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HOWARD ROSENBERG

News Coverage Highlights China's Video Revolution

June 16, 1989|HOWARD ROSENBERG

On the screen Wednesday night was Ted Koppel in Beijing.

Watching the screen Wednesday night was Steve Futterman in Los Angeles.

Only recently, it had been almost the reverse: Koppel was doing ABC's "Nightline" from his usual New York base, and Futterman was grabbing occasional glimpses of America on the television set in his Beijing hotel room when he wasn't on the streets covering one of the major stories of the decade.

What a difference 48 hours made.

"There was a little bit of surrealism as I saw the latest footage from Tian An Men Square," said Futterman, a reporter for NBC/Mutual Radio, who had just returned from three weeks of intense China duty that included witnessing the military's bloody repression of protesting masses.

Most of all, Futterman was happy to be back in the United States with his wife and young son. On another level, however, he sat in his suburban home watching "Nightline," feeling the immediate past merge with the present and thinking: "I was there. The story was five minutes away from me on a walk. I'm on the 11th floor. Let me go outside the hotel. Let me take a walk through the city. The story is still going on and I should be there."

But now others were there. Reflecting the increasing difficulty in transmitting from China these days, Wednesday's "Nightline" was glitch-ridden. Koppel's interview of two American journalists expelled by the Chinese--supported by still pictures of himself and them transformed from videotape--was prematurely halted when the audio went dead.

Switching to a phone, Koppel then interviewed syndicated columnist Anthony Lewis, who was on camera in Boston. ABC had Forrest Sawyer standing by to conduct the Lewis interview from New York had communications with Koppel failed completely.

If not smooth, it was an interesting program, noting at once the limits--and amazing powers--of TV. There were, of course, the latest chilling revelations that the Chinese government was using foreign TV footage to track down student leaders. There was also the latest on Chinese TV's present role as a revisionist historian, either softening or obliterating the awful truth of recent events in China.

In a very different way, however, TV's influence had been evident much earlier. As Lewis pointed out, "The very fact of the world watching (pro-democracy demonstrations by students in China) was having an impact on the reality."

Futterman agrees. "The students were so clever and so media-savvy," he said. "Many of the leaders had been to the U.S. and had seen the media machine work, and they knew the game. They knew we were there, and they knew exactly what they were doing."

He recalled the night, about a week before the crackdown, that the students erected the "Goddess of Democracy" in the square. "There was a whole gang of reporters there, and none of us spoke Chinese. So they had this girl doing all this stuff on the P.A. and speaking English just to keep us aware of what was happening. And after each line, she would add, 'Thanks a lot,' as if she were saying, 'Have a nice day.' "

The students announced the start of their final hunger strike by issuing two press releases, moreover. One in Chinese, the other in English.

It's true that media awareness is ever expanding, giving birth to a generation of video commandos who become the unofficial eyes of TV in places where access is restricted.

"The video revolution has made the world so much smaller that you now have these amateurs taking their little video cameras everywhere, and then leaking stuff to the press," said Futterman, who may be right in attributing growing media consciousness worldwide largely to the global reach of CNN.

"They seem to have given the world a certain mindset about news," he said. "When I go to Poland, my brother-in-law wants to know about (CNN Headline News anchor) Bobbie Battista."

Given that mindset, the Chinese government's decision to not impose total censorship booting out all of the foreign press remains a puzzle. "It's so easy for them to get rid of us," Futterman said. "They know where we are. They know what hotels we're at. Why they have allowed us to stay there is a mystery."

Another mystery is whether the fickle media--especially network TV, with its limited minutes and intolerance for nonviolent international news--will eventually tire of the China story without having to be expelled. Just as Central America, South Africa and other hot spots rise and fall in the public mind depending on media access and coverage, so too may China and bittersweet memories of Tien An Men Square.

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