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The Berlin Wall: Anchoring the Breaking Story : Television: The news stars were rushed to Berlin in droves for what turned out to be greater photo-ops than inspired reporting. Even local stations got in on the act.

November 13, 1989|HOWARD ROSENBERG

It looks very suspicious. How did the TV networks get the East German government to open its borders and raze parts of the infamous Berlin Wall during the November ratings sweeps?

Tom Brokaw was already in West Berlin with the "NBC Nightly News" when Thursday's historic announcement was made, symbolically getting the jump on his biggest competitors, Dan Rather of CBS and Peter Jennings of ABC, just as Brokaw and Jennings were left in the dust earlier this year as Rather and CNN's Bernard Shaw reported live from Beijing as tumultuous history was being made in China. Take that!

But not for long.

After completing their Thursday newscasts, Rather and Jennings were themselves airlifted to West Berlin, where they were shortly joined at the hip with Brokaw in front of the wall and famed Brandenberg Gate, telling their viewers, in effect: "Ich bin ein Berliner" . . . too!

The trio of Mt. Rushmore icons was hardly needed to signify the enormity of this latest, loudest, deafening echo of glasnost. Instead, their presence mirrored the very star-filtered soul of TV news, for built into their images was the message that having them on the scene would somehow lift the level of reporting, which was already high. Not only that, but having them there would surely make them benefactors too, vividly etching them into the history none of us would ever forget.

Hereafter, when we think of East Germans finally gaining their freedom, our memories will also include Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather.

All of the networks had been gathering their forces for accelerated coverage of East Germany, but as changes there began spiraling ever faster early last week, NBC brought in nine reporters from its international bureaus.

With the talent, why Brokaw too? "Brokaw is the focal point for NBC, the man people tune in for and focus on," David Miller, director of international news for NBC, said from New York, in effect also defining the institutionalized supremacy of anchors in newscasts.

As it turned out, Brokaw had the lowest profile of the Big Three anchors Friday. "Yes, I have been on top of the wall several times . . . ," he told viewers at one point.

Merely mentioning it was not sufficient for Jennings and Rather, who were shown Friday scaling the wall like Batman, almost as if it were their personal prop. There was Jennings on top. And there was Rather, climbing the wall "to have a better look at the other side." As we got a better look at him.

There too was Jennings peering into a car to interview an East Berliner. There was Rather, filling much of the TV picture himself while interviewing former West Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt, and again as he conversed with correspondent Eric Engberg at his side, before and after Engberg's story, almost as if he were being reported to personally.

The overwhelming bulk of the TV coverage last week and through the weekend consisted of stirring pictures and human-interest stories capturing the disbelief, curiosity and euphoria of Germans on both sides of the wall. Nevertheless, it seemed almost that the various elements of television were chipping off sections of the story for their own purposes just as Germans were hacking away at the wall and carrying off chunks to keep for posterity, or sell.

On "The Pat Sajak Show" Friday, comedian Harry Shearer suggested a sales pitch: "It imprisoned people for . . . years, now it can be a valuable part of your living room."

Or TV program.

ABC's "PrimeTime Live" moved swiftly Thursday, setting up a Sam Donaldson interview with former President Reagan, who was not very responsive, as if this time the chopper was whirring inside his head. And among other things, the weekend brought "Saturday Night at the Berlin Wall With Connie Chung and Dan," minus simulations.

In the curious, grating way that TV journalists interview each other, Chung in New York asked Rather in West Berlin to assess parallels between the freedom movements in East Germany and China. Later, Rather read Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's mind concerning his scheduled summit meeting with President Bush: "Gorbachev is going to come to the summit and say. . . ."

Meanwhile, Brokaw reappeared on NBC's "Sunday Today" with the program's co-anchor Garrick Utley, who had arrived from New York. "What's going to happen now in terms of the politics?" Utley, a veteran reporter who likely knows German affairs better than the man he was interviewing, asked Brokaw.

The most inventive interview of the TV coverage occurred locally, Thursday on KABC-TV Channel 7 when "Eyewitness News" restaurant critic Elmer Dills--who spent much of the '50s in West Berlin--was debriefed by anchors Harold Greene and Marianne Bannister.

It was Channel 7 reporter Gene Gleeson who had the most imposing assignment. Dispatched by the station to West Berlin, Gleeson delivered live telephone and satellite reports on developments at the wall throughout Thursday's Channel 7 newscasts.

Unfortunately, he was in Frankfurt.

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