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The Berlin Wall, Best Prop Ever

BY IN BLOG On 20-06-2013

[This blog was originally posted on June 20, 2013]

This post has only one point applicable to media training, but I think it may be instructive in other ways.  It was inspired by President Obama’s address at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on June 19 [2013].  That speech had particular significance for me because it was the first time a U.S. president had ever delivered an address from what was formerly the East Berlin side of the gate — the side walled off when Presidents Kennedy and Reagan made their memorable addresses to Berliners. Since I had been in the city to cover both the building of the wall in August, 1961 and the beginning of its destruction in the autumn of 1989, the symbolism of Obama speaking from the east side of the gate had particular resonance for me.

Major Garrett of CBS News, commenting about Obama’s speech wrote, “This city may be the only place in the world where President Obama’s rhetoric is no match and can be no match for the presidents who came before him.”  True enough, but Presidents Kennedy and Reagan, whose Brandenburg Gate speeches are truly historic, had a distinct advantage supplied by our cold war adversaries: the Berlin Wall. And that, by the way, is the media mastery tip in this post: bring a prop to an interview or stand in front of a prop while giving an interview.  Props give focus — even in print interviews.

Getting back to history, here’s some essential background: At the end of World War II, Berlin was occupied by the four allied powers: the U.S. the U.S.S.R., France and Great Britain and the city was divided into four sectors, one under each nation’s control. Because the city was the traditional German capital and was so deep into East Germany, the Soviets unilaterally decided it was “Berlin Hauptstadt der DDR,” or Berlin, capital of the DDR, their East German puppet state. In June, 1961, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev demanded that Berlin be ceded to the DDR. France and Britain wavered indecisively, but President Kennedy told Khrushchev that the U.S. would not hand West Berlin over to Communist East Germany and would pay any price to defend its democracy. As he did in the Cuba Missile Crisis, Khrushchev blinked first. But two months later, faced with a steady stream of East Germans defecting to the west via Berlin, the DDR and its Soviet sponsors erected the first iteration of the Wall over the course of a single night — August 12-13.

In 1963, President Kennedy came to Berlin and delivered his famous “Ich bein ein Berliner” (I am a Berliner) speech. It is estimated that fully half the population of West Berlin — well over a million people — thronged the streets that day to catch a glimpse of the president who stood up to the Soviet demand that their city be handed over to East Germany

Twenty-four years later President, Ronald Reagan, stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate and also used a German phrase: “Es gibt nur ein Berlin” (There is only one Berlin). Then he demanded of the Soviet Communist Party’s General Secretary, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

More recently, without a Wall and addressing an undivided and prosperous city, President Obama was speaking with one rhetorical hand tied behind his back.

For a journalist, as for a president, that prop — the Wall — made Berlin an extraordinary story.  As souvenirs of my two momentous visits to Berlin, I have a lucite display case containing two newspaper stories I filed from Berlin in 1961 and a piece of the wall handed to me by a Berliner in 1989. The artifacts are reminders of that long-running story; the story of a wall which divided a city for 28 years — time enough for an entire generation to be born and grow up with no personal frame of reference to a Wall-less, undivided Berlin.


My Berlin Wall display.

In August of 1961, I was working for the “Rome Daily American,” a small-circulation tabloid that catered to expatriates living in Italy. In a bit of journalistic miscasting akin to having the late Hunter S. Thompson serve as a society editor, I had been hired as the paper’s sports editor.

When a German classmate from journalism school tipped me that there was about to be a big story breaking in Berlin, I went to Ed Hill, the Daily American’s editor, and asked him to send me there. He told me he wouldn’t assign me to Berlin, but that I could quit my job and go there and cover the news as a free-lancer. I did.

Before I left, Hill said, “Stay out of East Berlin.” Americans had free access to all sectors of Berlin, and I thought Hill was being overcautious. What I did not know at the time and what Hill could not tell me was the Rome Daily American was a CIA front, a fact I didn’t learn until 1973 when hearings chaired by Sen. Frank Church disclosed that fact. The Daily American had legions of “reporters” working in the Middle East as spies while back in Rome a small handful of us non-agents wrote and edited the paper.

In blissful ignorance of my real employer, I set off for Berlin, which was a unique city-state 100 miles inside the communist DDR. (In English, we render DDR as GDR for German Democratic Republic. The country was two out of three: it was German and it was a republic,meaning there was no monarch. Democratic? Not so much.)

That late summer of 1961 the early was only several courses of crudely cemented cinderblock surmounted with with some strands of barbed wire. The Wall was so low I could see over it; the cinderblock rose no higher than four to five feet and in some places it was only three feet high. It was set back a couple of meters from the sector border line, which meant anyone who cleared the cinderblock and wire had to jog several paces to freedom. That short jog was enough distance to give the dreaded DDR Volkspolizei — People’s Police, or VoPos — a chance to shoot defectors. And they did. Regularly.

On September 5, the Rome Daily American carried a first-person account I filed after riding in a two-hour U.S. Army jeep patrol along the Wall in the American sector. There were four enlisted men in the jeep — a driver, a sergeant who was in charge, and the two-man crew of the machine gun mounted behind the front seats. The story was headlined “A Jeep Ride Along Berlin’s ‘Chinese Wall.’” The G.I.s called it a Chinese wall, not realizing that the Great Wall of China had been built to keep people out, while the Berlin Wall was built to keep a captive population in. As we drove, East Berliners who spotted us looked around cautiously for VoPos and, if they saw none, waved to us. VoPos, on the other hand, tended to stare at us through binoculars or unsling their rifles when we came into view.

The very next day, September 6, I ignored Ed Hill’s warning and crossed over into East Berlin through Checkpoint Charlie — the only opening between east and west in the American sector — and I strolled around East Berlin. World War II had ended 16 years earlier and while West Berlin still exhibited some damage, East Berlin looked as if the war had ended 16 days earlier. There was rubble everywhere. In vacant lots here and there I saw parked Soviet tanks, their crews lying on the fenders and turrets, sunning themselves. I walked deeper into the Communist zone, never realizing my two pieces of identification might be dangerous — a press card from a CIA-front and a passport with a year-old 14-day Soviet visa and stamps indicating I had been in Leningrad and Moscow for only six of those 14 days. (Six days into a student tour of Russia in the summer of 1960, I had been arrested for distributing “noxious anti-Soviet propaganda” — a Russian version of Life Magazine — and expelled from the Soviet Union. I had been on a student tour sponsored by the National Student Association which, we later learned, was also a CIA front.)

When I headed back toward West Berlin, all the tanks were lined up on the streets, their engines roaring, dirty exhaust fumes filling the air. The crews were wearing their helmets and there were companies of infantry — both Soviet and the East German NV troops (National Volksarmee, or National People’s Army) — in formation behind the tanks. This looked serious, so I hurried to Checkpoint Charlie and presented my passport to an East German border patrol officer, who was too preoccupied to study it very closely and let me pass through. Just beyond the crossing gate, I learned the reason for the border patrol officer’s preoccupation and the tank-and-infantry alert: television.

NBC talk show host Jack Parr had brought his program to Berlin and, for the benefit of the cameras, the army loaned him 50 fully-equipped infantrymen, a jeep armed with a .50 cal, and a few high-ranking officers. With his little army, Parr staged a war game, having the G.I.s double time toward the wall, carrying their weapons at port arms. This was alarming enough to get the Soviets to scramble their tanks which, in turn, provoked the Americans to scramble their tanks. On either side of Checkpoint Charlie there were dozens of tanks and hundreds of troops lined up, facing each other because Jack Parr decided to invent reality television by playing soldier in the most dangerous city on the planet. Fortunately, no soldiers on either side of the checkpoint got trigger-happy and both armies stood down after a confrontation that lasted hours. It was the first time I observed television becoming, rather than covering, a news story. As a print reporter, I waxed self-righteous about that.

The coincidence of my stroll through East Berlin at the exact moment Jack Parr and crew decided to see how close they could come to igniting World War III, was matched by another coincidence 28 years later.

At the time I was supervising producer of ABC-TV’s Home Show, a nice mix of homey content that was rendered obsolete by the birth of the Home and Garden Television cable network. In the autumn of 1989, the East German government had begun loosening the restraints on its people; allowing East Germans to walk into West Berlin at specified times through some of the checkpoints. It was clear that it was only a matter of time before the GDR collapsed. Our show’s executive producer, Woody Fraser, decided to send Bruce Jenner, as a correspondent, and me, as his producer, to Berlin to do some pre-Thanksgiving segments with U.S. troops on the East/West border and to talk to Berliners about the gift of freedom.

On the ninth of November, 1989 Jenner and I were set up to do a live feed. Because of the time difference, it was night in Berlin and our lights illuminated our broadcast platform and a portion of Wall. The Wall itself looked nothing like the one I had seen in 1961. It was concrete, not cinderblock and rose to the height of a two-story building. On the Western side it was covered with graffiti. Just over the Wall patrolling VoPos and their police dogs stood on high scaffolding, the men visible from the knees up. As soon as it was clear we were going to be broadcasting, they began waving at us, smiling broadly. It was a world removed from my introduction to the VoPos three decades earlier.

Five minutes before we went on the air live we caught an amazing break: the East German government announced it was opening the wall at the Brandenburg Gate, a symbolic act that signified the end of the divisive Wall. West Berliners took that announcement as clearance to attack the wall and they immediately had at it with hammers, sledges and anything they could lay their hands on — all of it unfolding as we went live on the air. Even the VoPos atop the scaffolding got caught up in the moment, leaning over the Wall and shouting encouragement to the hammering West Berliners. By a fluke of converging happenstances, ABC’s Home Show — a cooking and homestyle program — scooped every television news operation in America on this historic story.

When our live feed to Los Angeles finished, our translator handed me a shard of the Wall which he had secured from a hammer-swinging man who was so young he had never known a time when his city wasn’t divided. That’s the piece in my lucite case.




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George Merlis

George Merlis is the founder and president of Experience Media Consulting. He is an award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist who has been doing media training, presentation training and crisis communications consulting for more than two decades. He has been day city editor of the nation's largest-circulation afternoon newspaper and executive producer of two of the three network morning news programs, Good Morning American and the CBS Morning News. He also served as executive producer of Entertainment Tonight.