Iconic June 5, 1989, photo of a protester standing in front of tanks at
Tiananmen Square. He was pulled away by bystanders. (Jeff Widener/Associated Press)
Streissguth FRIDAY, MAY 30, The weary Chinese protesters sensed the end was near. Network had only broadcast coming out of Beijing during height of protests. After seven weeks of anti-government demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, a stench hung over their damp tents and flaccid banners. Only the “Goddess of Liberty,” a makeshift statue erected by students just days earlier, still gleamed, rallying the hopeful. But the government was fast losing patience with the massive uprising. A complete copy of the article may be downloaded by clicking on: How CBS scooped the world on the Tiananmen Square story
By June 3, it had imposed martial law and ordered soldiers to points around Beijing where they prepared to advance. Warnings crackled from loudspeakers surrounding the square, imploring the occupiers to go home. In the early morning of June 4, tanks rumbled into Tiananmen, followed by soldiers wielding guns and clubs. Students hurled bricks and molotov cocktails, but their resistance was like paper.
As the military rampaged, CBS News correspondent Richard Roth narrated the scene over a cellphone to the network’s New York headquarters. The shadows of a side street protected him until a soldier lunged at his cameraman, Derek Williams, and heaved his camera into the street. Roth, still clutching the phone, guns thundering in the background, described their dash to a safer position. Then the line died. A dial tone filled the control room in New York while an engineer there cried out for a response.
AN INSIDER’S ACCOUNT. NPR’s China correspondent Louisa Lim will describe the history and horror at Tiananmen Square and its legacy in a program Tuesday by the Smithsonian Associates. Lim will also sign her book “The People’s Republic of Amnesia.”Admission is$25 for non members. 6:45-8:15 p.m.at S. Dillon Ripley Centre, 1100 Jefferson Dr. SW. The producer who had dispatched Roth, Peter Schweitzer, heard the aborted report from CBS’s Beijing office. “I’m listening to it go around the world, and I think, ‘I just sent my friend into harm’s way, and he’s been killed.’ ”
After a tense night in army custody, Roth and Williams surfaced unscathed, but 2,000 to 3,000 people died in Beijing at the hands of their military, many shot in the back trying to flee. The horror of a government attacking its people would resurface decades later during the Arab Spring and then, more recently, in Syria and Kiev. But this was 1989,25 years ago. When it was all over, that uprising crumbled into oblivion.
It was a monumental drama that played out on televisions around the world. In America, millions turned to “CBS Evening News” to follow the Chinese awakening and subsequent crackdown: Anchored by Dan Rather and produced by Tom Bettag, it was the only show of its kind originating from Beijing during the height of the protests.
CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather, left, with executive producer Tom Bettag in Tiananmen Square about a week into the protests. (Courtesy of Tom Bettag). Tiananmen was the biggest story yet of the post-Vietnam War era.
It would prove to be a redemptive chapter in the history of CBS and a celebration of broadcast television news before the spectacular rise of cable news during the Persian Gulf War less than two years later.