Bernard Shaw, the Tiananmen Crackdown, and the CNN Effect
Bernard Shaw, who for twenty years was CNN’s top anchor, died on September 8, his death largely overshadowed by the passing of Queen Elizabeth the same day. Shaw is best remembered for his live reporting of the start of the first Gulf War in 1991. But he played an equally crucial role in CNN’s groundbreaking live coverage of Chinese government’s crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989–a watershed moment both in the network’s rise to prominence and in shifting American perceptions of China.
I spoke at length with Shaw for my forthcoming book, Assignment China: An Oral History of American Journalists in the People’s Republic. Like the anchors from other networks, Shaw was in Beijing because Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was making a state visit to bring thirty years of animosity between China and the Soviet Union to an end.
These two great powers in the communist world finally deciding to meet in Beijing and settle this decades-long dispute. Very historic. Because CNN was a global network on the air twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, we had to be there.
By occupying Tiananmen Square, however, the students literally stole the stage where the pomp and ceremony of the Gorbachev visit was to take place. Instead, CNN’s live coverage showed unprecedented scenes of protest.
These protesters wanted respect. They wanted freedom of expression, an end to corruption. What they wanted threatened the Communist Party.
On Friday, May 19, 1989, a day after Gorbachev’s departure, the Party declared martial law in Beijing. But crowds of civilians blocked troops from reaching the city center.
As an anchor, I always strove to maintain calmness. The more intense the story, the more I ratchet down. When you show emotion on television, it’s exaggerated, and I knew the whole world was watching our coverage. But I almost lost it. When I learned that martial law had been declared, I could feel rage. I was, trying to control that rage, so it wouldn’t be shown on camera. I had an emotion thermometer in my head, and as the day dawned that thermometer started rising. The emotion of reporting civilians swarming around army trucks loaded with troops who were armed to the teeth, stopping them in their tracks, and telling them, “You are us. Don’t go to the Square. Don’t shoot us. You are our brothers.” I didn’t want anyone to accuse CNN of being biased, but I became emotional. But to me, the dagger in the chest was when the Chinese government said, “CNN, stop what you have been doing.”
At 9 a.m. on Saturday, May 20, 1989, two Chinese officials entered CNN’s workspace at the Great Wall Sheraton Hotel and ordered the network to stop its live transmissions. What followed became one of the most memorable moments in the history of television news. CNN managed to hook up a camera—and suddenly the standoff was being shown on live TV around the world.
To have a government official walk into your control room and say, “Stop what you are doing,” I just felt raging resentment. I couldn’t show it on the air, but my hand literally was shaking. At one point, Atlanta sent word to Beijing that President Bush was watching. So here was one capital reacting to another capital, not through diplomatic channels, but solely on what was seen and heard in live CNN coverage. Extraordinary. I think you could say that was the beginning of the “CNN effect,” whereby time is truncated and reactions and decisions are made based on events as they’re happening in real time.
Then Secretary of State James Baker, who was Secretary of State in 1989, told me “Tiananmen was the first example of the power of the global technological revolution, the power of the media to drive policy.”
Just before the Chinese pulled the plug, Shaw, calm as ever, noted that “we came to cover a summit and walked into a revolution” and then signed off by saying, “In my twenty-six years in this business, I have never seen anything like this. For all the hard-working men and women of CNN, goodbye from Beijing.” The director dissolved to a shot of a protester in Tiananmen Square, and the screen went to black.
That night, when I got back to the hotel, I wept. Why was I crying? I was angry that no longer could we do our jobs. And I also thought about being a citizen of the United States of America. I’m a child of democracy. Freedom is all I’ve known. And after those days of protest, of high emotion, of pleading for recognition and respect, and knowing that eventually these aged Chinese leaders are going to crack down on these young people.
Two weeks later, the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square.
Mike Chinoy was CNN’s first Beijing bureau chief. He is currently a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the University of Southern California’s U.S.-China Institute based in Taipei. His new book, Assignment China: An Oral History of American Journalists in the People’s Republic, will be published by Columbia University Press in March 2023.