NPR logo The Fall Of Succinct Reporting (And Also, Of Course, The Berlin Wall)


The Fall Of Succinct Reporting (And Also, Of Course, The Berlin Wall)

On the morning of November 11, 1989, a crowd watched border guards demolish part of the Berlin Wall. Two days earlier, Peter Jennings was on and off the air in less than three-and-a-half minutes. AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Yesterday marked the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall (as a concept, anyway). To honor the occasion, YouTube featured a number of videos about the event on its homepage, one of which was the original ABC News report.

It's fascinating to watch this clip two decades later. Not just because the geopolitical situation has dramatically changed (quite possibly due, in large part, to this very event) or because Peter Jennings isn't alive to watch his younger self deliver news of one of the defining moments of the last century. It has everything to do with the way that this event was reported.

Take a look at the number near the bottom right of the video. Three minutes and nineteen seconds, and then ABC News was out. It's all but certain that the newsroom was in overdrive by this time, but you don't see it. Jennings simply reported what ABC knew, called on a journalist close to the action to provide details and promised updates as they became available. And then, most shockingly from the modern-day standpoint, he shut up.

Changes in attitudes, after the jump.

This would never, ever happen now. When a newsroom is operating at full tilt, whether it's a 24-hour news channel or a network news division, they make very sure you know all about it. An event of this magnitude would immediately result in hours upon hours of onscreen bloviation. Heck, just recently, an empty balloon resulted in hours upon hours of onscreen bloviation.

With firm but sparse information to go on, there would be intense speculation: about how the wall's collapse happened, about who was specifically responsible, about what it would mean for East Germans (and West Germans) (and Eastern Europeans) (and Americans), about what it portended for the future of the Soviet Union, about how it would affect the next election cycle, and so on, and so forth. Possibly — just possibly — someone would seek out the wise commentary of Tom Clancy. And all of it would be guesswork, drawing from no more information than Jennings shared in under three and a half minutes.

I'm not naive enough to think that none of this happened at the time. As a high school student in 1989, I wasn't especially interested in subjecting myself to much beyond broad-strokes news, but I'm quite confident that plenty of speculation did happen. It would come later, though. For the time being, ABC News was content to let its viewers know what it knew when it knew it — all three-and-a-half minutes' worth, and then back to your regularly scheduled programming.