in to the AP bureau, where it was developed and then transmitted. The CNN video was hand-carried to Hong Kong and transmitted from there. If something similar occurred today, it would likely be live-streamed direct from an Iphone.

 

The technological changes are amazing. However, to some extent they have made journalists prisoners of the new technology. It is now possible to go live at any time, to post online, to use social media etc. But sometimes the pressure to do so means journalists today do not have time to report in as much depth, to think, analyze, or check with multiple sources before transmitting their news. Speed therefore carries a risk of getting things wrong, or incomplete. In 1989, there was intense pressure to get the story out. But newspaper reporters usually had only one daily deadline. The big three U.S. TV networks had just one major evening news show. Even CNN, which was on the air 24 hours a day, did not require constant live shots, and gave us some freedom to dig around . Today that is much less the case, and I fear that accuracy and background suffer in the rush for instant information.

 

The government ordered you to shut down CNN’s broadcasting facility in Beijing on May 20, how did you decide to broadcast that moment live for the world to see, and how did you cover the rest of the story without a live visual feed from the square?

 

Because of the visit by Soviet leader Gorbachev, which took place the week of May 15, CNN and the other major international networks had been given permission by the Chinese authorities to bring in satellite equipment for what was intended to be live coverage of that event. This is why we had our own satellite dish, microwave links, and other transmission facilities. But then the protesting students literally stole the stage where much of the pomp of the Gorbachev visit was to take place- Tiananmen Square. The Chinese authorities were taken aback by the scale of the protest, as well as internally divided over how to deal with it. The result was that, for the duration of Gorbachev’s trip, the live transmissions were allowed to proceed. It was during that week that CNN devoted hours and hours of live air time to show the amazing scenes of huge crowds filling the Square.

 

But just one day after the Soviet leader left, martial law was declared and live video transmissions were halted. At the CNN work-space in the Great Wall Sheraton Hotel, two Chinese officials arrived on the morning of May 20 to order the network to shut down its transmission. As CNN producers negotiated and tried to buy a time, a cameraman from another network hooked up a camera and the encounter was itself broadcast live. The confrontation became one of the iconic moments in the history of TV news. Once the satellite feed was cut off, live reports were only possible over the phone. Video tapes had to be smuggled out of Beijing for transmission Hong Kong or Tokyo, which meant that there was a gap of several hours between when a camera-person shot something and the images appeared on TV?

 

What lessons do you think the party learned about management, messaging and propaganda directly from TAM and how different is their approach today? How much harder is it to read the tea leaves in the era of Xi Jinping, in your view?

 

The Party learned many lessons from the events of 1989. It has become ever more sophisticated in managing the Chinese press. As China has become increasingly wealthy and powerful, however, we have seen more effort devoted to trying to shape the international narrative as well. This has been evident both in the pressures put on resident foreign correspondents in recent years, and punitive measures taken against news organizations whose coverage the Party dislikes. Even so, my own sense is that Chinese society has become more and more open, certainly in comparison to when I first visited the country in the 1970s. Despite the limitations, foreign journalists are able to travel and talk to a remarkably wide range of people. So that has made it possible for foreign journalists today to do a reasonably good job of covering Chinese society.

 

However, making sense of the internal dynamics within a still very secretive leadership remains extremely challenging. In many ways, journalists do not know much more about the inner workings at the top than they did 30 years ago, despite the surface veneer or modernization, the greater international travel and exposure of Chinese leaders, and a more open Chinese media climate than when I first started going to China.

 

You mention in the film reporters openly sympathized with the protestors because it was hard not to be wrapped up in the euphoria of the moment and see the full picture. Is it possible for foreign media to stay objective? What lessons can you draw from that in terms of the capacity of the foreign media to understand and cover the complexity of China?

 

Every journalist brings their own experiences, values, and views to any given story, the challenge is to ensure that this background does not prevent the correspondent from honestly reporting what he or she witnesses. Western journalists come from societies where freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and political pluralism are basic values. As a result, they carry those values with them as they cover events in China or elsewhere, and tend to instinctively sympathize with those seen as sharing similar aspirations. Sometimes, this can lead to excessive focus on some issues rather than others, and can sometimes create misleading impressions of what is going on. It takes an extra effort to try to put oneself in the shoes – or the mind-set- of the people one is covering. But as I look at the work of the western press in China today, I am impressed by how many journalists seem able to put whatever personal biases they have aside and produce really compelling reporting on a host of issues.

 

Were you able to show this film inside China? What was the reaction of the Chinese audience outside China?

 

We have been able to screen earlier episodes in China, for example the ones looking at how American reporters covered the Chinese civil war, the Nixon trip in 1972, and the early years of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms. But the events of 1989 are so sensitive that there is little chance this episode would be permitted to be shown in China.

 

What happened at Tiananmen was such a dramatic story no matter what your political point of view. Besides the documentary The Gate of Heavenly Peace from 1995, nothing really big has ever been made. How do you view the prospects for a major motion picture or TV miniseries nowadays and down the road? Given China's rising global influence, is this a topic too risky for Hollywood?

 

Hollywood has increasingly linked its future to China and the Chinese market, with more and more co-productions, as well as Chinese companies acquiring production companies and movie theatre chains in the U.S. Under these circumstances, given the sensitivity of the subject, I suspect it would be highly unlikely that the Tiananmen story will be turned into a feature-length movie.

 


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Key Words: June 4th,CNN,Journalist,Tiananmen
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