June 4, 1989

BEIJING — Dozens of Chinese college students.  Children.  

They sought me out with their faxes in May and June, 1989, to tell me what was happening in the world’s largest public square.  They knew of the Christian Science Monitor’s unbiased international reporting.  They somehow knew the identity of the Monitor’s senior international news editor responsible for directing its Asia coverage from the newspaper’s Boston headquarters.  That was me.

At that time I had a Chinese fiancé, was taking Mandarin-language coursework at Harvard University, having regular meetings at Boston’s Chinese Consulate, and having daily conversations with America’s leading Sinologists.  

The Tiananmen Square students knew if China’s Communist Party authorities learned of their faxes and discovered their identities, they and their faxes would be forever “disappeared.”   I knew that too; the personal life-and-death bravery their faxes to me displayed showed how important it was to them that the Monitor, and hence the world, know of their story.   It was a story of how their government was trying to silence their pro-democracy requests. 

READ MORE: Is Chinese-style surveillance coming to the west?

Their faxes told of what was happening in and around the world’s largest square, Tiananmen Square, a one-square-mile public open space in a nation anything but public and open.  Early faxes told of thousands of young people increasingly descending on the square.  Later faxes described the rifles-bearing soldiers, mostly young rural boys, coming to the square.  And then there was the shooting.  And the tanks.  And the massacre of the nation’s university children by its soldier children.  By comparison, it made the 1970s Kent State University killings of four students by America’s young National Guardsmen look like kids’ play.

Knowing how personally dangerous it was for the Tiananmen protesters to send me faxes, and knowing what would happen to the students were their faxes to come to light, I memorized their faxes’ content before burning them.  Literally. Then I made sure what they had told me became fodder for the Monitor’s reporting of the atrocities in and around the square.

I did more editing and directing than usual of the Tiananmen Square story as the Monitor’s husband-and-wife Beijing correspondents had left the city by June 4 so the wife might have her baby in the less-smog-polluted U.S. and the husband might be at her side.  Thus the students’ faxes helped me provide necessary facts and details for copy turned in by the paper’s relatively inexperienced replacement in Beijing.

But as their faxes contained phone numbers, I sometimes sent return faxes asking for details before destroying their original correspondence.  And I asked for numbers of protesters killed.  The estimates faxed back always said “400 to 3,000” or “600 to 3,000” or “800 to 3,000.”  While the first numbers varied, the last figure, 3,000, was a constant in all faxes. The Monitor dutifully reported those estimates, but it was not until some years later, when I was working in Beijing, that I learned of the meaning of the number 3,000 in Mandarin.  It’s a metaphor similar to the figure seven in the Bible – representing a large, if not infinite number.  I wish I had known that when directing the newspaper’s Tiananmen coverage and editing the copy from China.  By the way, 10,000 is the current estimate of children slaughtered in the square.

READ MORE: Tiananmen Square protest death toll ‘was 10,000’

Tiananmen still roils and depresses me 30 years later. And I wonder why the U.S. media have not made more of this anniversary, as the events of 1989 provided the most newsworthy event from the Middle Kingdom since Mao’s arrival in 1948.  And I wonder why China’s leaders today have removed all evidence the 1989 massacre ever happened.  And I wonder what these leaders so fear that they have for months been photographing and monitoring and hacking anyone even alluding to the events of June 4.  And I wonder if the wounds of this horrible anniversary will ever heal until the government here finally acknowledges the past, helps its people learn from its true history, and moves forward.

Photo by Peter Griffin

READ MORE: China wants us to forget the horrors of Tiananmen as it rewrites its history

And I especially wonder what happened to the Tiananmen students who risked their lives to fax me so the Monitor might tell the world what was happening.  I’m haunted by my fax children.

READ MORE: Tiananmen Square: China steps up curbs on activists for 30th anniversary

William A. Babcock is the former editor of GJR and a senior ethics professor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s School of Journalism

Unethical crusades

Our Dishonest President, Times Editorial Board, Versa Press, Inc., East Peoria, Ill., 2017, $7.99, 112 pages.

Our Dishonest President has been repeatedly promoted in one-quarter page advertisements in the Los Angeles Times. The ads, which appear with a large image of the book’s cover, read:

The immensely popular series of editorials by the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board delivers a formidable and indispensable critique of our nation’s current leader. Los Angeles Times Store. SHOP NOW at latimes.com/president or call 866-622-7721.

The book’s introduction states: “The harsh, deeply disapproving six-part editorial series that is reprinted in this book was written because the Los Angeles Times editorial board concluded that the new president of the United States poses a threat to democracy, a threat to the institutions this country has spent hundreds of years building and a threat to America’s moral standing in the world.”

The first piece in the series, entitled Our Dishonest President, was published April 2, 2017, and was subsequently viewed more than 4.6 million times. That so many sets of eyes saw the lead editorial is indeed astounding. That particular editorial, and the five others comprising this book, are compellingly written and full of examples and details. Together they constitute crusading editorial journalism at its finest, and for that the Times is to be applauded by readers of every political ilk seeking to know more of their president.

Unfortunately, such a series was insufficient for the Times Editorial Board, which says in the third page of this book’s introduction, “But piecemeal, one-at-a-time editorials began to feel insufficient.”

Now with 4.6 million individuals seeing the first editorial and millions more consuming the five additional editorials, why did the Times feel the need to publish and extensively market and promote this series once more in a book?

At $7.99 per copy of a book also distributed for free, the Times was not going to make a financial fortune by printing Our Dishonest President. We’re not talking capitalistic greed. We are, though, talking over-the-top self-righteousness.

The role of the press is to present news in a truthful manner, and to analyze and editorialize as necessary. It’s not the media’s job to go beyond that role, but rather to understand the public has been adequately informed. Anything else simply is overkill — and unethical.

By like token, it is irresponsible for the media’s various ethics accountability tools to be biased. Ethics codes, press councils, ombudsmen, media reporters/critics — and journalism reviews — are not crusading vehicles. Rather, they are meant to promote fairness in the media. It’s unfortunate that all such accountability tools seem to be on the decline.

Just as it is improper for the LA Times to market a book promoting its own opinions, it is inappropriate for a journalism review, including Gateway Journalism Review in its electronic weekly newsletters or quarterly magazine editions, to relentlessly and repeatedly roil against a president. It’s one thing for a review to analyze how the media respond to a Donald Trump and how he deals with and treats the press; it’s totally something else to self-righteously batter and bash this president or any other public official with whom it disagrees.

Neither newspapers nor journalism reviews should abuse the freedom of press and speech privileges with which they have been constitutionally provided by engaging in inappropriate, unethical crusades.

[Opinion]…and a P.S.

Speaking or printing the word is generally regarded as virtually taboo as the word is considered to be a viciously hostile epithet.

So vile, in fact, that one is hard-pressed to think of a time this century that it has appeared in the print media or been uttered in a televised or broadcast news program. And when it is used, it’s often identified by a single letter followed by a few spaces or as a single letter followed by a word.

And even if uttered by a public person, the word would likely still be camouflaged in quoted code.

But while the word is frequently spoken by one segment of American society, its very utterance is blacked out by “progressive” members of the majority society.

Not only is this entire process rather cumbersome, but it also defies logic that the media adhere to such an ill-defined process for only the word, while other offensive words warrant no such “thou shalt never use” status.

And yes, there are any number of words in this society and in other nations that are truly equally despicable. Crude names for Indians (or Native Americans), Italians, Japanese, Chinese and Puerto Ricans, still appear in print protected by quotation marks. The same goes for misogynistic slurs, even when uttered by prominent political figures. Too, a professional football team from the nation’s capital gets a bye, as Zachary Sapienza explains in the previous GJR article. But not the word. Even though used in an iconic 1895 American literary work read by decades of American children, some English classes have banned this book, or edited it so the word is camouflaged.

This is not to argue that the word should be used. Rather, that the media should be consistent. Either all such harmful words need similar media expunging, or there should be consistent policies for when and how to use all such hateful words, including the word. Until there is vile-words parity, the media should not award the word with a unique non-disclosure status.

Anything less indicates the media’s the word practice to be not only inconsistent, but also unethical.

A logo, and team, by any other name…

“The Cleveland Indians announced Monday they are dropping the Chief Wahoo logo from their uniforms next year, bowing to decades of complaints that the grinning, red-faced caricature used since 1947 is racist.”

That news from the Associated Press in Cleveland was quickly carried Monday across the nation in the New York Times, on NPR, USA Today, the Washington Post and across the pond in the Guardian.

But while much ado is being made of the removal, beginning in the 2019 season, of this this stereotypical logo, there has been little discussion lately of also axing the name Indians from Cleveland’s Major League Baseball franchise.

This name, along with those of the Redskins, Chiefs and Braves professional sports teams, has been from time to time banned from a handful of American newspaper sports pages, including the Oregonian (Portland) and the Star-Tribune (Minneapolis).

Those defending such sports names must realize a team begun today would no longer use those names any more than it would to call a team the San Francisco Chinamen, the Albuquerque Mexicans, the Boston Japanese or the Palm Beach Cubans.  And those arguing a racist name such as the Redskins should be used because that’s what the team calls itself, would be hard-pressed to sanction a well-healed political figure inaugurating a new team and naming it the Harlem N…..– a name to African Americans that’s just as disgusting as the word Redskins is to Native Americans.

So what’s a media organization to do when faced with names and logos now considered inappropriate?  The Society of Professional Journalists advises balancing the seeking and reporting of truth with minimizing harm.  That’s not a bad place to begin.

The Chief Wahoo logo is and and has been for decades popular around the world.  More Cleveland Indians caps with this logo are worn than are any other baseball caps at many Beijing universities.

In the 1990s a student stood up in a media ethics class at the University of Minnesota, saying:  “I’m Ojibwe Sioux.  This (Chief Wahoo) cap is worn by more boys on the Ojibwe National Reservation in Minnesota than are any other caps.  We know it’s a stereotype.  We’re not stupid.  What’s the big deal?”

Well, the deal is this logo’s time has passed.  But regardless of whether sports organizations themselves know this, the media should consider axing any and all such outmoded and distasteful names and images.

All of which brings us back to the Cleveland Indians, a professional baseball team that finally after some 70 years is responsibly retiring Chief Wahoo.  It’s now time for that same franchise to think about the team name itself, the Indians, inaugurated after the 1914 season, and that for previous decades had been variously called the Grand Rapids Rustlers, Cleveland Lake Shores, Bluebirds, Blues, Broncos, Naps and Spiders.

Personally, I’d prefer a return to the Spiders.  And I bet in a short time a team with a spunky spider on its headgear and uniforms would quickly outsell all those dusty, outdated Chief Wahoo caps and t-shirts.

And wouldn’t that be a fitting tribute for a team with the longest current World Series losing record in baseball – a small-market team some say may be poised to upend the Houston Astros in the 2018 American League postseason and go on to defeat the well-healed Dodgers from Los Angeles in the World Series?  Clearly, it’s time to turn over more than just one leaf.  And what a good sports story that would be.

Crown thy good with brotherhood


By William A. Babcock

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

That’s particularly true of America’s not-so-beloved song and lyrics the United States has had as its National Anthem since 1931.

Francis Scott Key’s poem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” was set to the tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven” some 200 years ago.   Commemorating the unsuccessful British siege of Ft. McHenry in Baltimore in 1814, America’s national anthem is a glorified battle song, truly unsingable by all but the most talented vocalists.

This anthem (a word Webster describes as “a song or hymn of praise or gladness”) has perpetuated praise and protests for a number of decades, and journalists have dutifully covered it all.

Some 50 years ago Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who had just placed first and third, respectively, in the Olympics 200-meter track event in Mexico City, stood on the winners’ podium, heads bowed, as the U.S. National Anthem was played. They each wore a black glove in what Smith described in his autobiography, Silent Gesture, as a “human rights salute.” Human-rights buttons, black socks (representing black poverty) and black (black pride) scarf also were worn.

And Smith and Carlos were booed by some members of the crowd and death threats were received after John Dominis photo of the podium protest appeared on newspaper’s sports pages around the world.

I remembered the 1968 Olymics protest as a local reporter covering students protesting for the Chronicle-Telegram in Elyria, Ohio. The students were sitting in 1973 in that community during the playing of the National Anthem at sporting events. Knowing I needed good sourcing of my story, I went to nearby Oberlin College where Smith, having retired from the Cincinnati Bengals professional football team, was an assistant professor of physical education.

He talked about the need for people — especially students — to be able to protest injustices. Of the importance of free speech. Of the need for respect. Of listening to opposing viewpoints. Of valuing human beings of all races.

I’m now left to wonder, after SIU’s administration essentially prohibited three African American cheerleaders here from kneeling in protest during the playing of the National Anthem at sporting events this fall, why even more ink and airtime and blogs and tweets are not being expended by the media to:

  • Expose SIU officials and coaches for their cowardly behavior.
  • Interview coaches who allowed a protesting alumni to enter the playing court.
  • Interview protesting cheerleaders.
  • Ask non-protesting Caucasian cheerleaders why they failed to support their protesting colleagues.
  • Talk to coaches who have lied and prohibited players from protesting.
  • Survey fans and alumni for their reactions.

While I realize America’s National Anthem itself is not the issue here, I can’t help wondering if things might improve were we to pick another, more appropriate anthem. And Katherine Lee Bates’ “America the Beautiful” comes to mind. Her poem not only patriotically mentions the pilgrims, but also admonishes: “America! God mend thine every flaw, confirm thy soul in self-control, Thy liberty in law.”

To quote from a 1976 Christian Science Monitor opinion piece: “The United States is the world’s most powerful economic, industrial, and military nation in a time of global inequality, hunger, and chaos. Mrs. Bates’s song (set to the hymn tune ‘Materna’) speaks for America both in its bicentennial year and in years to come. It is a hymn urging the U.S. to ‘crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea,’ instead of a martial air telling this country to ‘conquer’ and to have a flag that ‘in triumph shall wave.’… If the chosen tune were indeed ‘America the Beautiful,’ other nations might see this as an indication the U.S., in some small way, was learning and profiting from its recent past.”

That “recent past” then was Watergate and the impeachment of President Richard M. Nixon.

I realize the reason for the recent peaceful protests here and around the country is the issue, and not the National Anthem itself. But I think the racial healing this nation so desperately needs should be reflected in our national song and our respect for those protesting for the sentiments such an anthem projects.

That’s what I think now — and it’s also what I thought when I wrote the Monitor opinion piece more than 40 years ago. And I still wish things would change.