On one level, this is a book about a documentary and a staff memo, as well as the person responsible for both. The documentary was nearly never broadcast at all, as governments and groups on both sides of the Berlin Wall tried to kill it. The memo revealed the rationale and inspiration for the most popular source of American journalism in the early 1960s, and its ideas continue to have influence well into the twenty-first century. While one was a motion picture film and the other thirty-two pages of the printed word, they are deeply intertwined.
NBC’s Reuven Frank produced The Tunnel in 1962 and wrote the memo to his NBC television news staff the following year. Frank was one of the most influential people in the early development of television news in the United States. At the time of the documentary and memo, Frank also produced (after having created) the Huntley-Brinkley Report, NBC’s nightly newscast, which in seven years had grown to attract the largest simultaneous news audience in history. The Tunnel was one of Frank’s most cherished accomplishments in a career filled with significant achievements. The documentary helped crystallize his views on television as a communication source, which he chronicled in the staff memo, views that influenced not just documentaries but nightly newscasts and weekly public affairs programs.
Overall, this book is about a critical juncture in American journalism and media history, as people turned to a new format to learn about their world in the mid-twentieth century, just as the Cold War entered one of its most dangerous periods. The surprisingly fast ascendance of television news as the country’s top choice for information signaled the public’s acceptance, while the response from print journalism, other media professionals, and government leaders was decidedly less enthusiastic. The galvanized reception reveals a major upheaval in American news communication as all groups involved, from sources to competitors, reacted to the shifting media power dynamics.
This book is also about borders and boundaries. The Tunnel is a gripping account of a harrowing five-month project to dig a tunnel under the Berlin Wall to sneak East Germans across the border to the West. The Tunnel, and television news in general, threatened many media and practice boundaries. The US and West German governments felt the documentary crossed the boundary from being informative to being a threat to international security. The popularity of Frank’s Huntley-Brinkley Report, and all of television news, disrupted the information and economic model of media in the mid-twentieth century, causing the print journalism community as well as other media industries to protect their professional boundaries from the growing power of television.
The innovative production of and polarized reception to The Tunnel, as well as the most popular network television newscast, is best understood by a historical analysis into the making of the documentary, the writing of the memo, and the strong reaction to that broadcast and the medium. Using a variety of historical research methods and sources, including personal and company archives, historical broadcasts, production notes, internal memos, oral history interviews, declassified government documents, and newspaper and trade publications, this project converges the usually separate research areas of journalism history, broadcast history, Cold War history, and documentary film studies to analyze the production and reception of The Tunnel and Reuven Frank’s television news memo. This documentary, and television news, became contested ground as Frank negotiated the disparity of accepted practices and ethics in print journalism, television news, documentaries, the relationship between journalists and government in the Cold War, and the powerful yet fragile position of the American television networks in the 1960s.
In addition to the importance of the program and the rise of television as a mass medium, the era in which it was created is crucial to understanding a dramatic shift in American media and journalism’s relationship with the government in the mid-twentieth century. Taken together, the world situation and the upheaval in communication platforms created a critical juncture in American media and journalism history.
In the decades after World War II, television news disrupted journalism by moving past newspapers, magazines, and radio in importance to the American public. Television became a platform for moving-picture nonfiction, helping speed the demise of the theater newsreel. The medium also offered a new outlet for documentary films, providing a much larger audience than any projects from earlier in the century.
By 1962, more than nine out of ten American households had at least one television. NBC broadcast The Tunnel less than a year before network newscasts expanded from fifteen to thirty minutes as well as before the dramatic four days in 1963 when most of the country was riveted to a television set after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The first Roper Poll showing television news as more popular and trustworthy than newspapers in the United States was released the same year, but in the journalism community, the printed word was still revered as the primary and most professional communication method.1
The concept of critical juncture has been most widely used in the area of political science, including international relations and comparative politics. While scholars have taken a range of narrow to more broadly conceived approaches in identifying a critical juncture, a general definition involves a period of time when an institution, nation-state, economy, or some other defined group is in flux, allowing for a wider range of voices and choices on future direction than is available in more stable periods. Giovanni Capoccia and R. Daniel Keleman refer to these situations as “moments of fluidity.”2
The early 1960s gave way to a critical juncture in American journalism and media history because of television’s ascension as the most popular mass medium in the country at the same time as some of the Cold War’s more dangerous moments, with journalism as the main conduit passing along information to the public.
The groups involved in producing or responding to television news, including The Tunnel, had the opportunity to react in a variety of ways to this new medium. The public could have ignored television news in favor of existing formats. Print journalists could have embraced television news as a fresh new way to reach the public with important issues, especially for those people who favored the mix of visuals and audio over the printed word and for those who could not afford a newspaper or magazine subscription. Documentary filmmakers could have adopted the journalism mantra of objectivity when producing their films. Government officials could have allowed journalists, without pressure, to present all sides of international issues, even from the Soviet perspective, trusting the public to recognize the superiority of American democracy and capitalism.
None of the above scenarios played out in any meaningful way. They are mentioned only to highlight the fluid nature of this critical juncture and the other possible directions that could have been taken.
Cold War and Television
In the Cold War timeline, The Tunnel aired eight years after the height of the Red Scare spearheaded by Senator Joseph McCarthy. By 1962, the Cold War was more than a dozen years old and the fear of communism in the United States had settled into a daily existence while many members of the media remembered the people who lost their jobs after being accused of communist sympathies during the McCarthy era. The Tunnel was produced six years before the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, when politicians began to overtly question the motives of journalists as television cameras chronicled police violence against Vietnam War protestors. Finally, The Tunnel was broadcast seven years before President Richard Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew began their attacks on what they considered the liberal network television news media.
The Tunnel involves two of the key events in Cold War history: the building of the Berlin Wall and, coincidentally, the Cuban Missile Crisis. The program was conceived and produced in an era of unspoken cooperation between national journalists and government officials to keep Americans safe from communist aggression, with the government source usually holding the upper hand. The Tunnel is a rare case when the journalists did not need the government’s cooperation to produce such a program, but government leaders still expected the journalists to support US foreign policy directives.
Contested Ground is not about the peak of the Red Scare in the 1950s when Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy became one of the most powerful men in America through his constant charges of communists infiltrating American government and media. It is not about journalists or entertainers forced to testify at emotional and dramatic congressional hearings or CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow taking on McCarthy on his See It Now program. The Tunnel and its reception expand our understanding of the relationship between television and the Cold War by moving beyond those popular Cold War media touchstones.
The filming of and fight over The Tunnel happened two years after the televised Kennedy-Nixon debates and one year before television’s marathon coverage of President Kennedy’s assassination and funeral. By moving beyond these oft-described events, I hope to provide, as historian Thomas Doherty wrote, a Cold War and television “portrait more textured and multicolored than the monochrome shades fogging the popular imagination.”3
The Cold War hangs over this book, obviously given the subject matter of The Tunnel, but also because the emergence of television news occurred after World War II, as the United States’ enemies shifted from Germany and Japan back to that from before World War II: communism, specifically in the form of the Soviet Union and China. In the midst of media transitions, the American government and politicians were relentless with their messages of threats both far away, from the communist countries, and right here, the fear of subversives walking among us, slowly eroding the fabric of democracy without our diligent watch.
Cold War ideology was as constant and omnipresent in mainstream American journalism in the 1950s and 1960s as the cigarette smoke that permeated newsrooms, studios, restaurants, and bars where those journalists spent their time working and talking about work. The odor and haze were part of the scene, and the act of smoking was part of the job.
Mostly due to addiction and partly for style, Murrow was always accompanied by a waft of smoke rising next to him on camera, like a ghostly co-host, from a sometimes visible and sometimes off-camera cigarette. In a more overt example, an advertising agency made sure Camel ashtrays were visible on the NBC Camel News Caravan news desk, sometimes with a burning cigarette in view.
That stench fouled one’s clothes and seeped into the pores of one’s skin. But you didn’t notice the overpowering smell and then think about the unpleasant effect of that atmosphere until you removed your shirt at the end of the day and took a deep inhale. Maybe you wouldn’t notice its absence until decades later, when smoking had disappeared from newsrooms and, eventually, most public places. Then, when you would walk into a place that still allowed smoking, you might be overcome by the foul stench and wonder why you put up with it for all those years. The basic premise of Cold War ideology, much like smoky offices, was accepted in newsrooms across the country, just as it was accepted by most of the public, who relied on the journalists to help them understand how the world worked.
In hindsight, it is tempting to single out journalists as dupes of the government or of following simplistic Cold War themes. In reality, the two superpowers did pose a serious threat to each other and those nuclear weapons were, and are, real. Most journalists, like most Americans, worried about atomic bombs and communism. A 1961 Gallup Poll showed that more than eight of ten Americans would rather fight a nuclear war than live under communism. Journalists were well aware of how the people felt.4
Those journalists were also dependent for interviews and information about our government policies on the very government sources who were pushing the Cold War ideology. Those journalists cashed their paychecks from individuals and companies that often supported the government views on the evils of communism, or at least did not want to upset the very politicians or government officials who could influence the profit margins of those newspapers or broadcast networks and stations through new restrictions or regulations.
While Reuven Frank produced The Tunnel in 1962 and wrote the television memo in 1963, the motivations, decisions, and reactions to the broadcast and medium are the result of histories dating back at least to the start of the twentieth century. “Histories” is plural because all the groups involved, either in the production or reaction to the documentary and the rise of television news, had a separate path to 1962, with some events and people remembered and others forgotten. Each group could draw upon its own history to place The Tunnel and television news within or outside acceptable practice.
The concept of boundary work is employed throughout this project to help explain why Frank and his NBC crew produced The Tunnel in a specific way and why the program sparked such divergent and passionate responses. Reactions to television as an information source also benefit from this approach. Sociologist Thomas Gieryn first developed the idea of boundary work to describe efforts of the scientific community in the nineteenth century to gain the trust of the public as experts in areas that had previously been the domain of religious leaders. Groups use boundary work tactics to both burnish their reputation and also to protect their niche by demonizing people or other groups that attempt to encroach on their perceived expertise. Boundary work does not presuppose the group is a true profession or even that the members actually fulfill the role they propose that they play. Boundary work is aspirational. Boundary work is what the group says it does, not necessarily what it actually does.5
Gieryn proposed that boundary work is best studied in periods when a group is either trying to expand its authority into new areas or protect its boundaries from outsiders attempting to encroach into its expertise, which aligns with the idea of a critical juncture. When either expanding or protecting boundaries, groups will attempt to damage the reputation of others with similar goals, often “with labels such as ‘pseudo,’ ‘deviant,’ or ‘amateur.’ ”6
In boundary work, a group’s history is a key component of how that collection of people defines itself. Past events and issues are held up as instances of either exemplary work or deviant behavior that must not be repeated. Over time, a group can reconsider a previous event and present it in a new light. Understanding a group’s history and, more specifically, how that group employs its history to protect or expand its boundaries becomes illuminating when exploring the various responses to The Tunnel and television news.
From just the journalism aspect of The Tunnel broadcast and reaction, boundary work is a fluid process since the First Amendment precludes tests or formal accreditation to determine who is or is not a journalist. For media scholar Jane Singer, twentieth-century American print journalism used ethics as a way to marginalize new media encroachers. When threatened with radio and television, print journalists “drew on eloquent evocation of ethical standards and a declaration that the ‘traditional’ journalist would uphold them against challenges from poseurs.”7
Boundary work is especially helpful for understanding the various journalism and media groups involved in The Tunnel and television news. The early 1960s was a period of changing boundaries in the fields of journalism, television, broadcast news, and documentaries, and in Cold War ideologies. Legacy media, especially the printed word, were trying to protect their boundaries while television was becoming more powerful because of audience acceptance. Radio as an important news source in this period found its impact disappearing under the darkening shadow of television.
Boundary work helps with an understanding of not just the different groups, but how they interacted with each other. The Tunnel and the television news memo sparked the boundary work and histories of journalism, television, television news, visual storytelling, documentary film, and Cold War ideology. Each of these groups, as well as the US government, had a history that it drew upon to justify its reaction to the project. If a group felt The Tunnel did not reflect its traditions or was encroaching on its expertise, it may have ignored it or lashed out and demonized the project. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, these group histories may have run parallel, converged, or diverged, depending on the issue and the group involved.
Reuven Frank had worked as a newspaper journalist, in television news, as a documentarian, and as a visual storyteller. Frank pulled together specific practices from each career and created his own boundaries that he defended against criticism. His professional journalism career began just as the Cold War unfolded, and his move to television happened at the start of the Korean War. Many of his biggest television projects involved Cold War issues and themes.
Since boundary work involves aspirational practices, the protection of boundaries can involve both a public and private response. For public consumption, the group espouses its values or marginalizes an interloper. Behind the scenes, different negotiations take place that the groups know would not fit with their public persona. Through the use of company and personal archives, as well as declassified government documents, both the public and private arguments and bargaining are considered, especially in the dispute between television news and the State Department.
Academic Research Boundaries
The 1962 NBC broadcast and reaction might be explored more coherently by limiting the scope: The Tunnel as journalism. The Tunnel as television news. The Tunnel as narrative visual storytelling. The Tunnel as Reuven Frank’s vision for effective use of a mass medium. The Tunnel as a documentary film. The Tunnel as a help or hindrance to America’s Cold War efforts. The Tunnel as an interesting historical story. Some of these areas have been explored, and any of these approaches would be insightful and would dovetail more smoothly within existing research areas.
While a narrower path might be clearer, the negotiations, decisions, responses, and outcomes would be devoid of some of the key influences at the time. Frank was not just a television newsman. He was not just a documentary producer. He was not just a journalist. He was not just someone trying to understand the threats of the Cold War. He was all of these things at the same time.
Reuven Frank also did not work alone. The bulk of the filming and logistics for The Tunnel was handled by Germans or Americans living in Berlin and employed by NBC. They had their own views on the Berlin Wall and the Cold War. Frank also had to appease his bosses at NBC. In this case, NBC even had to win over critics from foreign governments.
Another key element of this approach is to acknowledge the historical events and approaches that shape the production and reception of The Tunnel and the television news memo. While the documentary and memo date from 1962–1963, the influences take us back to earlier in the twentieth century. Each of the media groups producing or responding to Frank’s work are drawing upon their history to engage in the boundary work of acceptable practices.
In order to best understand the complexities of this critical juncture in American media history, this approach cuts across traditional academic historical research boundaries, including journalism, media, television, documentary film, and the Cold War, areas that have been surprisingly separate. The point, and hopefully the execution, is not to make this era of media history more confusing. Instead, the purpose in moving beyond traditional research area boundaries is to provide a more representational look at the influences, complications, and pressures at play for the journalists and other media professionals.
A guiding principle in this research is a firm belief that if we understood more about the complexities of the shifting communication landscape in the mid-twentieth century, we would be better prepared to handle the challenges and opportunities in the twenty-first century digital transformation. Even though television news has been the most popular form of journalism in the United States since the early 1960s, the format has been significantly underrepresented in academic research, especially in the areas of journalism and media history. The dearth of serious research has allowed personal stories, memoirs, anecdotes, and specific events to represent all of television news history, usually omitting or smoothing over the chaotic, risk-taking, early years when the eventual path had not yet become clear. Linking the mid-twentieth-century media and political disruptions to the challenges faced by journalists in the first decades of the twenty-first century can provide insights, or at least comfort, that previous generations had to wrestle with their own set of obstacles and uncertainties. “One of the great pleasures of studying media history,” wrote historian Lisa Gitelman, “is the way it cuts against the exceptionalism of the present.”8
Because of the variety of and, at times, contradictory responses to the documentary and memo, the structure of the book might be better compared to a website than to a traditional chronology. In keeping with Frank’s insistence on storytelling, the first chapter tells the story of how Germany’s major city became divided, leading to the harrowing, dramatic, and controversial dig under the Berlin Wall, chronicled in The Tunnel documentary production and reception.
The subsequent chapters concentrate on the different historical influences on the production and reception of The Tunnel and television news: government pressure, journalism, documentary films, television, Cold War ideology, and producer Reuven Frank himself. In the parlance of digital media, you might consider the first chapter as the main webpage, with the following chapters acting as hyperlinks in The Tunnel story, taking you deeper into the areas that reveal a more complete story.
1. The Roper Organization, Public Perceptions of Television and Other Mass Media: A Twenty-Year Review 1959–1978 (New York: Television Information Office, 1979).
2. Giovanni Capoccia and R. Daniel Keleman, “The Study of Critical Junctures: Theory, Narrative, and Counterfactuals in Historical Institutionalism,” World Politics 59 (April 2007): 341; James Mahoney, “Path Dependent Explanations of Regime Change: Central America in Comparative Perspective,” Studies in Comparative International Development 36, no. 1 (Spring 2001): 111–41; John Hogan, “Remoulding the Critical Junctures Approach,” Canadian Journal of Political Science 39, no. 3 (September 2006): 657–79.
3. Thomas Doherty, Cold War, Cool Medium: Television, McCarthyism, and American Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 18.
4. George H. Gallup, The Gallup Poll: Public Opinion 1935–1971, vol. 3, 1959–1971 (New York: Random House, 1972), 1741.
5. Thomas F. Gieryn, “Boundary-Work and the Demarcation of Science from Non-Science Strains and Interests in Professional Ideologies of Scientists,” American Sociological Review 48, no. 6 (December 1983): 781–95; Thomas F. Gieryn, George M. Bevins, and Stephen C. Zehr, “Professionalization of American Scientists: Public Science in the Creation/Evolution Trials,” American Sociological Review 50, no. 3 (June 1985): 392–409.
6. Gieryn, “Boundary-Work,” 791.
7. Jane B. Singer, “Out of Bounds: Professional Norms as Boundary Markers,” in Boundaries in Journalism: Professionalism, Practices, and Participation, ed. Matt Carlson and Seth C. Lewis (New York: Routledge, 2015), 23.
8. Paul N. Edwards, Lisa Gitelman, Gabrielle Hecht, Adrian Johns, Brian Larkin, and Neil Safier, “AHR Conversation: Historical Perspectives on the Circulation of Information,” American Historical Review 116, no. 5 (December 2011): 1396; Mike Conway, “The Ghost of Television News in Media History Scholarship,” American Journalism 34, no. 2 (2017): 229–39.