A common response to this corrective analysis is: So what? The Chinese army killed many innocent people that night. Who cares exactly 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.
But consider what is lost by not giving an accurate account of what happened, and what such sloppiness says to Chinese who are trying to improve their press organs by studying ours. The problem is not so much putting the murders in the wrong place, but suggesting that most of the victims were students. Black and Munro say “what took place was the slaughter not of students but of ordinary workers and residents — precisely the target that the Chinese government had intended.” They argue that 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.
It is hard to find a journalist who has not contributed to the misimpression. Rereading my own stories published after Tiananmen, I found several references to the “Tiananmen massacre.” At the time, I considered this space-saving shorthand. I assumed the reader would know that I meant the massacre that occurred in Beijing after the Tiananmen demonstrations. But my fuzziness helped keep the falsehood alive. Given enough time, such rumors can grow even larger and more distorted. When a journalist as careful and well-informed as Tim Russert, NBC’s Washington bureau chief, can fall prey to the most feverish versions of the fable, the sad consequences of reportorial laziness become clear. On May 31 on Meet the Press, Russert referred to “tens of thousands” of deaths in Tiananmen Square.
The facts of Tiananmen have been known for a long time. When Clinton visited the square this June, both The Washington Post and The New York Times explained that no one died there during the 1989 crackdown. But these were short explanations at the end of long articles. I doubt that they did much to kill the myth.
Not only has the error made the American press’s frequent pleas for the truth about Tiananmen seem shallow, but it has allowed the bloody-minded regime responsible for the June 4 murders to divert attention from what happened. There was a massacre that morning. Journalists have to be precise about where it happened and who were its victims, or readers and viewers will never be able to understand what it meant.