The Berlin Wall, JFK's censorship, and Daniel Schorr
Scott Simon had a story on NPR last Saturday about CBS and NBC doing documentaries of tunnels under the Berlin Wall during the Kennedy administration. “People died trying to climb over it while others labored to carve tunnels beneath it.” Died. That’s antiseptic. No mention of border guards shooting people. Those who do not remember Camelot (Gen X, Gen Y, Millennials, Snowflakes) would come away with the impression that people just couldn't climb or dig fast enough.
The number of fatalities at the Wall is hard to pin down. Estimates run from 138 to 245, but no one really knows. The former number is well documented. Of those, 70% were shot. Simon said nary a word about shootings. He would no doubt be surprised and offended if accused of whitewashing the horrors of Communism. He is probably not even aware how he distorted history. But that was not the purpose of the piece. He was conducting an interview with Greg Mitchell, author of The Tunnels: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall and the Historic Films the JFK White House Tried to Kill. It was essentially a lighthearted piece to flog a book and heap more praise on the late Daniel Schorr, for many years a correspondent for CBS who ended his career as a political commentator on NPR.
In the early '60s, NBC and CBS were the big dogs (ABC just nipping at their heels), and both of them were eager to document escapes through tunnels from East Berlin. Scott informs us that this was the golden age of TV documentaries. Although NBC paid thousands of dollars toward construction of “their” tunnel, he hastens to assure us that they were not manufacturing the news. I suppose the point is debatable, though their behavior is more ethical than the depths to which NBC's Nightline stooped 30 years later when they put model rocket motors in the fuel tanks of GM pickups to "prove" that they rupture and explode in a crash (model rocket motors do tend to make gas tanks burn, though even then the tanks did not rupture). Oh, for the “golden age” of TV documentaries.
Back to the tunnels. When the State Department caught wind of what the networks were up to, Secretary of State Dean Rusk strong-armed them into not airing the shows. Doing so would "raise tensions" with the Soviets or something even more dire. NBC managed to photograph 29 people escaping from a tunnel but held the story till after the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The head of CBS, Blair Clarke, had gone to Harvard with JFK, and CBS killed its story outright. Daniel Schorr, who was running the project, was livid:
Dan never quite got over this. Later, even to the end of his life, he was saying how much this still made him angry... Especially that a friend of the president was able to be told to kill this show and ultimately did it.
Oh, the hurt, the heartbreak! But the incident apparently did nothing to shake Schorr's faith in all things progressive: I well recall Schorr's smarmy commentaries on NPR on Saturday mornings, always from a far-left perspective. Simon usually introduced him affectionately as "NPR's own Daniel Schorr," as if he were doing the lead-in for an opera diva. I suppose he was.
Henry Percy is the nom de guerre of a writer in Arizona. He may be reached at saler.50d[at]gmail.com.