The Berlin Wall and history's impact on the press

While it is the role of the press to report on history, it is less common for us to view history from the perspective of its impact on the press. The Newseum's The Berlin Wall offers visitors a look at how the communist government of East Germany affected the media, and how the media eventually effected the government of East Germany.

Created in 1999 to mark the 10th anniversary of the fall of The Wall (the 41st anniversary of its appearance is on August 16), the site is divided into three sections and closes with a brief essay on the evolution of the German media, from Nazi dictatorship to post-reunification. Each section is, in fact, its own exhibit, and one of the trio also exists (in a more complete form) as a book.

The first exhibit is the Shockwave-based Two Sides, One Story, which provides a side-by-side comparison of Eastern and Western news coverage in post-war Berlin. (An HTML version is also available, but you'll miss out on the hint of George Lucas in the introduction.)

Two Sides begins before the construction of the Wall and looks at the re-establishment of the German media after the second World War. It compares the coverage – or lack thereof – of the mass exodus of Berlin citizens from east to west, as well as the eastern media's rationale for the eventual construction of the Wall. The site also examines methods used by East German citizens to continue to receive Western news – from the smuggling of print materials to the secret monitoring of TV and radio signals that spread across the border. Finally, Two Sides recounts East Germany's unsuccessful attempts to keep its people in the dark.

While there isn't a great deal of detailed information in the Two Sides exhibit, the text is supported by a large and varied selection of multimedia exhibits. These include narrated film clips, archival newsreels and radio broadcasts, and a reminiscence by Adam Kellett-Long, the first Western correspondent to report on the construction of the Berlin Wall.

For more details about the Wall itself, The Rise and Fall of the Berlin Wall includes a timeline, quiz, and discussion points geared for classroom use. Leaving Germany, but staying with the media, The Commissar Vanishes reminds visitors that photo-manipulation began long before the invention of computers and Photoshop. A handful of examples illustrate the Russian Communist Party's concept of "a picture is worth a thousand words," and includes the basic removal of unimportant people (and once-important personages that had fallen out of favor), as well as the "helpful" rewriting of protest placards, and a bit of post-mortem cut-and-paste performed to remind the Soviet citizenry just how lost they were going to be without Stalin. (A more complete picture of Soviet history through its doctored photographs is also available in print form.)

Perhaps since each section exists as its own small exhibit, The Berlin Wall has an unusual absence of links to its own homepage from deeper within the site. This means that visitors will either have to make regular use of their browser's back button or click on the link to the Newseum's homepage and strike out again from there. (It would be a good idea to exercise the second option at least one time, since it will also take you through the full catalog of the Newseum's online exhibits. These include the front page of America's first black newspaper.)

In addition to being available via one of the newest obstacles to the government control of information, The Berlin Wall and its sibling displays also demonstrate another, more commercial, advantage of online exhibits. The physical Newseum is temporarily closed while it moves from Arlington to Washington, and won't be reopening until 2006. The online presence and traveling exhibits ensure that this will not be a case of out of sight, out of mind.

The Berlin Wall can be found at http://www.newseum.org/berlinwall/.

Jim Regan is a graphics artist and humorist.

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