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Mao's revolution 40 years later: did the US press get it right?

Journalism, it is said, is the first draft of history. But seldom do journalists submit themselves to interrogation by authors of the succeeding drafts.

Some 40 years after the events, however, the surviving reporters of the final phase of the Chinese civil war (1937-1949) convened recently in Scottsdale, Ariz., with a corps of historians to figure out whether the press had got the story right.

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As a group, news people tend to be skittish about admitting their role as players on the stage of history. They just get the facts: It's all in the copy; no time to look back.

The session gave some interesting glimpses into American reporting of revolutionary situations.

But at this meeting, and at a similar one held more recently on news coverage of the Vietnam war, some conclusions were reached that American journalists:

* Are skeptical of most government information (both that of the US government and foreign regimes.)

* Tend to sympathize with the rebels/underdogs, who usually look more progressive and less repressive than the regime in power (until the rebels actually achieve power).

* Have minimal ideological interests or commitments, one way or the other.

* Are best equipped when they possess instinctive reportorial talents rather than merely linguistic expertise.

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* Rely on a variety of nonofficial sources, most notably ''third force'' intellectual elements that are formally allied to neither side in the struggle.

In particular, the Scottsdale conference - titled ''War Reporting: China in the 1940s'' - provided a rare opportunity for self-understanding among American journalists. There were some 25 veterans (including a few working spouses) who had reported on the China convulsion for major papers, magazines, and agencies between the Japanese invasion in 1937 and the Communist triumph in 1949. They were joined by nearly 20 academic specialists in Sino-American relations.

Even for people who read the newspapers 40 years ago, the names of the participants may ring few bells - in part because wire services and newsmagazines seldom used bylines. They included: Tillman and Peggy Durdin (New York Times and free-lance), John Hersey (Time-Life, New Yorker), Henry R. Lieberman (New York Times), A. T. Steele (New York Herald Tribune), Hugh Deane (The Christian Science Monitor), Israel Epstein (United Press), Philip Potter (Baltimore Sun), Annalee Jacoby Fadiman (Time-Life), A. Doak Barnett (American Universities Field Staff), Mac Fisher (United Press, OWI), Harrison Salisbury (United Press in Moscow), Albert and Marjorie Ravenholt (Chicago Daily News, American Universities Field Staff), Julian Schuman (Associated Press, ABC), Walter Sullivan (New York Times), John W. and Sylvia Powell (China Weekly Review), and Pegge Parker Hlavcek (New York Daily News).

The questioners and commentators also included some notable observers - among them, John and Wilma Fairbank of Harvard, Dorothy Borg of Columbia, and retired diplomats John S. Service and John Melby.

The question to be considered: How does American journalism look at a society undergoing drastic change?

To arrive at an answer in the case of wartime China, one had to make less cosmic inquiries: Who were the China reporters? What kinds of preconceptions did they bring to China reporting? How did they operate, and who were their sources? What was their influence - in China, but especially back home in America?

Thus the course was generally set; and for more than two days historians and journalists would do their best to find useful answers. Here are a few that seemed significant to this observer:

* Most reporters came to East Asia ''by accident'' - as wire-service people, free-lancers, or student travelers prior to 1937, or perhaps as employees of the Office of War Information after Pearl Harbor. Virtually none had studied Chinese. And they still agree today that ''there is no correlation between good reporters and good linguists.''

* Many belonged (as did that pioneer Edgar Snow) to the ''Missouri Mafia'' as graduates of the University of Missouri's School of Journalism. The Missouri connection often led to employment in the Associated Press or United Press, and the UP's Roy Howard was said to have a special ''romantic interest'' in China.

* ''Romantic'' is word the veterans used frequently to describe the atmosphere in the heyday of Chinese resistance to Japan, the years of the United Front between Nationalists and Communists from 1937 to 1941. In Hankow, the temporary capital after the fall of Nanking, the romantic era peaked. Suddenly, ''we were part of the big world scene,'' one recalled. ''We were reporters of a just cause.'' Before Hankow, journalists had worked out of that worldly Westernized metropolis, Shanghai. Later they would molder in the Nationalists' dank, far-inland hideaway, Chungking.

* It was in Hankow that these reporters first met the notable Chou En-lai. Of all the names mentioned during Arizona remi-niscences, none was cited more often than that of Mao's chief emissary. Chou was accessible, articulate, and charming. The journalists confessed their ''captivation'': There was simply ''no one more magnetic'' than the suave and open Chou. Even when he told untruths, or something less than the truth, he commanded their admiration. ''Why,'' wondered Hank Lieberman, ''can only high-level Communists have a sense of humor?''

* Once lodged in Chungking, locked within a war of attrition (with Gen. Chiang Kai-shek's United Front in shambles), the press corps found little ''romance.'' Nationalist propaganda was patently noncredible, while Nationalist censorship increasingly rankled. Not even Madame Chiang Kai-shek, who captivated millions on her 1943 trip to America, could dispel the realities of corruption, inflation, and mismanagement.

* Frustration: Here was a theme that coexisted with romance. Prior to 1937, it seems, China reporters had found few back in America who would print their stories. China news had to relate to hometown readers - perhaps a locally known missionary who survived a warlord shootout (while 700 Chinese, parenthetically, did not).

* Examined in some depth was the case of Henry R. Luce and Time magazine's China coverage. Onetime Luce protege John Hersey probed the Time editor-in-chief's ''idolatry'' of the American nation, his obsession with China and anti-Communism, and his use of foreign editor Whittaker Chambers to grossly alter the dispatches of Time's correspondents.

Were the reporters biased in favor of the Chinese Communists? The answer from the veterans, not surprisingly, was no. They were all well aware of efforts of both sides to manipulate them; and so, their common denominator was skepticism. They reported what they saw and knew.

As a participant cautioned, one must distinguish between American journalists' attitudes toward revolutionaries ''before and after they achieve power.''

A.T. Steele recalled one dilemma: how to report good things about the communists without appearing pro-Communist to an American reading public that was anti-Communist? One possible ''stratagem'' was to deny that the Chinese Communists were ''real Communists.''

But how well did the American press do in revolutionary China? Israel Epstein , fresh from Peking, was genially upbeat. What the journalists had unwittingly covered throughout was the latter stage of what he termed ''China's war of independence.'' Given the fine reporting, he added, ''Recognition shouldn't have taken 22 years.''

Diplomat John Service was even more supportive. ''All things considered,'' he judged, ''this group did a good job of reporting in China.''.

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