The Myth of Tiananmen
Jude Wanniski
September 15, 1998

 

Memo To: Tim Russert, NBC TV, "Meet the Press"
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Slaughter on the Square

I hope you saw the lead article in the September/October issue of Columbia Journalism Review on "The Myth of Tiananmen And the Price of a Passive Press." It's by Jay Mathews, a first-rate reporter for The Washington Post, who was the Post's first Beijing bureau chief. He returned to Beijing in 1989 to help cover the Tiananmen demonstrations. The point of his piece was that nine years after the fact, the story of the slaughter gets worse as it goes along. He quotes you as having noted on the May 31 edition of "Meet the Press" that there were "tens of thousands" of deaths on the Square that day, when in fact there is no evidence that anyone died on the Square that day. The myth began with a spurious account of students being mowed down by machine guns that was picked up a week after the day's events by The New York Times, but Mathews notes the Times has since noted that lack of evidence of even one death. "Hundreds of people, most of them workers, and passersby, did die that night, but in a different place and under different circumstances. The Chinese government estimates more than 300 fatalities. Western estimates are somewhat higher. Many victims were shot by soldiers on stretches of Changan Jie, the Avenue of Eternal Peace, about a mile west of the square, and in scattered confrontations in other parts of the city, where, it should be added, a few soldiers were beaten or burned to death by angry workers."

It would be good of you to correct the record for your audience, Tim, not that you are the only reporter who has gotten it wrong, but that Mathews found yours the most exaggerated and quoted it in the CJR. This is a time for confession, contrition and penance in our nation's capital. As Mathews puts it, the fact that the Chinese army did kill many innocent people that night is terrible enough. "Who cares where the atrocities took place? That is an understandable, and emotionally satisfying, reaction. Many of us feel bile rising in our throats at any attempt to justify what the Chinese leadership and a few army commanders did that night... The problem is not so much putting the murders in the wrong place, but suggesting that most of the victims were students... [The] government was out to suppress a rebellion of workers, who were much more numerous and had much more to be angry about than the students. This was the larger story that most of us overlooked or underplayed."

The most important point Mathews makes, at least in my opinion, is that at a time when we are trying to provide a role model for the Chinese on matters of free press and First Amendment freedoms, it is discouraging to realize they see in our news media universal accounts of what went on in their own country that are false. This is the service the Columbia Journalism Review provides, and it is one that suggests a correction from you in that light. We all have to acknowledge that in the last half century of war, recession and inflation, a sloppiness and laziness has crept into the national culture that has touched us all not only the President. I encourage you to take the lead and do a "Meet the Press" minute on Tiananmen. Father Jude, in fact, gives you that as your penance.

P.S. A few years back, at a meeting with the Chinese ambassador, I told him that I would reveal one of the secrets to our success. I asked him why he thought the United States was first in telecommunications in the world, first in entertainment, first in the quality of our motion pictures, and first in the political world. I said it was the First Amendment to the Constitution. And he should read the Federalist to understand why. When everyone has the freedom to say whatever they want, as loudly as they want, and as fast as they want, the population makes a lot more noise than in countries where they have to watch their tongues but they solve their internal problems faster too. Families that talk a lot around the dinner table are more successful even where voices are raised from time to time ~ than those who eat separately.

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