The battle between NBC and CBS to be the primary to movie a Berlin Wall tunnel escape


When the Berlin Wall was accomplished in August 1961, East German residents instantly tried to determine methods to avoid the barrier and escape into West Berlin.

By the next summer time, NBC and CBS have been at work on two separate, secret documentaries on tunnels being dug beneath the Berlin Wall.

The tunnel CBS selected was a catastrophe that resulted in arrests and courtroom trials. NBC’s tunnel ended up being in some of the embellished documentaries in American tv historical past. And but, within the fall of 1962, NBC was beneath super stress from each side of the Iron Curtain to scrap its documentary altogether.

You would assume that the U.S. authorities can be thrilled to have a movie broadcast to Americans displaying the desperation and resolve to flee communist East Germany. After all, when the Berlin Wall fell 30 years in the past, photographs of East Berliners streaming throughout the border have been broadcast all over the world in what was forged as a triumph for Western democracies and capitalism.

But in my new guide, “Contested Ground: The Tunnel and the Struggle over Television News in Cold War America,” I exploit declassified authorities paperwork to inform the story of how political stress and bare journalistic competitors practically derailed the NBC documentary earlier than greater than a handful of individuals had seen a single body of the movie.

Two separate, secret initiatives

In the 1960s, Berlin was a flash level in Cold War politics.

West Berlin was a landlocked capitalist political enclave surrounded by communist East Germany.

By the summer time of 1961, as much as 30,000 East Germans have been escaping to the West every month, primarily by the border in Berlin. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed to let East Germany shut the town’s border, first by stationing troops and putting in barbed wire, after which by the development of the Berlin Wall.

Even after the completion of the wall, some East Germans, determined to be reunited with family and friends within the West, sought methods to get to the opposite aspect.

In May 1962, NBC producer Reuven Frank and reporter Piers Anderton struck a secret cope with a gaggle of West Berlin faculty college students who have been constructing an elaborate escape tunnel beneath the wall to assist their family and classmates who have been caught in East Berlin. NBC paid the diggers $7,500 for unique filming entry. The college students would obtain one other $5,000 if the tunnel escape plan was successful.

The battle between NBC and CBS to be the first to film a Berlin Wall tunnel escape
NBC producer Reuven Frank. Tufts University Digital Collections & Archives, Medford, Mass., Author supplied

In late July, CBS Berlin reporter Daniel Schorr discovered a separate, virtually accomplished tunnel undertaking and paid the organizers $1,250 to movie the escape. Schorr needed to run a documentary on the one-year anniversary of the wall’s completion: Aug. 13.

But not like NBC’s undertaking, CBS’ chosen tunnel wasn’t a secret. West German police and American intelligence members knew of it – and of CBS’ involvement. When Secretary of State Dean Rusk caught wind of the plan, he pressured CBS to get Schorr out of the town in case the East Germans additionally knew in regards to the tunnel.

Under protest, Schorr left Berlin. Rusk’s instincts have been right. When the diggers broke by simply past the wall in East Berlin, police have been ready to arrest a number of of these concerned.

One month later, the NBC tunnel, dug beneath the Bernauer Strasse neighborhood, broke by in a basement in East Berlin. At least 29 folks escaped in essentially the most profitable tunnel undertaking escape to this point.

No longer a secret

While the escape was reported in American newspapers, NBC’s involvement stayed a secret till early October 1962, when Time journal revealed NBC’s fee to the diggers, calling the association “chicanery.” Other print journalists piled on, insinuating that the fee had made NBC a part of the story and that the community had relinquished its function as goal reporters.

Nonetheless, NBC introduced it might run the 90-minute documentary, titled “The Tunnel,” on Oct. 31, 1962. Frank argued that because the tunnel was already beneath manner when the fee was made, NBC was merely overlaying the hassle.

The battle between NBC and CBS to be the first to film a Berlin Wall tunnel escape
An aerial view of the wall in Bernauer Strasse, the place the tunnel featured in NBC’s documentary was constructed. Wikimedia Commons

Not surprisingly, officers in East Germany urged NBC to cancel the documentary. But West German and West Berlin officers additionally objected to the undertaking, partly as a result of they have been frightened folks recognized within the documentary could possibly be endangered.

Both CBS and the State Department launched statements that implied CBS had adopted authorities directives, portray NBC as reckless in its pursuit of its tunnel undertaking. Neither CBS nor the federal government revealed that the community’s tunnel had been compromised or that it had additionally paid for entry to a tunnel.

‘Adventurous laymen’ or journalists?

On Oct. 22 of that 12 months, New York Times tv columnist Jack Gould blasted NBC as “adventurous laymen” stumbling into harmful Cold War points they weren’t outfitted to deal with. He referred to as the fee “distasteful commercialism,” ignoring the fact that fee for photographs was not unusual in journalism. Life journal, for instance, was paying NASA astronauts about $25,000 apiece for unique entry to their private lives.

That identical evening, President John F. Kennedy went on nationwide tv to announce the Soviet Union was constructing missile bases in Cuba. NBC quietly postponed “The Tunnel” whereas the nation nervously waited to see how the Cuban Missile Crisis would play out.

Behind the scenes, NBC President Robert Kintner bought concerned. He despatched an organization lawyer to West Berlin to reassure authorities officers that the documentary would solely present faces of people that had agreed to be filmed. NBC additionally satisfied West German officers that the undertaking would draw extra consideration to the Berlin Wall, which was nonetheless a sore level in West Berlin.

After the Soviet Union backed down and agreed to take away the missiles from Cuba, Kintner wrote a personal letter to Secretary of State Rusk searching for his approval of – or at the least to take away his objections to – the community’s documentary. Rusk replied to Kintner that he nonetheless opposed NBC’s involvement within the escape undertaking, however that it was the corporate’s determination whether or not or to not run this system.

On Monday, Dec. 10, 1962, NBC broadcast “The Tunnel” and 13.5 million folks tuned in that evening – a uncommon feat for a documentary on American tv.

The actual causes behind NBC’s shaming

The lingering query, although, is why NBC got here beneath such intense criticism for a undertaking that reveals the dangers folks have been prepared to take to flee communism.

The declassified authorities paperwork reveal private and non-private variations of the controversy.

American newspapers principally chastised NBC for the fee to the diggers. The State Department scolded NBC for getting concerned in a fragile Cold War concern, particularly since East Germans thought of tunnels beneath the Berlin Wall as assaults on the border.

Private communications paint a way more difficult image. First, the State Department didn’t know in regards to the tunnel – or NBC’S involvement – till the media reported on it, resulting in some embarrassing cables between Washington and Berlin.

CBS, as a substitute of admitting that NBC had merely discovered a greater tunnel undertaking, complained to the State Department that NBC shouldn’t profit after CBS backed out of its documentary on the authorities’s behest. Part of the State Department’s public shaming of NBC appeared to partially stem from a want to appease CBS.

But the State Department’s behind-the-scenes stress on each networks reveals the extent to which the federal government anticipated journalists to cooperate with them on delicate Cold War points. Some of the cables forged the reporters as misbehaving staff as a substitute of unbiased journalists.

Finally, the print press performed up the fee ethics angle as a result of it seen tv as a rising risk. Newspaper and journal journalists have been watching their energy and affect being challenged by this newer medium, so that they took the chance to query the professionalism of tv journalists, an method that was first used in opposition to radio information earlier within the century.

It was a tide they couldn’t cease: The subsequent 12 months, a ballot confirmed that tv information had, for the primary time, surpassed newspapers as the most well-liked and most trusted information format within the United States. “The Tunnel” was honored with three Emmy Awards, together with Program of the Year.

In a last vindication for NBC, the United States Information Agency ended up shopping for 100 copies of “The Tunnel” to point out all over the world for example of the advantages of democracy over communism.

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