The response by President George Bush to the indiscriminate killing of students in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square was quick and in two parts. The first was a condemnation addressed to China’s leaders; the second, addressed to his fellow Americans, was an appeal to dampen down what he called “emotion.” In effect, Bush asked not to be pressed to do more by a public aroused by the sight of tumult and the crackling sound of gunfire in the firelit dark of a capital on the other side of the world.
Television made both parts imperative. Robert Fulford, in his book Best Seat in the House, described what “must be, for broadcasters, the central fact of the McLuhan age: television leaves us with feelings and impressions rather than facts and arguments— though facts and arguments must be there as well.” There are various illustrations of television playing on public emotion to political effect—in the civil rights struggle in the U.S. South in the early 1960s, for instance; in the Vietnam War, frequently referred to in the United States as “the first war to be brought
into the living rooms of the nation,” and in the famine in Ethiopia, which produced a worldwide humanitarian response.
But in those earlier instances, there were factors at work that had nothing to do with an objective view of events. Both the civil rights issue and the Vietnam War were close to home, not just for the United States tyut for its friends as well. The images of big-eyed Ethiopian children with swollen bellies in advanced stages of malnutrition was something to which humane people anywhere had to respond. The depiction of strife in China, on the other hand, reflects a wholly internal affair of a country that not long ago was considered by many people in the West as a suspect, if not actually malignant, force in the world. There was not much sympathy wasted on troubles in China.
Thirsty: Television’s power to influence is exerted in two ways—directly by giving its viewers the feeling of being in touch with the people, indirectly by affecting the news-play of editors in other media. Television creates an expectation that viewers will find more detail to follow in their newspapers and newsmagazines, and, if they are sufficiently thirsty for information, eventually in books.
A quick check of 11 major newspapers across Canada last week confirmed the expected— that the China story had been on page 1, and top of the page most days, for at least the previous six days. The same will surely have been true in every Western country. It would not have been true in a pretelevision era. Partly because both travel and communications were slower, a foreign story that could command that uniformity of top placement, lacking direct domestic implications, would have been a rare thing indeed. Now, television
networks everywhere decide what is the news that counts.
What has also happened is that people, seemingly everywhere, have learned how to use
television to reach others abroad and to invoke responses that will
embarrass their own governments. This they learned from having seen tapes, or having been told about the techniques that worked in civil rights and peace demonstrations in the United States. Patently, the students in Tiananmen Square did not erect a Statue of Liberty to persuade China’s leaders directly to enter into talks on reforms. Neither were signs in English meant for domestic consumption. Those things attract the cameras, as do demonstrations in the streets themselves, and the cameras carry the message to the world.
Clear: Something that has become strikingly clear is that the students—far better than the old men who are China’s leaders—understand television and how to use it. Some of the students know English and have not been hesitant to speak it. China’s leaders went into seclusion and said next to nothing in public in any language—until leader Deng Xiaoping emerged to congratulate the troops late last week—and the world was left with nothing to do except to speculate on what was happening.
In 1962,1 was in Oxford, Miss., on the night the first black student was forcibly installed at Ole Miss, the then-whiter-than-white university, amid scenes of riots and under clouds of tear gas. Two persons were killed on the campus that night. Even so, one of the worst sights was the attack by students on a station wagon, carrying the insignia of a TV network, a man and woman inside. The students kicked it, beat on it with fists and boards, and eventually rocked it violently, trying to turn it over, while the couple inside held on to the door handles in terror. The car was attacked not because of the occupants, who presumably were white southerners like the students themselves, but because the insignia identified it with the means by which the students would be exposed to the world as the madmen they had become. In the end, of course, they were exposed—in the act of venting their frustration. The students in Tiananmen Square would have known that instinctively. The old men did not.
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