Rather's Coup in China

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor. Former Monitor television critic Arthur Unger is now special correspondent for Television Quarterly, the journal of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

CBS News is crowing again. The network of Edward R. Murrow is waxing nostalgic about once more being in the forefront of television news. The network has been shooting off symbolic Chinese firecrackers in celebration of its recent historic coverage of the student revolution in China's Tiananmen Square - while its major opposition, NBC and ABC, were caught off guard in New York.

CBS News, battling ABC in a seesaw struggle for dinner-hour news dominance, had not had much to crow about recently except for its extensive coverage of Japan during the Japanese emperor's funeral. So a few print television journalists recently chatted with ``CBS Nightly News'' anchor Dan Rather shortly after he returned from Beijing.

Mr. Rather, still a bit tired from the ordeal, made no effort to hide his exultation.

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``Long ago and far away, when I dreamed of being a reporter,'' he said, ``this is the kind of story I dreamed of covering. This is why one gets in the business. This is why one stays in the business..., the hope against hope that you will get this kind of story.''

Although Rather makes no claim to being a China expert - he says he has been there six or seven times - he states that the more often he goes, ``the more I come to realize that there aren't any China experts.''

He is willing, however, to summarize what he believes the story is all about: ``Will the center hold and what is the center to be?''

About accusations that the television cameras were influencing the story in Beijing, he utters an unexpurgated Texas expletive: ``Horsefeathers!

``This is not a story in which the presence of the television cameras changed the story in any significant way. In this instance the medium is not the message; the message is the message. And the message is that huge numbers of the Chinese people know that Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism doesn't work; they have had a gutful of it and are demanding a change.''

He is disdainful about the media's ability to discern media manipulation. ``Those of us in television are so accustomed to phony events that are staged for the cameras that it is increasingly difficult for us to recognize an authentic event with people of integrity. We're too quick to fall into the easy thing of saying, `Oh well, they did it for television.'

``Well, in this instance it simply isn't true. What is happening there in Tiananmen Square would be happening whether television cameras were there or not ... very much as it has unfolded.''

Anticipating the inevitable accusations that the TV coverage encouraged the demonstrators to perform, he adds: ``However, I am not here to argue that there was no influence by the presence of foreign cameras. All I can do is bear witness to what I believe to be the facts - that it's an error to believe that this is one of those situations that surfaced because of our TV coverage and was staged mostly for our cameras.''

Rather has another theory about the influence of TV. ``Where TV affected what's happening in China the most is in this way: The Chinese have only recently begun to get television programs from the West. When enough Chinese people began to see `Falcon Rest,' which is popular for reasons that escape me, and shows like `Hunter,' the cumulative effect of these commercial entertainment television programs was great.''

According to Rather, the Chinese began to realize how other people live and to demand some upgrading of their own system.

Although most Chinese still do not have access to TV screens, many students and intellectuals have far more access than they have ever had.

``I do think it has had an effect,'' Rather says. ``The Chinese themselves will tell you this. Diplomats both Eastern and Western in Beijing will make this point. The thought occurs to me that it is not unlike, in some degree, what happened here in the civil rights movement. Before TV, many black people did not realize how good a lot of the rest of us had it. Once they began to see it on TV, I believe that was one of the factors that ignited the civil rights movement.''

Rather is proud of what CBS did in China. ``We in the United States pride ourselves on being people who can adapt to change. We are being put to another test in Asia today - to recognize rapid change elsewhere. ... I think coverage such as ours helps people understand how rapidly things are changing.''

He was stunned at the great interest in the story when he returned to the US.

``I am still zombie-eyed, but it is clear to me that I underestimated what effect this story would have on the American people. Sure, there are a lot of people who still don't care about China, and I am aware that a lot of people complained about our going into `Dallas' and `Falcon Rest' time. But an awful lot of people latched on to the Chinese story and, maybe for the first time, made contact points with China.

``Of all the major countries of the world, China is the least known to Americans. For a lot of Americans our coverage in the past weeks was a crash course in the reality of China today.''

Rather says he feels a bit uneasy about living up to the ideals of the Chinese students. He doesn't hesitate to mix a metaphor when he states: ``They understand, maybe even better than we do, the power of America as an ideal. It brings a tear to your heart.''

According to Rather, the students fight against corruption, nepotism, and cronyism in government. ``They are arguing for meritocracy. It's one of the things they admire most about the US. They believe we have, by and large, a meritocracy, although you and I can argue about that a bit. But the point is: They believe it.

``It is so refreshing and moving to find young people who know what it is they believe and who know what it is they are willing to die for.''

Will Dan Rather be going back to China soon?

He shrugs and looks over at CBS News president David Burke, who has been listening carefully. Mr. Burke explains that it depends upon events in the rest of the world. Panama, Nicaragua, etc.

Rather doesn't say a word, but the look in his eye and the commitment he has just expressed reads: ``You bet I will!''

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