Will the New York Times apologise for its Tiananmen coverage?

Beijing, China – January 15, 2015: A foggy day with tourists on Tiananmen square in Beijing

The New York Times has in recent years tried to redeem its reputation with a mea-culpa admission over its coverage of the blatantly transparent Iraq Weapons of Mass Destruction myth that enabled the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But over its key role earlier in cementing the Tiananmen Square horror story we have as yet had no admissions of guilt.

How come the New York Times has emerged as one of the key Cold War media warriors in recent years? It used to be a leader in mainstream progressive media.

We can pass over its harsh position on Ukraine now that the BBC, Guardian and other moderate Western media have all flip-flopped away from their earlier strong reporting about Ukraine Neo-Nazis and the 2014 Minsk agreements.

Once Moscow got involved in 2022 it was going to be ‘Russian aggression’ all the way.

But the New York Times had much earlier in 2003 also emerged as propagator-in-chief of Bush Jr’s blatantly transparent Iraq WMD myth. And before that it was the Tiananmen Square massacre myth.

Over Iraq, the NYT later tried to redeem itself with a mea-culpa admission of how and why it had gone wrong.

But over its badly mistaken role in cementing the Tiananmen Square myth we get no admissions of guilt.

On the contrary, this year it doubled down with a half-page article by Nicholas Kristof entitled ‘Remembering the Massacre.’

Some background: In 1989 after the events in and around Tiananmen Square on the night of June 3-4 the world was not quite sure what had happened, and why.

Initially the government had sent in unarmed soldiers to clear the Square. But anti-government elements had other ideas.

In an article on June 5, 1989, the Washington Post described how anti-government fighters had been organised into formations of 100-150 people. They were armed with Molotov cocktails and iron clubs, to meet the PLA who were still unarmed in the days prior to June 4.

This confused situation then suddenly turned violent with formerly well-behaved troops beginning to shoot wildly into crowds of civilians and student protestors in the highway leading to the Square. Presumably they were trying to get revenge for attacks by the anti-government groups. 

It was into this conflicted scene that the New York Times suddenly came out eight days later on June 12 with blaring headlines: TURMOIL IN CHINA; Student tells the Tiananmen Story: and Then, ‘Machine Guns Erupted.’

What followed was a bogus story by an alleged student taken from the anti-Beijing Hong Kong Chinese newspaper, Wen Wei Bao. There it was claimed the machine gunners had caused a massacre of students gathered around the Monument to the Peoples’ Heroes in the middle of the Square.

Somehow the massacre, and the bullets, had escaped the many foreigners gathered around the base of the same Monument, including a Spanish TVE television crew.

The story was so obviously false that even the NYT reporter on the scene, Nicholas Kristof, felt obliged to send a correction the next day (it was buried on page 8).

Regardless, this colourfully concocted story went round the world as final confirmation of a Tiananmen Square massacre.

The Spanish ambassador was so upset by the blatancy of the report that he wrote a book listing that and the many other Tiananmen distortions he saw (he was kind enough to send me a copy).

NYT continued to double down, mainly by frequent mention of ‘Tankman’ (photos of a man staring down a row of tanks) to remind us Tiananmen protestor bravery is still with us. Yet even here the paper of record manages to get it wrong.

The Tankman photographer, AP’s Jef Widener, insists his iconic photo was that of a passer-by simply waving a shopping bag in front of a row of stationary tanks going away from the Square on the day after, June 5. He says the day before he did see real brutality – someone pulled from his tank and murdered by the mobs.

NYT pushes on regardless. February last year it placed the Chinese characters for Guize in the middle of its front page saying they represented China’s goal to make over the world.

In fact to anyone who knew Chinese they meant no more than the word ’rule’ as in rules of the road.

In the Tiananmen anniversary article published last week, Kristof admits his paper was wrong with the location of the bogus June 12 massacre story. But he claims he watched for hours in the Square as the government ‘butchered the people’.

But accounts of government soldiers shooting into crowds say it was outside, not inside, the Square. And wild shooting is not quite butchery. If butchery is the issue we need go further than widely available photos of:

– corpses of dead government soldiers mutilated by unemployed louts and strung up on the sides of burned out buses for display to curious crowds,

— dozens of badly of badly burned soldiers hiding in doorways or sprawled on overpass staircases, some the last stages of death, but ignored by the crowds passing by.

— a charred corpse swinging from the Chongwenmen overpass under which crowds and traffic pass unconcernedly.

The badly burned soldiers have almost certainly emerged from the well-photographed rows of dozens of burned out troop busses and tanks still smouldering at assembly areas outside the Square.

And it is likely that the petrol bombs which caused this chaos probably came from outside sources. Chinese protestors were not known to have the ways to make and use petrol bombs in riots.

It is not difficult to reconstruct the scene. Initially the government had planned to pump in large numbers of unarmed soldiers to calm Square protesters.

But many were caught in the burning buses.

The government then on the night of June 3-4 sent in the armed soldiers determined to get revenge.

Wall Street Journal of June 4 sets the scene for the night before:

“As columns of tanks and tens of thousands soldiers approached Tiananmen many troops were set on by angry mobs … [D]ozens of soldiers were pulled from trucks, severely beaten and left for dead. At an intersection west of the square, the body of a young soldier, who had been beaten to death, was stripped naked and hung from the side of a bus. Another soldier’s corpse was strung at an intersection east of the square.”

Little wonder the soldiers wanted revenge.

The regime also had some responsibility for what happened. The presence of the unemployed louts and the seeming unconcern of the crowds towards their abuses were both legacies of earlier Cultural Revolution abuses. I saw something of this close up when I accidentally got caught up in Shanghai proletariat crowds years before Tiananmen.

Kristof ends by talking about a well-known Taiwan-based protestor, Hou Dejian, franatically persuading soldiers to allow students to leave the Square peacefully. He ignores Hou’s often quoted words:

“Some people said that 200 died in the Square and others claimed that as many as 2,000 died. There were also stories of tanks running over students who were trying to leave. I have to say that I did not see any of that. I myself was in the Square until 6:30 in the morning (of June 4).”

“I kept thinking,” he continued, “Are we going to use lies to attack an enemy who lies?”