WITNESS: Reuters and the many drafts of history

Wed Nov 4, 2009 9:09am EST
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Tom Heneghan was Reuters chief correspondent in Germany in 1989 and directed coverage of the Wall's fall from East Berlin. He is the author of "Unchained Eagle: Germany after the Wall" and is now Religion Editor, based in Paris.

By Tom Heneghan

BERLIN (Reuters) - The night the Wall fell, Reuters reporters in East and West Berlin hammered out thousands of words depicting the end of the Cold War's worst eyesore and the joyous street party on both sides of the once-fearsome border.

As I stumbled back to my hotel in the gray morning that followed, the old saying "journalism is the first draft of history" echoed in my head. This was History with a capital H, a stunning world-changer that nobody could have predicted.

Over the days and weeks of relentless work that followed, that idea never left our heads. On an adrenalin high, we pumped out what seemed like an endless stream of reports on how Berlin and Germany were changing right before our eyes.

It wasn't until a year or so later, after the scramble to reunite was over, that the "first draft" part of that cliched description of journalism really began to sink in.

Reporting major events under deadline pressure, journalists rarely have all the facts. We know we have to go with what we have. We focus on the big picture and tell it as best we can.

So it can be humbling when, sometimes years later, the main actors in a drama or historians studying it write second, third and fourth drafts of the same history, revealing details that would have made stop-the-presses headlines if known at the time.

Some details of those confusing days are still coming out. Only last month, Britain and France released documents showing how worried their leaders were by a reunited Germany.   Continued...