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Memories of 1945 and 1963 American Television Coverage of the End of the Berlin Wall, November 9, 1989 David Culbert The Berlin Wall, which came down on November 9,1989, is a visual story whose meaning is found in the euphoria of masses of persons spontaneously removing, as they moved from East to West Berlin, the quintessential symbol of the Cold War. The events of November 9 were the stuff of banner headlines in newspapers all over the world; sometimes a dramatic event truly symbolizes a change in a system of alliances or the reshaping of a country's national identity. Such was the meaning of November 9,1989: it marked the end of the Cold War and signaled the inevitable reunification of Germany, divided since 1945 by the ideological concerns of the United States and the Soviet Union.1 American network television, in an era before cable television had made major inroads, and before anyone considered the Internet as a competing news source, covered the story visually. NBC's Tom Brokaw happened to have flown to Berlin a day ahead of his CBS and ABC competitors; on November 9 he stood on a platform in front of the Brandenburg Gate to record East Berliners, who climbed the wall in celebration, undeterred by water cannons—a frosty, nonlethal form of crowd control—used by East German authorities on a cold November night. Unnoticed by German scholars who have subjected the events ofNovember 9 to minute scrutiny, Brokaw also recorded a short interview in English with Guenter Schabowski, the East German Politburo spokesman, who announced the lifting of border restrictions. Schabowski spoke to Brokaw a few minutes after his historic press conference for German and foreign journalists on the evening of November 9.2 The Schabowski interview in English is important confirmation Memories of 1945 and 1963 | 231 of what had just been said in German, and helps contextualize explanations offered later by Schabowski and others who claimed to have lifted travel restrictions without having first cleared this with armed East German border guards.3 Network television defined its visual worth in the coverage of the euphoric crowds on the night of November 9. No gifted reporter, confined to words, and no still photographer, however successful in capturing a visual microcosm, could hope to compete. The end of the wall, after all, is not the tearing down of a concrete structure, but the image of masses of East Germans surging across to the capitalist West, their emotions marking the end of a Communist alternative to capitalism. The crowds tell the story, and it is a story in no way untrue even if, unlike the conventional ending of a fairy tale, those East Germans failed to live happily ever after in a capitalist Germany controlled by rich West Germans.4 There is more to the story of November 9 than depicting euphoria. Television news tries to offer perspective, to give events a meaning that allows the viewer to understand what he or she is seeing. Here network television offered important cathartic assistance. American viewers, including the President of the United States, George Bush—who watched television coverage ofNovember 9 with great interest—sensed thatAmerican support for a united Germany required coming to terms with 1945 and 1963; in other words, the legacy of Nazi Germany and John F. Kennedy's remarkable speech given in Berlin on June 26, 1963, where one phrase, in German, captured all the media attention: "Ich bin ein Berliner" ("I am a Berliner"). Kennedy's remarks , incidentally, were not presented in front of the Brandenburg Gate, where he would have proved an easy target for border marksmen, but in front of the West Berlin City Hall. Kennedy offered fine words, but nothing more, reflecting his administration's decision to accept the Berlin Wall as permanent. How did network television producers assemble the components to contextualize the events of November 9? The anchor for each network offered personal opinion; persons such as the president were shown on-camera . But the story of context is best seen in terms of selected file footage, archival footage, and sound bites provided by various "experts" incorporated into edited stories prepared to accompany what the anchor said. It is thus network film editors and producers, in New York and London, who helped viewers make sense ofNovember 9, a process that focuses—but also restricts— memory. Another source of unintended contextualization is the larding of commercials interrupting the story. When the story is the collapse...


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