August 15, 2017

The NBC Newsman Who Tossed His Emmy in the Trash

piers with emmy

In the months after the Berlin Wall emerged in August, 1961, dividing the city, the two leading American TV networks, NBC and CBS, engaged in a race to be first to film young men in the West digging incredibly risky tunnels under the Wall to bring out lovers, family members and friends from the East.   This untold story is at the center of my new book, The Tunnels, just published by Crown NBC got there first, in June 1962, but Daniel Schorr at CBS stumbled onto another tunnel project a little later and was poised to scoop his rival–until the Kennedy White House and State Department bullied his boss into canceling his coverage, as I reveal via newly-declassified official documents and interviews.  Schorr remained angry about this for the rest of his life.

NBC’s filming went on, despite official warnings and at great risk, and in September the tunnel it funded brought 29 to freedom in the West in a mind-boggling escape.   I tell this story week-by-week, including the threat posed by a young Stasi secret police informer.  Then, the same scenario (via official documents):  the Kennedy administration tried to get the network to axe its 90-minute prime time special.  Again, the purported reason was that glorifying a mass escape might enrage the Soviets and spark a superpower confrontation.

It looked like the White House succeeded, as NBC postponed the airing.  The film’s producer, Reuven Frank, wrote out his resignation.  But the network quietly put it on the air two months later–and it would end up winning three Emmys, including “Program of the Year,” and to this day remains a landmark in the history of television.  Frank went on to become president of NBC News but the correspondent, Piers Anderton, would later throw his Emmy in the trash.

Anderton, who had reported with distinction for the network for half a decade,  had been at odds with the State Department all year, as I show in the book via new documents and an exclusive interview with his widow, reporting on dangerous (and unreported) dangers for the U.S. in Germany.   One State official even raised the issue: was he really pro-American or not?

One month after The Tunnel finally aired he went public with some of the administration’s attempts to manage the news.  A short time later, NBC transferred him to what was then a  backwater in network coverage, India.   Anderton remained angry about the near-cancellation of the tunnel program.  After he won his Emmy, according to his widow, he placed it not on his mantelpiece but on a shelf in the bathroom.

A few years later, when the couple moved to England, he tossed it in the trash.

You can read more about this exciting story in this rave review for the book last week in The New York Times  or in my recent interview with NPR’s Scott Simon.  You can easily order the book from Amazon or from independent booksellers via this page.