Opinion: Everyone missed signs of change in eastern Europe


LONDON, U.K. — Most of the Western news media failed to see the big story in the months and years that led up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Even in the final weeks before the epochal event, they did not foresee that the Wall would be breached by an irresistible push for freedom, and that the entire East German regime would come crumbling down in the aftermath.

The news media were not alone in failing to predict the epochal event. Intelligence services, both eastern and western, did not see it coming. Even the leaders of East and West Germany were taken by surprise.

East German leader Erich Honnecker, who had one of the world's most extensive internal spy services, predicted early in 1989 that “the wall will be standing in 50 and even 100 years.”

Helmut Kohl, the West German chancellor, was also blindsided. Only weeks before the wall fell, he told Polish leader Lech Walesa “the grass will be growing on my grave before it falls.”

So it is not surprising that my journalist colleagues — even West Germans who were closest to the story, were taken by surprise. I should have known better, but not wanting to go too far out on a limb, I hedged my bets. Four weeks before the wall fell, I told CBS News viewers, “It looks like the road ahead for the reformers in East Germany could be long and extremely rocky.”

And yet the signs of change had long been there, and I had actually seen them in 1983 during a rare reporting trip into East Germany. It was then one of the most tightly closed societies in the Soviet Union, so when the East German government opened the door a crack for the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the birth of protestant reformer Martin Luther, I seized the opportunity. The church was the only organization in East Germany not controlled by the regime, and the only place where citizens could speak freely.

Our CBS News team covered a huge church-sponsored outdoor rally where young East Germans demanded the right to refuse to bear arms. It was an astonishing event. You had to see it to believe it. We were also deeply moved when we filmed a church packed full of East Germans of all ages singing “We Shall Overcome.” That was six years before the wall fell, and the cracks in the regime were growing.

Fast forward to May 1989. We were once again in East Germany. This time it was easier to get permission from the government press office. We filmed students who were not afraid to tell a Western reporter that they wanted democracy and low-ranking party officials who called for the sort of reforms President Mikhail Gorbachev was promoting in the Soviet Union. People had clearly lost their fear of the regime. That's a fatal sign for a dictatorship.

There's a lesson to be drawn from my reporting experiences in East Germany. When reporting a story, it's essential to be there, to gather information first hand. Believe what you see and hear on the ground, not what some government official tells you.

That's why I am so concerned by the American media's cutbacks in coverage of important events abroad and the disappearance of foreign correspondents.

Our country has paid a fortune in blood and treasure for the war in Iraq, but the American media have bailed out just as the last and most important act begins. Do we not need to know how it will end? Unless there are journalists' boots on the ground, the public may tend to believe whatever their government tells them. Is it really “mission accomplished”?

Of course, even when foreign correspondents are on the ground to cover events, they may draw wrong conclusions, as I did in Berlin in 1989. But at least they will give the public some first hand facts on which to make their own judgments. That beats government spin.