You win some, you lose some, in network news as in everything else. With its week of reports from the midst of upheaval in China, CBS News won a big one.
Dan Rather was the only anchor from the three major networks to travel to Beijing for what had been billed as a visit from Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and a Sino-Soviet summit. It turned out to be a week of dramatic and passionate student protests, a spectacularly important story.Back in the United States on May 22, a weary Rather said from New York, "Who would have wanted to miss this? I wouldn't. This is why you get in the business. This is why you stay in it. If you're lucky, you get one of these in a career."
An astonishing week ended incredibly. CBS cut into Friday night programming to show Rather and producers Lane Venardos and Tom Bettag haggling with Chinese officials who wanted them to stop transmitting. Viewers saw a CBS technician actually throw a switch that ended the live reports.
"I didn't even know we were on the air at that point," Rather said later. "I thought we were just taping it. Then Tom slipped me a note that said we were live." Some viewers phoned CBS to complain about interruptions in the season finales of "Dallas" and "Falcon Crest" (and, on the West coast, "Beauty and the Beast"). Rather says it was a "gutsy decision" for the network to cut in.
Rather also credits CBS News President David Burke with having the foresight to send a sizable CBS expedition to Beijing in the first place. ABC and NBC kept anchors Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw at home. As a result, they got clobbered by CBS.
"No news director these days wants to be told, `We need to mount a major effort for a big trip 12,000 miles away,"' Rather said. By "these days," he means the lean years of continued budget crunching at all three major networks.
Brokaw, who says he wishes he and a large NBC contingent had gone to China too, was asked if the reason for staying home was penny-pinching on the part of NBC's owner, General Electric.
"That would be a stretch," Brokaw replied. "It's more a question of priorities. We have a lot on the plate." He meant there will be lots of traveling abroad for the news division this year - most immediately, the Economic Summit in Europe.
But then, reflecting for a moment, Brokaw added: "In the good old days, we probably would have gone." The good old days? "Ten years ago, when the money came in over the transom and through the window and under the door. Those days."
On the night that CBS viewers saw Dan Rather's plug being pulled, CNN anchor Bernard Shaw and his colleagues were going through a similar ritual, all of it televised live on CNN. For more than an hour, CNN producers argued with two polite Chinese bureaucrats who showed up at their control room with instructions to stop transmitting.
Producer Alec Miran told the officials that since a letter from the government had authorized CNN to begin telecasting, it would take a letter to get it stopped. After much discussion, the two Chinese officials painstakingly composed a letter then and there, making ornate Chinese characters on a CNN legal pad as the camera zoomed in.
That done, CNN vice president Jane Maxwell, on the line from the network's Atlanta headquarters, ordered the uplink shut down.
Rather said that if he had it to do over, he would take a much larger delegation. "We went there very thin," he said, "as thin as we could possibly go." CBS News had about 50 people in China. Rather would have liked three times as many.
Traditionally, networks send 100 people or more to cover summits, at least when a U.S. President is present.
Rather spent a couple of nights camped out in Tiananmen Square, sleeping under the stars. The effort was hardly in vain. CBS and CNN gave viewers a fascinating look at a society in turmoil, and a crash course on a culture about which we still know little.
It's one of the oldest stories in the world - people groping for freedom - but it seemed stunningly new. The pictures and reports were impressive and thrilling. This was the week that China was near.