For the 49th episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Nick Hirshon spoke with Mike Conway about the controversial production of a 1962 NBC documentary that captured the digging of a tunnel beneath the Berlin Wall to sneak East Germans to the West.
Mike Conway is an associate professor in The Media School at Indiana University Bloomington. The second vice president of American Journalism Historians Association, Conway is the author of Contested Ground: ‘The Tunnel’ and the Struggle over Television News in Cold War America.
This episode is sponsored by The Media School at Indiana University.
Nick Hirshon: 00:08 Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to re-examine the stories you thought you knew, and the ones you were never told. I’m your host, Nick Hirshon, guiding you through our own drafts of history.
00:25 This episode is sponsored by the Media School at Indiana University, combining decades-long traditions of journalism and communications with the commitment to preparing students for 21st-century media careers.
00:40 At the height of the Cold War, NBC preempted a drama series and an episode of the Price is Right to air an innovative documentary named The Tunnel. The film was controversial both for what it showed and what it represented. Viewers watched a group of college students undertake a secretive project to dig a tunnel beneath the Berlin Wall and sneak East Germans across the border to the West. The film depicted the dangers of the five-month effort – flooding, illness, and fears that someone involved in digging the tunnel would betray the others.
01:15 They then watched a family make a daring escape into the West Berlin night. And all of this almost never aired. Government officials in the United States and Europe thought The Tunnel was a threat to national security. Journalists for print and radio outlets said television was tackling a serious subject beyond its competence. But the documentary was also praised as a triumph of narrative visual storytelling, drawing more than 13.5 million viewers and capturing three Emmy Awards.
In this episode, we examine the making of The Tunnel with Mike Conway, a television historian and journalism professor at Indiana University and the author of the new book Contested Ground: The Tunnel and the Struggle over Television News in Cold War America. Mike, welcome to the Journalism History podcast.
Mike Conway: 02:10 Well, thanks, Nick. I appreciate you all inviting me to be part of it. This has been a wonderful way for us to get our research out, so I thank all of you who are involved with the Journalism History podcast for talking with us about our research.
Nick Hirshon: 02:22 Well, thank you for making the time with us. I know that you have a lot of research underway, I’m sure, and so we appreciate getting some minutes here to talk to you about your new book. I think this is a really fascinating topic about television news history, something we don’t often hear too much about. Of course you discuss that in the book. So I’d like to start – and there’s so many places we could here – but start our discussion on Contested Ground with the person who I believe is really at the center of your book, Reuven Frank. He was a television news producer for NBC. You mentioned how he was born on December 7, 1920, in Montreal. Grew up in Toronto. His family moved to New York in 1940. And he’s known for a lot of accomplishments that you’ve gone through in the book. He created the famous Huntley-Brinkley Report of David Brinkley, Chet Huntley. Going to get into that in a second, but first can you just introduce us a little bit to Reuven Frank. Tell us a little bit about his background.
Mike Conway: 03:17 Yes. He’s a fascinating person, and I’d have to say probably one of the most important people in the first decades of American television news. I was lucky enough to interview him. I did a couple oral history interviews with him a few years before he died. And after talking with him and reading his book about his years in broadcast news, I just realized that there was so much more to Reuven Frank and his involvement with early television news that I wanted to write about him in some way. But he was a person that loved journalism from his earliest schooling years. So, as you said, he kind of started in high school when he was still in Canada. Then when he came to the U.S., he got involved in journalism in any way he could. And then he was – after college – he got involved with the graduate program at Columbia, started the program, then had to go off to World War II and then came back and finished it.
04:17 And he, like most people, he started out with a print journalism career. Worked in Newark, New Jersey, and then kind of fate brought him to television at a period of time when it was just starting to take off as a mass medium. He moved to NBC in 1950. And at that point they were about one out of every ten households had a TV. So he kind of grew up with television news, working his way up to NBC. And since television took off so quickly that ten years later, he was one of the key kind of founders of television with just ten years of experience. So he had built his way up from being a writer on the old Camel News Caravan to being the top producer. And, as you said, the person that created the Huntley-Brinkley Report and did numerous documentaries, election night coverage, political convention coverage. So when television became a big deal by 1960, when about nine out of ten households had a television, he was the one that was kind of in charge of the most popular news program of any format in the country, which was the Huntley-Brinkley Report.
Nick Hirshon: 05:25 And so you’ve brought us right up to the early 1960s, which is where the episode in your book kind of begins – the story of the tunnel. So in August of 1961 Reuven Frank was traveling with David Brinkley, as I mentioned before, to Vienna, and they were going to work on this project named Our Man where Brinkley was going to go globe-trotting. He went to these different places around the world and presented them to his viewers with his unique perspective and delivery, as you put it. And while they’re stopping in Berlin on their way to Vienna, Frank is asleep. What happens?
Mike Conway: 05:58 Well, it’s fascinating because Reuven Frank doesn’t speak German, so they were there in Berlin and there were so many stories happening about the emigration from East Berlin and East Germany to the West. They were just coming, stopping in Berlin to kind of help the crew in Berlin, the NBC crew there, with whatever stories they were doing. But when Reuven went down to breakfast on a Sunday, he wondered why everybody was so agitated and reading the newspapers. He had to ask someone, and it turned out that they had shut down – they had started the construction, or at least shutting down the border between East and West Berlin as he was there. So he woke up to the beginning of what we know of the Berlin Wall.
Nick Hirshon: 06:40 And just incredible for a journalist to actually be at the scene unexpectedly when a major world story breaks.
06:48 I’ve seen some interviews where Reuven Frank has described just kind of that serendipity of being at Berlin in that moment. So the border between West Berlin, East Berlin is shut down August 1961. Then the next spring, 1962, a group of students from Berlin’s Technical University decide they’re going to start working on this tunnel to help their friends escape to West Berlin. And you describe how they needed a building on the West Berlin side of the wall where they could dig in a basement without any notice. They don’t want to be detected by the police. They actually make this bold decision as you describe it. They’re going to dig in a popular location in Berlin. They figured the East Germans would think no one could possibly be so brash as to attempt an escape project in this sort of obvious location. So they start digging on May 9, 1962. They go below the sewer pipes, the streetcar lines. This is really dramatic. And of course The Tunnel itself would be, the documentary. Eventually they realize that they need money for supplies. So where do they turn now?
Mike Conway: 07:50 Well, this is where the, where the story gets interesting and where it kind of ties in Reuven Frank’s background and what he is learning about television as a medium. He is learning that really it’s – television was better at helping you experience a news story than maybe the straight information. How is it – what he had been wrestling with for ten, twelve years is how was television news different than newspapers? And that’s what he had been learning. So when the wall went up, he had told the crew in Berlin, the NBC crew, saying, ‘We have to – it’s going to be hard to get into East Berlin now. We have to find ways to explain what is happening, what’s going on on the other side.’
08:31 So when tunneling became a big deal in the early part of ’62, when the East Germans had started to shut down these other ways people had been escaping, NBC just let it be known in the circles of people who were involved in these kinds of projects that they would like to be part of one. Not after it was finished, but while they were digging. And it just so happened that these students, they had first gone, they’d gotten a little bit of money out of West Berlin and some of the – they had to kind of funnel the money quietly because it was illegal to really be helping dig tunnels according to kind of the arrangements between the four powers after World War II. And then they went to a – there was a Hollywood studio working on a movie about a tunnel under the Berlin Wall at that moment.
09:19 They went to them, they couldn’t get any funding, but then they told them about this reporter at NBC who was looking for this kind of a project. So they approached NBC and they knew that this was a controversial, the correspondent Piers Anderton. So he did not want to talk about it on any kind of telegraph or telephone out of Berlin because he knew people were listening. So he waited until he was going to the United States for his own wedding. And at his wedding reception, he cornered Reuven Frank and said, ‘Hey, we have a tunnel, but they want money.’ And that’s where they get, that’s how NBC gets involved with the digging of this tunnel.
Nick Hirshon: 09:59 And we’ll see later that NBC’s willingness to pay the diggers becomes a point of contention, certainly among other journalists who maybe were just jealous they didn’t get this story, were suspicious of television to begin with. But in any event, NBC sets up a film camera and an apartment with a view of the building in East Berlin. They’re anticipating capturing every moment, of course, of this tunnel escape. So they have this film camera set up where the people are going to enter to access the tunnel. They also had cameramen positioned in the basement of a building in West Berlin to film the first people who were going to crawl up the ladder from the tunnel. And as you described this, it’s kind of dramatic. Frank was not in touch with the people at the tunnel. So he’s waiting deep into the night and as the hours are passing – midnight, 1 a.m., 2 a.m. – he hasn’t heard any word on whether this plan to have all these people escape through the tunnel has been delayed or compromised or successful. And finally he gets some word from the people on the NBC News staff. So what happened in those early morning hours and the immediate aftermath?
Mike Conway: 11:06 Well, it was, it was quite dramatic for the people there. And as you would imagine, the people who were escaping through, because there had been tunnel failures. There had been many failed attempts to escape and a lot of them ended up in death. So, and the other thing to remember is this tunnel, these students were so meticulous. It took them four –more than four months to dig this tunnel under the Berlin Wall on underneath Bernauer Strasse. So they already had so much film from all those months of digging. And Reuven Frank, as you said, he on purpose did not want to communicate with his crew there because he didn’t want them to get caught. He also didn’t want any competitors to know that they were working on this. So he did not know. He had not seen one frame of any of the filming until he showed up the day or two before it was supposed to break through.
Mike Conway: 12:00 So he and his editor sat in a room and watched these hours of film and they were then just waiting for this moment that you just, that you just described. So it was just very dramatic because they don’t know, they’re not going to, he doesn’t want to be there at the spot because that might give it away. So they just have to sit and wait. And, and it was hours because of a lot of things that went on in trying to get the people to the spot in East Berlin under the cover of night and without the Vopos of the East Berlin police able to catch them. So it was quite dramatic. And then they burst through, as you said, early in the morning with all this film, and it was an unbelievably successful escape – at that point, the most successful escape, in terms of people, that had happened under the Berlin Wall.
Nick Hirshon: 12:49 And so now Frank has this coveted footage. What does he do? Because he’s worried about, ‘am I going to be able to get out all of this footage out of the country?’ You can’t lose it at this point. So how does he kind of handle those next few tense hours?
Mike Conway: 13:04 Well, it’s, it does get very dramatic because they – you have to remember when Germany was split up, Berlin is in the middle of East Germany. So to get out of West Berlin, even though that’s part of the American side or the West Germany side, you have to go through East Germany, either the airspace if you leave by air, or by land. So the worry was, can they smuggle this secret film out of East Berlin? And so they spent a little time in East Berlin because they wanted to cut down the film and edit it into at least a working documentary.
13:48 They didn’t want to have to take all the hours of film back to New York with them. So they kind of edited down the best material. Then they took that film. And they decided it was time to go to New York. And there is an interesting anecdote that they made it to Frankfurt and then they’re on the plane to go from Frankfurt, Germany, to the United States. And he had – Reuven had stuck it, it was in a bag under his airline seat. And just before the plane was taking off the people, security came aboard and asked Reuven to stand up. He thought they had been caught. But instead it turned out that Willy Brandt, the mayor of – who was involved in Berlin politics and later was running West Germany, he wanted those specific seats and they asked him to move. And Reuven didn’t have a chance to retrieve the film. And so all across to New York, Willy Brandt is sitting on top of the film that became The Tunnel. And luckily he left the plane, never saw what was under a seat, and Reuven Frank was able to grab it and then run to NBC with the film and the rough cut of their documentary.
Nick Hirshon: 14:53 It has all the hallmarks of a political thriller. As you’re describing it, I can kind of see, like, Tom Hanks as Reuven Frank as they’re trying to get out of the airport, he thinks he’s going to be stopped and all of this sort of stuff. It’s really incredible as you’ve been able to tell this story. I knew it had been told maybe in some pieces before, but to tell it so fully it’s, you know, it just seems, I hope you get a film deal out of this at some point. But so, you know, they get the footage and now NBC has this decision to make. There’s going to be some controversy here. They decide first to schedule a documentary for a Friday evening, October 31, 1962, at 7:30 p.m. That would put The Tunnel up against Rawhide on CBS, The Flintstones on ABC. And then this is another very fascinating part of your book.
15:41 The criticism starts coming in, and not only from the United States and Berlin governments, which you might expect, but from fellow journalists. And the book describes how Time magazine presented NBC’s payment to the diggers in exchange for film rights as unethical journalism that tarnished “the difficult and dangerous work of idealistic diggers.” The president of ABC News – and now we’re getting into fellow TV outlets; it’s not just print media – said that NBC was providing communists with “valuable propaganda” and “embarrassing the United States and its allies.” And the New York Times television critic, television columnist, Jack Gould, referred to the NBC News staff as quote “adventurous laymen dabbling in a dangerous topic they did not understand.” So why did The Tunnel, which seemed to be such a successful project, they were able to get all of this incredible footage at the height of the Cold War, you know, a big news event. Why did The Tunnel spawn so many of these attacks from fellow journalists?
Mike Conway: 16:45 You know, that’s the reason – the reason why I chose to focus on The Tunnel for this book was because of the reaction that I found so fascinating. And so it’s, the book is, kind of, has a couple of different layers and one is the tunnel story itself, as you said, it’s such a wonderful story. That’s why I kind of used the first chapter to just tell the interesting story of the tunnel and the documentary. But the thing that really struck me when I was working on this was the wild reactions that people had to this documentary. Most of these reactions happened before more than a handful of people had ever seen one frame of film. And it really, at one point years ago, this was just going to be one part of a book. But as I really tried to dig into this reaction to The Tunnel, I realized what I had was here, the reaction and how people were responding to the rise of television news. Television news by this point is becoming as popular as newspapers.
17:48 And so, kind of the shift in how journalism worked in the United States was happening and it was really causing a lot of people consternation to try to figure out what, what is this thing? What is television? Of course the elites and kind of the high-brow people had always kind of dismissed television. It was the boob tube, the idiot box. It was all entertainment. It was turning us into zombies and, you know, all these kinds of negative things about it. And television news had been kind of – print journalists had already kind of dismissed radio news back in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s. And then when TV comes around print journalism once again is like, ‘Well, this isn’t serious news. We do serious news in the newspaper.’ So that’s what I had to really dig into to get to this reaction. So to explain what the reaction was, a few different things were going on.
18:38 The first thing was this payment, that NBC had paid the diggers for exclusive access for all these months of filming. And so NBC rationalized it by saying, ‘Well, they need it for supplies. We’re just helping them. The tunnel was already underway when NBC got involved.” So Reuven Frank said, ‘They were going to dig the tunnel anyway. We just made the payment so we could have exclusive access.’ Well, of course that brings up ethical concerns of paying for a story, et cetera. And they knew that it was controversial. They had hidden the money from most of the people at NBC. Very few at NBC knew about this payment. And the diggers, even the main diggers did not tell the rest of the diggers involved in the tunnel that there was this money arrangement. So they thought they could keep it quiet, I guess. And so NBC’s first mistake was, when they came back with the documentary film, they didn’t say a word. They didn’t.
19:34 They had scheduled the documentary to run in October, but they were just quietly working on it, not saying a word, and it was print journalists in Berlin that figured out that there was a payment involved. And so that’s how the story came out that NBC had a documentary. It was Time magazine saying, ‘Hey, there’s something fishy going on here. NBC paid these people money to be involved in this, in this project.’ So that’s where the print journalism complaints started, was this idea of paying for access. But at the same time, there was a lot of, a part of the fascinating that helped me piece this story together was that the State Department declassified a lot of documents from this era. So you can read the cables between Berlin and New York and Washington about what was happening behind the scenes. And it’s really kind of a – It’s interesting to read and kind of amusing at some points because part of the State Department’s, their anger was they did not know about the tunnel.
Mike Conway: 20:36 And until it got into the newspaper – first, the State Department didn’t know that there was a successful tunnel escape until the New York Times printed it three or four days later. Then they didn’t know that NBC was involved until once again Time magazine, then the New York Times, explained that part of it. So they kind of had egg on their face that they didn’t know what was happening with this tunnel. So that was kind of part of the – that was part of the government’s. And so both the West German government, the U.S. government, then you throw in the East German government, the Russian government, they all came out and said this documentary needs to be scrapped. Now of course they haven’t seen any of it, but they’ve all come out in favor of, ‘NBC should just drop this project. It’s a bad idea.’ And then throw into that the diggers that dug the tunnel that didn’t know about the payment, they were upset because they didn’t see any of the money and they thought that maybe the ones who got the money had kind of disappeared with whatever was left over from the money that was used for the supplies.
21:41 So they find themselves, instead of this amazing scoop documentary, now they were under attack by all sides by the later part of September, early October, trying to defend themselves for this exciting documentary and, and trying to kind of hold the line about everyone who was against it.
Nick Hirshon: 22:03 It’s incredible. You described even some of the diggers disagreed with each other because as people are going through this tunnel, there is water that is starting to fill up. I guess there was a water main break and you start having, you know, water fill up in the tunnel, and there’s disagreement among the diggers about should we continue to get people through, just as many as we possibly can? Should we try to pump out the water? Or is that just going to call more attention to this project, jeopardize all of it? And so they’re starting to fight about this, you know, can we get more people through, is it too dangerous, et cetera. They get upset and some of them don’t even show up when NBC has this party that it throws for them as part of the documentary. The government, of course, all these fellow journalists. So NBC is already under attack from all comers you described. Then in the final days before it was supposed to air, another world catastrophe or potential catastrophe comes up: the Cuban missile crisis. And fifty million Americans are watching President John F. Kennedy famously accuse the Soviet Union of building missile bases in Cuba. You describe this period from October 22 to October 28 as the closest the United States and the Soviet Union come to war than anytime during the Cold War. So now NBC was already being criticized by the journalists, by the governments, by the diggers. How do they respond to the Cuban missile crisis?
Mike Conway: 23:28 Well, and this is where it gets interesting in terms of American journalism, too, because a lot of things that happen in journalism that maybe journalists don’t want us always to know. So not in, not do I just have the cables from the State Department that shows what they were thinking, but I also know what’s happening with the higher-ups, not Reuven Frank, but above him, Robert Kitner, the head of NBC. So it’s clear that NBC is worried about all – before the Cuban missile crisis becomes public knowledge – they’re worried about all of the, all of the criticism of this documentary, especially West German political people. So Robert Kitner from NBC, he sends an attorney over to West Berlin to try to talk people out of criticizing the documentary, trying to show them that, you know, if you want more attention to the Berlin Wall and the trouble that this wall has caused, you should like this documentary because it shows the lengths people are going to, to escape.
24:29 And so that’s happening. But when the Cuban missile crisis, it also might – so NBC is, is pleading with the State Department at the very time that they’re already having secret meetings with President Kennedy about what to do about the Cuban Missile Crisis, but the reporters don’t know this. So they think that might’ve had something to do with some of the harsh reaction was they’re dealing with a very serious issue. So when President Kennedy went on national TV and announced that they had found that the missiles, then NBC was able to quietly cancel The Tunnel, or postpone it. I shouldn’t say ‘cancel.’ Postpone it. Because they just said it wasn’t the right time to be dealing with this documentary. So that gave NBC a little bit of cover and then at the very time they would have broadcast The Tunnel, they were going to do whatever they knew about the Cuban missile crisis at that time. And of course, because it was able to resolve itself quickly enough, it was over by the time they ended up doing a documentary called A Clear and Present Danger about the Cuban missile crisis. So they did do a documentary in that October 31 time slot, it just wasn’t on the tunnel. So that bought NBC a little bit of time to try to let all of the complaining and all the criticisms of the documentary to go away.
Nick Hirshon: 25:48 And seeing how this is placed right in the middle of the Cuban missile crisis really highlights the tensions here and why some people are concerned, ‘OK, this could be good journalism, but also is it putting Americans at risk? Is this not the right time?’ You know, a classic question that journalists have faced in war, but it really is highlighted here. So eventually some of those tensions simmer down. The Tunnel is rescheduled for a Monday night, December 10. And then it gets a whole new wave of reaction. As you mentioned before, most of the reaction was really from people at the start who had not even seen it, who just are saying, ‘Well, we know what they did. And we think that the fact that they paid the diggers is wrong. The fact that they’re highlighting these tunnels is dangerous.’ But now that it actually airs, audiences get to see it, critics get to see it, people who are voting for major industry awards. So what’s the reaction when it airs?
Mike Conway: 26:46 Well, it’s interesting because it, then it gets into this other layer of the book that I wanted to get into, ’cause Reuven Frank is not just the most, you know, one of the more powerful people in TV news. I argue he understood television as a communication platform, especially for news and public affairs, better than almost anybody, even up till today. He understood the power of the visuals, how to use sounds and pictures and words all together to create this way of communicating important news. So the reason he really knew what he had with The Tunnel was he was so excited that he finally had a story that he could show as it happened, not after it was over in a press conference, et cetera, et cetera. He had all this film of the digging of the tunnel, the escape, which is so dramatic.
27:40 He has all of this. So for him, that was kind of the moment, as he describes it, the power of TV news. He wrote a very famous memo after The Tunnel ran that is pretty well known in TV news circles among video storytellers. And it’s basically that TV is a transmission of experience. And he really saw that that was the power of television. So he was able to do that with this tunnel documentary. So he really didn’t quite understand why there was so much criticism of it. I mean, to get back to the payment part, which the print journalists were just so high and mighty about, I mean this is the same period of time when Life magazine was paying the Mercury astronauts so they could have exclusive access to their personal stories. Every newspaper buys photographs of events that they don’t shoot themselves.
28:32 So it’s this, it was kind of this odd, you know, way to criticize an entire medium. And it really, it also brings out this idea that in the Cold War, journalists, especially on the national level, often felt that they were working with the government to protect us all from the Cold War. The idea that they knew what stories should be published and what not. And they look to television, say, ‘Well, these people, they’re not, they’re not mature enough to know what to do with this information.’ And this documentary is clearly part of it. But when it gets on the air, you’ve got a ninety-minute documentary. It’s, there is no interviews in ninety minutes. It’s all the film of this one tunnel escape. Reuven Frank cut out all the other ideas he had to tell a bigger story and he does ninety minutes on what these diggers went through.
29:25 All the drama of the main breaks, as you said, people who had been caught in other tunnels and were in jail, really dramatic. And then of course, watching these people, at least twenty-nine people crawl through this tunnel and come up to freedom in West Berlin, it’s just dramatic. So the reviews were what he would have expected, I guess, that they said, ‘Wow, this is like a very exciting Hollywood movie, but it’s real.’ It’s like, ‘This is dramatic.’ So most of the critics were like, ‘Whoa, this is what television can be when it really sets its mind to it.’ So it, and because the controversy had drawn so much attention and the print journalists kept bringing it out. When the State Department was criticizing the documentary before anyone had seen it, and they called it risky and irresponsible and against the best interests of the United States,
30:20 this all got into the newspapers and was passed along by the wire services. So when the documentary finally ran, it got a heck of an audience because of the controversy and maybe partly because of how well he had produced it. So it got a huge audience for a documentary. It was able to hold its own against Lucy and the top CBS programs of that year. So it was a success on all these different levels, both from the rating standpoint, from the way it was put together, the reviews. And then of course the television Academy kind of recognized it. It ended up with three Emmys including, there used to be an Emmy for the overall best program of any format and The Tunnel won that Emmy as well.
Nick Hirshon: 31:13 And so at a time when Americans are increasingly turning to television over radio, newspapers for their news, this is one of those projects that shows, as you alluded to, TV news can be sophisticated. It can show a serious side of world events and maybe bring us right there in a way that radio and print obviously cannot. So you mentioned earlier you had the opportunity to conduct oral history interviews with Reuven Frank in 2003. This was a few years before he passed away in 2006. What was that experience like? I mean, you’re sitting with a titan of television news, someone who I’m sure you had studied in your own program and just come to really appreciate all of his contributions. What was it like to finally be sitting across from him, meeting him?
Mike Conway: 32:00 It really was a, just a such a wonderful experience. It’s hard to describe because I had a career in television news myself in local television news and it all goes back to even my mentor as an undergraduate here at Indiana University. The work of Reuven Frank and these people that he influenced of a certain type of television news that we can call video storytelling, visual storytelling, a lot of these different things. That had been, I was very passionate about that.
32:32 Through the work of names people might know, you know, someone like Charles Kuralt, who was at CBS, or Bob Dotson, who just retired from NBC a few years ago who also worked with Reuven. Larry Hatteberg in Kansas who I worked for. So this type of storytelling, I realized he was the one that really had gotten people thinking about it through his work. Not just the documentary but also The Huntley-Brinkley Report and all these different ways of, all these different ways of, of telling the news on television. So to actually get to spend time with him was just, it was fascinating. It was like talking to a person who is speaking about things that seems so obvious about what the strengths of television were. And then when you go back into the ’60s and he’s saying the same things and people are looking at him like he’s crazy because they just at a point where they just weren’t ready to accept television.
33:28 But at the same time it’s, this is just kind of the elite or the print journalists because the public is already watching television news at an unbelievable event. By ’62, ’63, The Huntley-Brinkley Report is the most popular journalistic platform in the world every night. And so the general public already had figured this out that this is an interesting way to keep up on the news. And Reuven was just trying to explain that to other people in the journalism field. So for me it was something that I knew as soon as I met him, I wanted to write about him in some way. And it took many years in a journey that took a lot of wrong turns before this became kind of the way I just, I decided to tell his story as well as the rise of television news and this interesting documentary all at the same time.
Nick Hirshon: 34:18 And around the time that you interviewed Reuven Frank, 2003, you also interviewed Don Hewitt, who was still at that time firmly in charge of 60 Minutes. So Frank and Hewitt, obviously working at NBC, CBS, had different philosophies on how to effectively use television to cover the news. Again, you’re here with two titans of industry who have these differing kind of views. So how were their opinions differing on what we should be doing with TV news?
Mike Conway: 34:44 And that really is kind of fascinating, that these two people that really, I think, you’d have to say there were two of the most important people, you know, Hewitt’s got into TV in ’48, Don Hewitt, and then Reuven Frank in 1950. Don Hewitt was in charge of the network news desk at CBS until about ’62. Then, of course, he creates 60 Minutes later on, which to this day is still the most popular, most profitable TV program of any kind in history. And he ran the program, as you said, until roughly 2004. But they do – they were two entirely, not entirely different. But it is fascinating for anyone, any of us who are deep into this. Don Hewitt didn’t care much for the visuals in television. He was all about the audio, the script. So even to this day, if you watch 60 Minutes, it’s not the most visual program other than the interviews.
35:40 They do a very good job when they light the interviews, get the nice close-ups and they make sure the correspondent, because it’s, you know, it’s in some ways a little bit of celebrity journalism. Whereas Reuven was all about the pictures. He did not need to see the correspondent on the air. They were not the story. The story was the story. So he was very much into telling the stories through the visuals and sounds with the recorder being more of a guide, trying to stay out of the way because the story is whatever you’re trying to tell, not the person, the reporter. Two entirely different ways. And so it was kind of in some ways sad because they both came up with the format that 60 Minutes has. NBC had its version of it that Reuven produced way back at roughly the same time in the late sixties.
36:29 But NBC just would not leave Reuven’s show alone. They kept moving it around, canceling it, bringing it back, whereas CBS, they moved 60 Minutes around for a while, then they settled it down right after NFL football and we all know what the success was. So in a way, Reuven kind of said, ‘Well, I guess people bought into the 60 Minutes version better than mine,’ but as I argue, a lot of it had to do with the network never letting his format kind of have a chance after The Huntley-Brinkley Report, which of course was a major success. So he kind of then would just do his individual documentaries that he got a lot of awards for, but it was still this different – he still, to the end of his life, that it was television is visuals, it’s telling a story, it’s narrative. That’s the best way to try to get across information on television to get people to kind of pay attention to it.
Nick Hirshon: 37:22 Well, and as we start to wrap up here, you’ve mentioned a few times now that television news has been the most popular form of journalism in the United States since the early 1960s, but the format has been underrepresented significantly in academic research. You include some statistics in your book about the maybe ten percent of articles in leading media history journals in the United States for a certain period were about television. Still we see a lot of people focusing on newspapers and maybe to a lesser extent radio or magazines, but that means that there’s been this gap on TV news history research. It’s resulted in a lot of memoirs and stray anecdotes that have kind of become the basis for much of what we know about TV news. But of course, memoirs can be biased and they aren’t necessarily done with historical accuracy. So why, in your opinion, has television news not been studied? And what is there left to explore? I know it’s a big question.
Mike Conway: 38:19 Well, what’s left to explore is basically everything. I mean that’s why if anybody wants to get involved in it, we’re just all scratching the surface. The work I’m doing is scratching the surface. And I think there are two main reasons why there isn’t more serious research into television news and its role. And the first being is that, once again, it’s a medium that kind of came into being under this negativity that somehow TV was entertainment. It couldn’t be considered serious, serious journalism. So there was kind of this elite class, and I would put most of print journalism into this, where they just weren’t going to accept what happens on television because they really believed that words had to be on paper and/or now online to be considered real journalism. There’s always been this very odd divide that way.
39:14 So then you can just say, well, the New York Times, it’s the paper of record, so I will just study that. There was a very obvious reason, too, and I run into this with my students in my journalism history class because they have to do primary source projects every semester. It’s very hard to get two primary sources of broadcast history, even though broadcasting, you know, we can say a hundred years of radio then television, much of it was never saved. If it has been saved, it’s often hidden behind a paywall because the networks want to make money on historic film or audio. And so for people like myself without a huge budget, I can’t get to this material or it doesn’t exist. And, and it’s really a tragedy that this whole broadcast era, there really isn’t – it’s hard to find material. You have to be willing to travel.
40:10 It’s not going to be online, much of it. You’re going to get to go to different archives. You’ll have to do, you’ll have to hit a lot of different archives. And that’s only, that’s network television news. If you get into local broadcasting radio or TV, then it’s even harder. It’s just scattershot. I see wonderful things pop up on Facebook feeds for historic groups, but it’s not anywhere where a scholar can really just grab at it, try to understand what they’re seeing. I’m at the beginning of a project here where we’re trying to remedy that here in the state of Indiana to try to begin an archive for radio and television history. But I’m realizing the problems of copyright and where do you find the money and where do you put the material. I see why it hasn’t happened. But I think that’s one of the main issues, too, is even if you want to study it, it is very difficult and you have to really go after it if you want to take that on as a project.
Nick Hirshon: 41:10 Well, and that makes a book like yours even more precious because there’s so few of them. So we encourage everybody listening, pick up a copy of Mike Conway’s Contested Ground: The Tunnel and the Struggle over Television News in Cold War America from the University of Massachusetts Press. And right before we wrap up, a final question that we always ask guests on this podcast: why does journalism matter?
Mike Conway: 41:36 You know, I say it to my students. I say it with my research. I mean, I can say, I can say it overall, like when they ask why do I study mid-twentieth century journalism with a focus on radio and TV? And my quick answer always is, if we knew more about what really happened in the transition from print to radio and television and everybody, all these different formats, if we knew more about that period in the twentieth century, we would be better prepared to handle kind of the chaos we’re in now of trying to figure out where journalism is going. And it’s the same thing I tell my students is that when, you know, when we talk about things that happened in any, if we just talk about American journalism history, going back to the Revolutionary War, et cetera, you can just see so many examples of things that happen again and again and, and so we shouldn’t be as surprised when things happen and changes happen in journalism history, because we can look back and see that no, this has happened before.
42:38 People who are trying to tell you, you know, a good example of it is the idea that we should leave it to the marketplace to handle journalism. That you know, that that’s the best way to keep the government out of journalism. It’s like, well, that isn’t how the United States started. The United States government was very heavily involved in promoting newspapers and journalism to try to get people to be informed to vote. So those are the things that I just think the more we know, the better informed we are and the better decisions we can make today and in the future about where journalism is going and how we get there.
Nick Hirshon: And you’ve shown us a lot of what we can learn from Reuven Frank and the making of The Tunnel. So Mike, thank you so much again for joining us on the Journalism History podcast.
Mike Conway: Great. Thank you. I appreciate it, Nick.
Nick Hirshon: Thanks for tuning into this episode of the Journalism History podcast, and additional thanks to our sponsor, the Media School at Indiana University. Until next time, I’m your host Nick Hirshon, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow: Good night, and good luck.