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The battle between NBC and CBS to be the first to film a Berlin Wall tunnel escape

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

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

The tunnel CBS selected was a catastrophe that resulted in arrests and courtroom trials. NBC’s tunnel ended up being in considered one of the most adorned documentaries in American tv historical past. And but, in the fall of 1962, NBC was below large stress from either side of the Iron Curtain to scrap its documentary altogether.

You would suppose that the U.S. authorities would be thrilled to have a film broadcast to Americans displaying the desperation and resolve to escape communist East Germany. After all, when the Berlin Wall fell 30 years in the past, pictures of East Berliners streaming throughout the border have been broadcast round the world in what was solid 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 almost derailed the NBC documentary earlier than greater than a handful of individuals had seen a single body of the film.

Two separate, secret tasks

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, up to 30,000 East Germans have been escaping to the West every month, primarily via the border in Berlin. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed to let East Germany shut the metropolis’s border, first via stationing troops and putting in barbed wire, and then via the building of the Berlin Wall.

Even after the completion of the wall, some East Germans, determined to be reunited with pals and household in the West, sought methods to get to the different aspect.

In May 1962, NBC producer Reuven Frank and reporter Piers Anderton struck a secret take care of a group of West Berlin faculty college students who have been constructing an elaborate escape tunnel below 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 a success.

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 offered

In late July, CBS Berlin reporter Daniel Schorr discovered a separate, virtually accomplished tunnel challenge and paid the organizers $1,250 to film 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 challenge, 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 metropolis in case the East Germans additionally knew about the tunnel.

Under protest, Schorr left Berlin. Rusk’s instincts have been appropriate. When the diggers broke via 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 via in a basement in East Berlin. At least 29 folks escaped in the most profitable tunnel challenge escape to date.

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 could run the 90-minute documentary, titled “The Tunnel,” on Oct. 31, 1962. Frank argued that since the tunnel was already below method when the fee was made, NBC was merely protecting the effort.

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 challenge, partly as a result of they have been frightened folks recognized in the documentary might 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 challenge. Neither CBS nor the authorities 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 geared up to deal with. He known as the fee “distasteful commercialism,” ignoring the actuality that fee for pictures 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 similar night time, 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 a firm legal professional 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 challenge 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 non-public letter to Secretary of State Rusk searching for his approval of – or a minimum of to take away his objections to – the community’s documentary. Rusk replied to Kintner that he nonetheless opposed NBC’s involvement in the escape challenge, however that it was the firm’s resolution whether or not or not to run the program.

On Monday, Dec. 10, 1962, NBC broadcast “The Tunnel” and 13.5 million folks tuned in that night time – 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 below such intense criticism for a challenge that reveals the dangers folks have been keen to take to escape communism.

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

American newspapers largely chastised NBC for the fee to the diggers. The State Department scolded NBC for getting concerned in a delicate Cold War situation, particularly since East Germans thought-about tunnels below the Berlin Wall as assaults on the border.

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

CBS, as an alternative of admitting that NBC had merely discovered a higher tunnel challenge, complained to the State Department that NBC shouldn’t profit after CBS backed out of its documentary at the authorities’s behest. Part of the State Department’s public shaming of NBC appeared to partly stem from a need to appease CBS.

But the State Department’s behind-the-scenes stress on each networks reveals the extent to which the authorities anticipated journalists to cooperate with them on delicate Cold War points. Some of the cables solid the reporters as misbehaving workers as an alternative of impartial 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, in order that they took the alternative to query the professionalism of tv journalists, an method that was first used in opposition to radio information earlier in the century.

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

In a ultimate vindication for NBC, the United States Information Agency ended up shopping for 100 copies of “The Tunnel” to present round the world for instance of the advantages of democracy over communism.

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