Reporter’s Notebook: How Tiananmen Square expanded global coverage

Editor’s Note: In spring 1989, journalists arrived in Beijing to cover Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit, while students amassed in Tiananmen Square. Former PBS NewsHour foreign affairs and defense editor Michael D. Mosettig looks at how world events and television news coverage became one story. This piece was first published on May 29, 2009. We are reposting it for the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests.

It was one of the most riveting weekends in post-World War II history.

Over two days and nights 20 years ago, China put down with immense force and hundreds of casualties the protesters massed on Tiananmen Square; Iran’s revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini died a decade after seizing power; and Polish voters chose a democratic government in the first free elections in Central Europe since the Communists seized power 50 years earlier.

These events occurred thousands of miles apart from each other, in nations with totally separate histories and cultures. Yet, the events were hardly disconnected, and they did have one common thread: all took place in front of cameras, and were partly inspired by the rapid expansion of global television in the 1970s and ’80s.

To start with Tiananmen, most events in China are not open to nor do they receive international television coverage. The live or nearly live coverage of events in Beijing was the result of a historic accident. The demonstrations had been building for weeks when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev arrived in the Chinese capital for what was supposed to be a dramatic breakthrough in ending the Sino-Soviet split that had riven the Communist world for more than two decades.

We tend to forget now what a global superstar Gorbachev was at the height of his power. His trip to China drew journalists from all over the world, including the U.S. television networks and their anchormen. The Gorbachev visit proved to be a major embarrassment for the Chinese leadership, which had to sneak him through the back doors of the Forbidden City after the masses of Tiananmen demonstrators blocked his motorcade. Gorbachev eventually departed, but the networks and their capacity for live or nearly live broadcasting remained, including CBS Evening News anchorman Dan Rather.

On the night of June 4, after Chinese Communist Party leader Deng Xiaoping made the fateful decision to clear out the demonstrators at any price, the world watched in mournful fascination the pictures of soldiers and tanks moving through the square overrunning everything and everyone in their path. The broadcasts continued beyond the weekend as the government pursued their quarry in Beijing and beyond, determined to snuff out any opposition or resistance.

NewsHour co-founder Robert MacNeil has often remarked that one of the distinguishing features of television is its capacity, amidst its thousands of pictures, to capture one that comes to symbolize a transforming historical event. Among all the pictures from that weekend, one came to symbolize Tiananmen: the young man standing in front of the tank, defying its drivers to crush him as the People’s Liberation Army had crushed his friends and comrades. The tank took evasive action; the picture remains embedded in popular memory, even now.

As we came into the office that Monday, June 5, we were confronting the biggest agenda of major international stories I had faced in four years as senior producer for foreign affairs. How much could we cram into a one-hour program? After we presented ideas for covering all three stories, Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer decided we would do them sequentially: China on Monday, Iran and Khomeini on Tuesday and Poland on Wednesday.

Our Khomeini coverage coincided with his funeral, a massive display of public emotion.

The words I drafted for the lead-in to the segment still stick in my mind: Ayatollah Khomeini departed the world stage as he entered it — in a globally televised display of religious fanaticism.

Khomeini’s had been an electronic revolution from the beginning, with audio cassettes of his sermons bootlegged into Iran from his 14-year exile. In 1979, the seizure of the American Embassy and its employees by a group of Islamist students became a television drama as the U.S. government and Iranian revolutionaries tried to move American and world opinion with demonstrations and announcements broadcast live from Tehran and Washington.

Some enduring myths, particularly among diplomats, emerged from the hostage drama. A principal one was that the saturation news coverage prolonged the crisis. The reality was that American networks were ousted from Iran in April 1980, after a failed attempt to rescue the hostages. The U.S. hostages were not released until Jan. 20, 1981. The hostage-takers were ultimately working on their own timetable, propelled by the impulses of their revolution, not by the decisions of network news executives.

A second myth was that the coverage somehow got in the way of real diplomacy. What we learned later was that behind the declarations and public comings and goings of officials and diplomats, there was quiet and secret diplomacy happening all the time. If anything, the coverage provided a cloak for the real diplomacy.

Amid the funeral scenes from Tehran and the images of Khomeini’s body almost being pulled off its portable catafalque, what few realized at the time was how long and virulently his brand of combative Islam would hold sway in parts of the world. His funeral was anything but a farewell to his ideology and a battle of ideas was carried around the world by television media.

A totally different kind of revolution was taking place in Poland, and it would quickly spread throughout Central Europe. It was also spurred by television technology. A link between the events in China and Central Europe has been drawn in op-eds and speeches by Tara Sonenshine, a former network news producer, Clinton administration official and now vice president of the U.S. Institute for Peace. Tiananmen Square was the eastern end of a fuse that stretched across the world to Central Europe. Thousands of Europeans enduring Soviet-imposed dictatorship saw young Chinese ready to die to gain a measure of freedom in their lives. They could not help but be stirred.

The idea that Central Europeans living in repressive regimes could see the Tiananmen coverage was revolutionary in itself. What had transpired, almost unnoticed in the 1980s, was the spread of satellite and other technology that enabled people living behind the Iron Curtain to watch western European television. Citizens of the Soviet Baltic nations tuned into Scandinavian newscasts; East Germans contrasted their meager living conditions with the plentitude of bananas and oranges they saw on West German television; Hungarians and Czechs watched Austrian and West German newscasts. The Curtain had been penetrated in ways that few had realized — even many academics and intelligence specialists.

This sea change did become strikingly clear as MacNeil and I traveled to Warsaw to cover the evolving Polish story in early September 1989. I still remember driving from the airport past the dreary Soviet style apartment blocks and seeing a satellite dish on every third balcony. I realized these people are living in virtually the same information universe as their western counterparts. The peaceful transformation of Poland from a communist to non-communist Solidarity government became testimony to that change.

What followed were a couple of the most dramatic months of my journalistic career, a story that dominated the NewsHour from Labor Day through New Year’s. Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, even Bulgaria and finally Romania all toppled their dictatorships. Only in Romania was there bloodshed. The strategic analyst and historian Michael Howard summed up those transforming months in European history by referencing a famous line of the poet Wordsworth, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.”

But on the other side of the world, the one communist nation that would not change its government was China, where the hunger for liberty first stirred in the spring of 1989 and, via the power of pictures, moved the world.