Friday, June 6, 2014

Tiananmen Square Live

The student demonstrations at Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989 led to some of the most riveting television seen in the United States.  CBS News was the only broadcast network to provide live coverage, until the Chinese government forced us to shut down our satellite just hours before the military launched a full assault on the students.
Tiananmen Square
CBS Evening News anchorman Dan Rather and executive producer Tom Bettag had lobbied in April to anchor their broadcast from Beijing for Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's visit to China.   CBS News President David Burke approved the idea, I was his deputy at the time and I strongly urged that we commit.  The news division was under tremendous financial pressure from the company, so the decision to spend a couple million dollars was risky.

It took a large team of producers, reporters, cameramen, sound men, editors and fixers to provide coverage when the Evening News anchored overseas.  The logistics were complicated, and the set up was challenging.  But all was ready when Gorbachev arrived in May.
Student Demonstration
By the time he arrived thousands of students had gathered at Tiananmen Square to voice their demands for change, more freedom and democracy.  The student uprising, supported by many citizens, eclipsed the Gorbachev visit and created a real problem for China's paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping.  Deng mobilized the army, calling in units from around the country.
Deng Xiaoping
CBS News provided live coverage of the protests, which had grown to more than one million people, with Dan Rather anchoring live from Tiananmen Square.  Our competition, NBC News and ABC News, was not anchoring from China.  Viewers in the United States, and around the world, watched CBS News as a nation struggled for its future.  Rather was outstanding, and the CBS team worked tirelessly and courageously to provide round-the-clock coverage for Americans.   A special bond builds among a team of journalists when covering a dangerous and historic news event.  Everyone's work excels, despite lack of sleep and chaotic conditions.

I remained in the CBS New York control room most of the time, coordinating coverage and network break-ins.   On a Friday night  a Chinese official came to our office and demanded that we shut down our live satellite.  Dan Rather and Lane Venardos, the producer in charge in Beijing, negotiated with the official.  I ordered that network programming be interrupted during the 10pm ET hour so all of America could watch as Venardos and Rather negotiated with the official.
Dan Rather
The program I interrupted was Dallas, television's most popular show.  In was the season finale, so viewership was enormous.  But I felt that the events unfolding nearly 7,000 miles from New York were incredibly important and made amazing television.  

It became clear to me that to defy the Chinese government would put the CBS News team at risk.  Many could be arrested and even harmed.  I decided that CBS News would comply with the request to shut down the satellite.  ("Dan Rather Remembers" video.)

As11pm ET approached, I instructed Venardos to tell the official we would comply with the government's order.  But I asked that we be able to shut down the satellite at 11:25pm, during the late local newscasts, which were airing in most of the country.  The official agreed.  

I then had a programming alert sent out to all of our affiliates so that they would inform their viewers about our upcoming special report.   I also asked our press department to inform other news organizations.  As it turned out the delay allowed us to air graphic new footage of the carnage.

At the appointed time Dan Rather appeared live from Beijing, across our network, and explained to viewers that CBS News had been ordered to shut down its live Satellite.  With a handful of CBS News staff watching, he then signed off, "this is Dan Rather reporting live from Beijing," turned to the satellite operator and instructed him to kill the satellite.

In the days that followed, hundreds, perhaps thousands of Chinese students and supporters, were massacred by Chinese troops. (Video by Brian Robbins, CBS NEWS)  Tiananmen Square was emptied.  The full force of Marshall Law was being imposed on everyone.  Citizens lived in fear for their lives.  The elation and hope of the democracy movement had been crushed in a bloody siege by China's authoritarian regime.   
Iconic Image
The iconic image from the student uprising was of a man, holding plastic shopping bags, standing in front of a tank column blocking its forward movement.   Today, the fate of that man is unknown.  The Tiananmen Square uprising is also unknown to most young Chinese, it is not mentioned in school, nor on television.  Twenty-five years later the Chinese government censured the Internet and social media during the anniversary period.  

The Chinese government may try to erase the events at Tiananmen Square from history, but it will never be forgotten by those of us a CBS News who covered the tragedy.      

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