Friday, 3 February 2012

Remembering History 40 Years On

President Nixon and the press corps in China
Earlier this week the Asia Society in New York showed a documentary about US President Richard Nixon's historic visit to China in February 1972 from behind the scenes, particularly from the point of view of journalists.

It's entitled Assignment: China -- "The Week that Changed the World", using Nixon's own words describing the event.

I just watched it last night on YouTube and it was so riveting I could not stop until it was over.



Narrated by former CNN China correspondent Mike Chinoy, the 58-minute documentary follows why Nixon wanted to go to China, and all the logistics involved in bringing over 80 journalists and technicians to cover the event live.

The president knew the pictures of the historic visit were critical to its success which is why he and his aides mostly planned the itinerary around TV journalists, much to the annoyance of print reporters such as Max Frankel of the New York Times and Stanley Karnow of the Washington Post.

This was also the first time the vast majority of the journalists accompanying Nixon went to China and didn't know much about China, let alone what to expect at all. The United States and China were in a cold war period, where hardly any American reporters were behind the bamboo curtain at the time. As a result the cultural and political differences were great.

Several of them, including CBS' Dan Rather, Barbara Walters of NBC and ABC's Ted Koppel recall what happened during the trip, along with Nixon's former aides and even a former official from the Chinese Foreign Ministry who is now living outside of China.

Some of the memories gave insight into the details involved in the trip, others funny ancedotes. The journalists remembered how they wore long johns to keep warm, but inside buildings the heat was so hot they were sweating so much. But because there wasn't any laundry facilities, they started to stink very early on the trip.

They were constantly followed by minders and one of the photographers was working very late hours to get his pictures processed in his makeshift darkroom in the hotel bathroom. His minder had to stay up the same time as him, and so the photographer remembers coming out of the bathroom at 5am with his latest pictures in hand and his minder was sprawled on the floor.

Another remembered how fascinated another minder was at watching how live TV production was done with several cameras and a producer calling the shots. After it was all over, the minder said he now understood how all these things worked, but was still unsure about what "f***ing audio" meant.

Many of the journalists recalled their frustrations at having events manufactured with regards to regular citizens, including meeting some people in the park playing in frigid weather in February. But perhaps their greatest annoyance was that Nixon's meetings with Chinese officials including Chairman Mao, were shrouded in such secrecy, even the White House aides could do nothing to help them cover the negotiations.

But for Nixon it wasn't about the final communiques, but the pictures of him in China beamed live to the US. The events were choreographed so that Americans would be having their breakfast and watching their president establishing diplomacy with a communist country half way around the world.

Assignment: China helps collate everyone's memories together of this historic event 40 years later and surely the documentary will become an excellent historical piece later as many of the journalists who were there are now getting on in their years. Their recollection of their visit is still vivid -- a testament to the fact they knew they were making history.

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