Letters

UNDER NO INFLUENCE

Nicholas Stein’s “Banana Peel” (CJR, September/ October) provided an excellent summary of the Chiquita affair. But as the foreign editor and an editorial writer at The Cincinnati Enquirer from 1967 to 1976, and as business editor from 1977 to 1979, I raise my eyebrows at the assertion that “even after Carl [Lindner] sold [the Enquirer] in 1975, the paper’s editorial stance continued to mirror his business and personal interests.” The Enquirer’s conservative politics needed no such influencing. As business editor, at a time when Lindner’s American Financial Corporation was under scrutiny by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the subject of a somewhat successful class-action lawsuit over his decision to return the company to private status, no one ever told me how to cover the story or even suggested that it be handled in any way that would favor Lindner interests. Carl Lindner’s opposition to discussion of his business affairs in the news media was as strong then as it is now. That made the story harder to report, but we did a decent job -better than anyone else in Cincinnati at the time.

SCOTT AIKEN Scott Aiken Public Relations Cincinnati, Ohio

AUTODIDACTICISM?

Your article on Keith Bradsher, “Awards and Anguish for a Driven Reporter” (CJR, September/October), is just as silly as his practice of showing up at press conferences with tape measures to determine the bumper heights of light trucks. Bumper heights, alone, tell you nothing about a vehicle’s aggressivity- the potential damage it can do to another vehicle and its occupants in a crash. A bumper can be low, yet conceal a structure that can be deadly in a crash, depending on the size discrepancy of the vehicles colliding.

Similarly, your story misses the point. The issue, as I told the writer, is whether the available evidence shows that sport-utility models are causing increased mayhem on the nation’s roads. The answer, so far, is “No.” Numbers from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, and preliminary research by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, indicate as much.

Also, it is a flat-out fallacy that automakers are redesigning light trucks – in response to The New York Times’s campaign. I challenge anyone at CJR or the Times to come up with tangible proof -timetables, development and design schedules, etc. -supporting that argument. What you will find is that the changes going into new light trucks had been in the works as long as three or four years ago, well before the media’s frenzy over light-truck safety.

WARREN BROWN Automotive writer The Washington Post Washington, D.C.

EXAGGERATED NEWS

In “The Death of Radio Reporting” (CJR, September/October), Larry Grossman claims that among Washington radio stations, only WTOP and public station WAMU provide “serious news.” The fact is, WMAL’s news department has provided not only serious news, but Washington’s highest-rated radio news for decades.

Grossman refers to last spring’s Chesapeake AP news competition, but neglects to mention that WMAL won six awards in that competition, including best newscast, best enterprise reporting, best spot news reporting, and outstanding news operation. Grossman didn’t mention that WMAL has a staff of reporters covering news in Washington daily- or that the AP has named WMAL the best radio news operation in Washington for thirteen of the last sixteen years.

JOHN BUTLER Operations manager, WMAL Washington, D.C.

There is one small but significant word missing in a quote from me in the article on radio reporting by my friend and former boss, Larry Grossman. I am quoted as saying, “WTOP is usually the only radio station with a reporter on the scene because it’s the only commercial radio station in town that still employs reporters.” The word “practically” should have been included before the word “only.” It is true that WTOP reporters usually find they are the only radio reporters on the scene when news breaks. However, two other commercial radio stations (WMAL, WHUR) do indeed employ radio reporters.

JIM FARLEY Program director, WTOP Washington, D.C.

WHO LOST POL POT?

Your July/August story suggesting that Pol Pot may have been killed by the Khmer Rouge because of a New York Times report about U.S. plans to capture him – or, more accurately, about U.S. discussions on plans to possibly consider attempting an effort to think about capturing him – fails to apply skepticism in the appropriate places.

Pol Pot died at 73, more than twenty years after the worst of the Khmer Rouge’s crimes, and well into Bill Clinton’s second term as president; suddenly it was a burning priority of the Clinton administration to bring the man to justice? Note that the Clinton administration took no action when Pol Pot was actually in custody, held under house arrest by the Khmer Rouge, last year. When his location was known, and there was no question that he would be going anywhere for a while, journalist Nate Thayer found Pol Pot – and the U.S. government didn’t.

Also, if the Khmer Rouge was really so concerned about the possibility that Pol Pot could testify in a war crimes trial about the crimes of other members, would they really have held him under house arrest in the first place? Would they ever have allowed a reporter to have access to him? These aren’t people who are at all shy about violence; if they were genuinely frightened by the possibility that Pol Pot would share what he knew with the rest of the world, one suspects he would have been dead a long, long time ago.

As for the assertion that the Times story “doubtless reach(ed) the mountainous hinterland where Pol Pot and the remaining Khmer Rouge fighters were hiding,” I would love to see CJR’s evidence that this is so. Think they picked it up at the newsstand with their morning cappuccino, or did they plug their laptop into an ISDN line and read it online?

The U.S., and the rest of the world, left Pol Pot to walk free for two-plus decades after he led some truly staggering acts of inhumanity. The complaint- we would have done something if that darn news media hadn’t screwed it all up – is an effort to shift the blame. Shameful.

CHRIS BRAY Free-lance writer Santa Monica, California

DISPELLING MYTHS

Jay Mathews blackens his good name as an ex-China reporter with “The Myth of Tiananmen” (CJR, September/October). He gets his facts wrong and hence his conclusion, while traducing his colleagues who risked their lives to get the story. At least he admits he wasn’t in the square. I recall his bewilderment on the morning of June 4, 1989, when he asked me to tell him what I had seen.

Mathews’s piece must be judged on one phrase: “as far as can be determined from the available evidence, no one died that night in Tiananmen Square.”

His own evidence appears to rest wholly on the account by George Black and Robin Munro, in their excellent Black Hands of Beijing. But all they say, and all they could see, was that the students jammed around the Martyr’s Memorial early on the morning of June 4 were not killed. I believe them. But like all of us, the authors’ view was limited by the size of the square and the tumult.

Late on the night of June 3, I was in front of the Forbidden City where the huge Mao portrait hangs over the Tiananmen gate. While some of the People’s Armed Police were beating me up, others were shooting demonstrators whom they had clubbed to the ground. Minutes earlier the army had fired directly into the same crowd and the man next to me fell over with a red stain on his white tee-shirt. I cannot swear that all the victims I saw shot died. I hope not.

Nor was I alone. Mathews attempts to discredit “massacre” stories by quoting a story in The New York Times by Nicholas D. Kristof disputing exaggerated reports of deaths. But in his and Sheryl WuDunn’s China Wakes, Kristof describes seeing troops in the square firing into a crowd in which some people “fell to the ground, wounded or dead.” He saw more firing during the next two hours, “and more people fell to the ground.” He witnessed rickshaw drivers “bravely facing the soldiers, to pick up the dead and wounded.” To be sure, Kristof states “there was no huge massacre of students within Tiananmen Square itself.” Most of the killing, he says, went on elsewhere. I agree. So does Mathews. But killing in the square? Absolutely.

Then there is the account by the Toronto Globe and Mail’s veteran Chinareporter Jan Wong, in her Red China Blues. This is the best eyewitness reporting I have seen of what happened in the square. Wong and Cathy Sampson of The Times (London) lay on a balcony of the Peking Hotel, with their notebooks and watches, looking across into the square. Wong’s description is long and detailed. Three examples will serve: on June 4 at 2:14 A.M ., she saw “a murderous volley” into a dense crowd. At 2:23 tanks “fired their machine guns at the crowds.” At 3:12 “there was a tremendous round of gunfire …. The soldiers strafed ambulances and shot medical workers trying to rescue the wounded …. Between 3:15 and 3:231 counted eighteen pedicabs pass me carrying dead and wounded.”

I know Wong to be a reliable witness because later that morning, starting at 9:46, she on a balcony, I on the street below, watched soldiers outside the Peking Hotel fire into a large unarmed crowd a two-minute trot from Tiananmen. Wong counted three volleys and twenty bodies. Altogether that morning she recorded “eight long murderous volleys. . . Dozens died before my eyes.”

JONATHAN MIRSKY London, England

Mirsky, a former China correspondent for the London Observer, received the 1989 British Press award, International Reporter of the Year,”for his Tiananmen reporting. Mathews replies: When an astute observer and generous colleague like Jonathan Mirsky misses my point, I know I have not made it well enough. Let me try again. All the accounts he cites are by splendid reporters. Nothing in my piece was intended to deny or demean their work in any way. As I said, people were murdered on streets near the square. I remember in particular Jonathan’s account when he first told it to me later that day and I share his rage at what happened.

My concern was not the reporting of Jonathan or other genuine eyewitnesses. The myth I attacked was the widespread image of Chinese troops mowing down student demonstrators at their encampment in the square. That false impression has tainted many accounts of Tiananmen by journalists who were not there. It has so far resisted attempts to correct it in newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post Jonathan is not defending that myth, and I am sorry if I gave him the impression that I thought the great bulk of the reporting that night was not first-rate. He also does not defend the misimpression that most of the murdered citizens were students.

American commentators have latched onto that notion because it fits our preconception of what a democratic uprising should be in a country like China. As far as anyone can tell, most of the victims that night were workers like the rickshaw drivers Jonathan mentions. As I tried to say, it is less important to know where the killings took place than who died and why.

Copyright Columbia University, Graduate School of Journalism Nov/Dec 1998

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