On the night of Nov. 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall — the stark, menacing symbol of the Cold War — came crashing down, suddenly and dramatically.
NBC News, alone among the world’s major television-news organizations, was broadcasting live from the scene. The persistence of our foreign news editor — and more than a little good fortune — combined to give NBC one of the greatest live exclusives in the history of broadcast journalism.
For years, communism’s grip on Eastern Europe had been loosening, undermined by economic decay and public protest. By the autumn of 1989, the Solidarity movement had pushed out the Communist government in Poland, and Hungary had adopted a multi-party system. Demands for freedom were spreading across the region. Most important, a new kind of Russian leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, was applying “perestroika”(economic reform) and “glasnost” (openness) to a Soviet system that was failing badly. Ominously for the governments of the Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe, there were signs that the Kremlin was no longer interested in propping them up.
In East Germany, split from the West by Russian occupation at the end of World War II, the corrupt and ineffective Communist government was under siege, giving ground slowly amid growing protests, but still hoping to hold on. The government had a well-earned reputation for ruthlessness, and no one thought it would roll over any time soon. The Berlin Wall, the 96-mile-long fortress built in 1961 to keep East Germans from fleeing to the West, still seemed quite secure.
On to Berlin
In early November, with the economic and political situation in East Germany deteriorating, the pace of public protest increased. Big crowds demanded reforms, including the right to travel without restriction. Thousands of their countrymen were sneaking out the back door, through Czechoslovakia and Hungary and on to the West.
NBC foreign news chief Jerry Lamprecht suggested to Tom Brokaw and me (at the time, I was Nightly News’ executive producer) that the moment was right to take the program to Berlin. Tom and I weren’t so sure: the story there was evolving, but didn’t seem at a turning point, and, in the United States, the off-year elections were about to be held.
But Jerry was persuasive, arguing that developments in East Germany were unfolding quickly and that Nightly News should be there with its anchor. With the support and encouragement of NBC News executives, a decision was made: Tom and a team would go immediately and I would remain in New York to produce the program.
By the next morning in West Berlin, a small army of NBC correspondents, producers, camera crews and technicians were hard at work developing stories on East Germany. Live multi-camera capability was set up; the wall would serve as the backdrop for our broadcasts. In what would prove to be an inspired move, a cherry picker was brought in to provide a sweeping high shot of the scene on the other side of the wall.
Although a huge demonstration had occurred in East Berlin only a few days earlier, on that day, Nov. 8, things were relatively quiet. Then, a political shakeup was announced: the East German Politburo was resigning. That story and a report on the debilitating effect that fleeing refugees were having on the East German economy, led our program that night. CBS and ABC led their broadcasts with pieces on the American elections.
‘Free to travel’
As the next day, Nov. 9, dawned, there was no inkling of the monumental event that would take place within hours. The NBC correspondents on the scene continued working on a variety of stories. Looking for a same-day news angle, Tom and a crew journeyed into East Berlin to cover an early-evening press conference given by the government’s propaganda minister. Not much news was expected, but the hope was that perhaps the session would provide a sound bite or two for that night’s program.
The press conference began and the minister droned on about potential reforms. Then, near the end, an Italian journalist asked about the right of East Germans to travel. The startling answer: East Germans would henceforth be free to travel into West Berlin and West Germany.
The reporters present weren’t sure that they had heard right. East Germans were free to leave the country? When? “Immediately,” the official told the stunned audience.
Within moments, Tom was on the car phone to New York and then coast-to-coast on our network with an “NBC News Special Report”: an official had declared that East Germans were “free to travel.” In effect, the Berlin Wall was about to fall.
Meanwhile, many East Germans, having seen the news briefing on television, were heading for the border crossings to see if what they had just heard could possibly be true. When they got there, seemingly nothing had changed: the border remained closed. (The minister had been wrong in one respect: the change wasn’t scheduled to take place until the next day.)
Back in New York, it was late afternoon and a scramble was under way at Nightly News, complicated by the fact that no one was really certain that the East German official’s statement would hold up. A new program rundown was created, topped with the events in Berlin, plus Washington’s reaction.
A backgrounder on the history of the wall, scheduled to air the following night, was freshened and inserted. And a staffer at the Boston bureau was dispatched to the Kennedy Library to obtain rare color footage of President John F. Kennedy’s famous “I Am a Berliner” speech from June 26, 1963. The speech, made just 22 months after the Communists erected the Berlin Wall, helped underline the United States unwavering support for West Germany and was a huge morale booster for those living under the regime.
As the clock ticked toward airtime, the NBC phone lines between New York and Berlin buzzed constantly.
Then, the dam broke.
East German border guards, apparently worried that rioting might erupt among the big crowds at the crossing points, opened the gates between East and West. Tens of thousands of East Berliners surged through the crossings.
It was an extraordinary scene, one that most television news organizations could capture only on videotape, which they then had to shuttle across town to a feed point.
NBC News alone had the ability to broadcast the scene live. Not even the West German networks had been able to arrange live facilities on such short notice. And a huge, spontaneous party was breaking out on the streets of West Berlin. Soon, celebrants were on top of the wall, dancing and hugging in front of our cameras, chipping away at it with hammers and picks.
Then, a minute or two before Nightly News went on air, a last gasp from the East German police. Clearly not humored by any of this, they decided to clear the wall with their fire hoses. As Tom started the broadcast with the words, “Live from the Berlin Wall,” the spray from the high-pressure hoses was getting closer and closer to where he was standing.
Watching the scene unfold from a control room in New York, I remember thinking, “Oh, no! We have a world exclusive and our anchor is about to get knocked on his keister!” Garrick Utley, who was in the newsroom and ready to do the broadcast if we lost the feed from Berlin, started clearing his throat.
Mercifully, the East Germans soon trained their hoses elsewhere. Our cameras, including the one so providently placed in the cherry picker, were capturing the whole historic scene. Our competitors were airing tape, shot earlier. And Tom, working for the most part without a script, was in real time taking the viewers through what was happening.
As if all this were not enough, we received word during the program that a Navy fighter plane had crashed into an Atlanta-area housing complex. Suddenly, the monitors in the New York newsroom lit up with our affiliate’s live chopper pictures of the ensuing conflagration.
Informed of the stateside news development by the control room, Tom introduced Garrick, who voiced over the live pictures, then threw it back to Tom and the continuing events in Berlin. Our competitors had no pictures from Atlanta. In gambling parlance, Nightly News was running the table.
‘Ich bin ein Berliner!’
During a commercial break, Tom asked that we set aside a little time for him near the program’s end. As we approached that moment, I observed him on a monitor, looking down, deep in thought. When he came back on the air, he ad-libbed an essay on the importance of the events we were seeing and their place in history. It sounded like he had been preparing for this for years, and it occurred to me that he had.
As Tom said goodnight, we cut to those color pictures of Kennedy making his inspirational remarks so many years before in front of a huge crowd in the center of Berlin. “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words “Ich bin ein Berliner!”
As the multitude on the tape roared, Nightly News director Julian Finkelstein switched to a live picture of Berliners chiseling away at the wall. After a few seconds, the words “NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw” appeared over the scene, then a fade to black.
In New York, the control room and newsroom broke into applause. In Berlin, the NBC staff exchanged high fives. Good judgment and good luck had come together to create an historic broadcast.
Bill Wheatley retired in 2005 as executive vice president of NBC News after more than 30 years with the network. He teaches broadcast journalism at Columbia University.