Rewind: Kent State? How Journalists Mangled Metaphors on the Tiananmen Square Massacre

June 4th, 2014 8:58 AM

On June 4, 1989, the communist regime in China cracked down violently on democratic protesters in Tiananmen Square. American networks had provided weeks of coverage of the protests, and the crackdown was a global outrage.

But both then and later, some national reporters embarrassed themselves by making odd comparisons between the communist crackdown and allegedly similar outrages in America:

On the overnight news-interview program Nightwatch on June 7, 1989, CBS reporter Eric Engberg may have shocked the night owls by comparing the Tiananmen massacre to the Sixties shooting incident with National Guard at Kent State.

“Given the traditions and the history of the PLA [People’s Liberation Army, the Chinese military], what will be the psychological effect on the troops and on the high command as a result of having been through this bloodbath? I mean, there are — I can think back to instances in history, let's say the Third Reich and the Nazi forces under Hitler, when the fact that you marched in and shot a bunch of unarmed civilians would have been considered a cause for celebration — nobody would have been embarrassed by it. Will the military leaders there be embarrassed by this? Will this be something like Kent State was for our military?”

On June 20, 1989, former NBC Nightly News anchorman John Chancellor uncorked one of his cock-eyed commentaries on his old broadcast, suggesting the massacre of Chinese students wasn’t quite as serious as a study of middle-school student development from the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development::

“Americans are properly outraged by the massacre of students in China. Thousands may have been gunned down in Beijing, but what about the millions of American kids whose lives are being ruined by an enormous failure of the country's educational system...Other countries are turning out better educated kids, and educated kids are the key to the future. We can and we should agonize about the dead students in Beijing, but we’ve got a bigger problem right here at home, which is commentary for this evening, Tom.”

Some other journalists misapplied the Tiananmen massacre for American protests with no deaths whatsoever, like the Stonewall riots of 1969:

"Stonewall became a symbol to gays the world over, their Bunker Hill, their Bastille, their Tiananmen Square." -- The late Time drama critic William A. Henry III on The MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour, June 27, 1994

And then-CNN owner Ted Turner echoed Engberg on Kent State in 1998:

"We are often judgmental about people that are different from us...and we don’t even understand what their problems are...A lot of students got killed at Tiananmen Square, but I remember several students got killed at Kent State. And, remember, they have a lot more students than we do. We shot down our own students." — Ted Turner promoting the new 24-part CNN documentary series Cold War, September 24 Washington Post.

Most recently, on October 16, 2011, New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman went overboard in comparing protests as he lionized Occupy Wall Street's Zuccotti Park campout in the same passage as Tiananmen Square: 

We tend to underestimate the political power of physical places. Then Tahrir Square comes along. Now it’s Zuccotti Park, until four weeks ago an utterly obscure city-block-size downtown plaza with a few trees and concrete benches, around the corner from ground zero and two blocks north of Wall Street on Broadway. A few hundred people with ponchos and sleeping bags have put it on the map. Kent State, Tiananmen Square, the Berlin Wall: we clearly use locales, edifices, architecture to house our memories and political energy. Politics troubles our consciences. But places haunt our imaginations.