“There’s no script. I’m just going to have to wing my way through this, just stay with me.” That’s what Tom Brokaw recalls telling his producers on the chaotic evening of one of the biggest scoops of his 22-year career as managing editor and anchor of the NBC Nightly News.
On November 9, 1989, Brokaw was the first American broadcast journalist to report live on the air that the 27-mile Berlin Wall, which for 28 years had divided the city physically and ideologically, was coming down. Thirty years later Brokaw returned to Berlin to share his memories with a group of American journalist participating in a program sponsored by the RIAS-Berlin Commission.
“We knew that this was a transformational moment for Germany but we didn’t know as journalists how much of it we were going to be able to get on the air,” Brokaw said. “There have been very few times in history in which one people with common origin have been so divided and then it changed overnight and that is really striking to me.”
For German journalists, the 30-year anniversary inspires both professional and personal reflection. Dirk Emmerich grew up in communist East Berlin and worked at the GDR’s Academy of Sciences prior to November 1989. Now 61, Emmerich is a foreign correspondent for n-tv, a private German television international news channel. “The breakdown of the Wall opened up a new world to me,” he says. “It was like opening a window to breathe fresh air.”
Journalist Georg Mascolo and his colleagues captured the iconic first images of East Germans peaceful passing through the Bornholmer Strasse bridge border crossing only hours after GDR party officials made the surprise announcement that would allow immediate and open passage into the free Western sectors. The 30th anniversary afforded Mascolo a rare moment of joyous reflection. “We have very little in German history to be proud of.”
Alex Mintz, a politics reporter at German public broadcaster Duetsche Welle, shares Mascolo’s optimistic view while also signaling this anniversary should not only offer an opportunity to look back but also forward. “We celebrate the past, but also pay attention to the future,” Mintz said.
Joe Sampson is an associate clinical lecturer of journalism at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He was a RIAS fellow in 2018.
Radio in the American Sector (RIAS) was established by the U.S. government after World War II, becoming a trusted news source for those on both sides of the wall. Following Germany’s reunification, the U.S. and German governments formed the RIAS Berlin Commission to promote understanding between journalists of the two countries. The Radio Television Digital News Foundation has been RIAS’s American partner since 1993. Learn more about the program here.