Conway book chronicles Berlin Wall escape’s role in TV journalism’s rise
The Cold War was a period of tension between the Soviet Union and its satellite states, and the United States and its allies.
But another tension was playing out among U.S. journalists at the same time — one between traditional newspaper reporters and those in the emerging television broadcast medium.
In his new book, “Contested Ground: ‘The Tunnel’ and the Struggle over Television News in Cold War America,” published by University of Massachusetts Press, associate professor Mike Conway analyzes this period of upheaval in the U.S. news industry through a case study on NBC’s 1962 broadcast, “The Tunnel,” a controversial documentary that Conway says solidified television journalism’s place in the communication domain.
“The Tunnel,” produced by Reuven Frank, documented three West Berlin university students’ mission to dig a tunnel underneath the Berlin Wall to rescue their friends and family who were trapped in East Berlin.
In order to secure footage of the heist, NBC paid the students about $12,500 – the equivalent of just over $106,000 in 2019 – for supplies for the digging, according to the book. The mission was a success.
But the broadcast was a controversy. Before it even aired, the United States government pressured the network to cancel the broadcast.
Fellow journalists also disliked NBC’s report. While television was the leading news source during the second half of the 20th century, Conway said many traditional print journalists considered it a lesser journalistic outlet.
Rivalry between broadcast and “old school print” has always existed, and Conway believes the tension is still there. But the controversy surrounding “The Tunnel,” he writes, “reveals a major upheaval in American news communication as all groups involved, from sources to competitors, reacted to the shifting media power dynamics.”
Conway said not much research has been done on the rise of broadcast journalism, let alone through this particular lens.
“It’s just sort of this accepted wisdom of ‘there’s TV, there’s radio,’” Conway said. “There are so many more complications to it, so much more angst, so much more drama that went on.”
Conway began working on the book about eight years ago, but he first thought of the idea in 2003 after he conducted an oral history interview with Frank.
Reuven Frank sits and narrates.
People say it’s a visual medium, but they don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s a narrative medium. It’s a storytelling medium. It’s a beginning-middle-and-end medium. It’s the same — you know, Aristotle laid down the rules 2,500 years ago — how do you tell a story?
In spite of the controversy, “The Tunnel” aired and won three Emmys, among other awards. In the book, Conway says Frank considered the report one of his most important works “in a career filled with significant achievements.”
“The documentary helped crystallize his views on television as a communication source, which he chronicled in the staff memo, views that influenced not just documentaries but nightly newscasts and weekly public affairs programs,” Conway writes.
Throughout history, journalists have pushed the boundaries to find more effective ways to report on the important issues of our day, Conway said, citing examples such as Vice’s coverage of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and The New York Times’ “1619 Project.”
Conway said he hopes the book will inspire journalists to learn from the past and continue progressing to create groundbreaking reports like “The Tunnel.”
“With the kind of tumultuous period we’re in now with journalism and media, with everything changing dramatically, my argument has always been if we would understand more about what really happened in the mid-20th century, it might be a better guide to what we do now,” Conway said.