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  • Writer's pictureMike Conway

TV News History Book Out Soon

Back in 2003, I had the privilege of conducting oral history interviews with NBC's Reuven Frank, one of the most important journalists of the second half of the twentieth century. Frank worked at NBC for almost 40 years, starting in 1950, and created one of the most important television programs in history, the Huntley-Brinkley Report, what we now know as NBC Nightly News. Frank also produced breaking news coverage, documentaries, public affairs programs, and political convention and election night coverage.

Author with Reuven Frank, Tenafly, NJ, August 14, 2003 (Photo by James G. Wrocklage)

Frank is one of the smartest people I've ever met on the strengths of television as a platform for journalism. For years, I struggled with how I should tell his story. Finally, it hit me that Reuven Frank's story was the story of the rise of television news in the United States, since he started in TV when only ten percent of the public had television sets and retired as cable and satellite growth started to erode the power of the original broadcast networks.

First Huntley-Brinkley newscast script, October 29, 1956. (NBC Archives, Wisconsin Historical Society)

As I researched Frank's career, I found myself drawn to a 1962 documentary he produced on a secret tunnel under the Berlin Wall, called The Tunnel. At first, I thought it would be one of the chapters of a book. But the more I dug into the fascinating story of how NBC got involved with an elaborate four-month escape project under the Berlin Wall and the wide range of reactions to the production, I knew that I had found the broadcast that could help explain the work of Reuven Frank, the rise of television news, and the upheaval television caused in the media landscape.

Reuven Frank, NBC News (Tufts University Digital Collections and Archives, Medford, MA)

Just after The Tunnel broadcast, Frank wrote a memo to his staff on the strengths and weaknesses of television news as a journalistic platform. His main argument was that print news was better at publishing information and television was superior in the "transmission of experience." The memo, which came to be known as "the bible," was never meant for public consumption, but journalists have spread it from newsroom to newsroom, it has been published in books over the years, and it has served as a touchstone for generations of storytellers in television news. Reuven Frank's experience producing and defending The Tunnel clearly guide his thoughts in the "bible" memo.

Contested Ground: "The Tunnel" and the Struggle over Television News in Cold War America tells the riveting story of the dangerous, elaborately-engineered tunnel project under the Berlin Wall that allowed the most number of people to escape from East Berlin up until that point in 1962, as well as NBC's efforts to secretly film the entire project. Then, the book digs into why the project brought such a wide variety of responses, from major awards to public condemnation.

Governments on both sides of the Iron Curtain tried to kill the documentary. Print journalists called it irresponsible. The Tunnel can not be easily put in one category, which is why the reactions varied so radically. It was a television broadcast, a documentary film, a journalism project, a look at Cold War life, and mostly beyond the reach of government sources. Each group judged the program (and all of television news) through its own lens of acceptability.

Contested Ground is the story of disruption in how Americans received the news last century and the strong reactions from both journalists and government officials. University of Massachusetts Press is publishing Contested Ground and it will be available later this year.

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