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Reporting on the Cold War 'At its Most Frigid'

Interviewee: Harry Leonard Heintzen, 1956-1957 Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow
October 15, 2009

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As part of the Edward R. Murrow Press Fellowship 60th Anniversary initiative current and former fellows discuss the stories that have had the most impact and present ideas for sustaining serious international journalism. Former fellow Harry Heintzen was a Scandanavian reporter during the Cold War and he recalls the vigorous reaction his writing drew from the Soviet Union. Looking ahead, Heintzen provides a concrete option on how to sustain international journalism. For more on the initiative, visit cfr.org/murrow.

What is one international story or topic (of your own reporting) that you believe had the greatest impact and why? Explain why you chose to report it.

The year was 1956. The place: Finland. The Cold War was at its most frigid. But suddenly there were signs of a thaw. The Soviet Union was going to return to Finland the Porkkala enclave with a Soviet naval base which it had occupied since 1944. On the day the base was turned over to the Finns, scores of shivering reporters were on hand to see what the Soviets had left behind. When the gate was opened, we all went in following a contingent of Finnish troops and several snow plows. What we found under several feet of snow was a deserted airfield, a harbor, a hospital, underground storage, 25 miles of new roads and much more. What remained of pre-war Finnish life was in shambles. Some examples: a Finnish Lutheran church was minus its altar, pulpit and steeple; tombstones had been removed from a cemetery and an 18th Century manor house had been burned to the ground. On top of all this, the Soviets had a penchant for painting everything blue. In a few days, the Soviet Union reacted vigorously to my reporting in the New York Herald Tribune and that in the New York Times, A Pravda editorial said that we were the "mouthpieces of bellicose circles," seeking to "weaken the favorable impression created by the peace-loving Russian initiatives." The Herald Tribune had not only printed my story but also my photo of Finnish troops marching into Porkkala spread over four columns. Porkkala was a hot topic on a very cold day.

Is there another story or topic, perhaps one that is not already widely cited, that comes to mind that you believe has had a significant impact? This can be a story reported by you or someone else. Tell us about it.

As the Voice of America regional correspondent for Ethiopia, Djibouti, Sudan and Somalia, I was based in Addis Ababa in the mid ‘60s in what seemed to be a country of peace and tranquility. All of that abruptly changed in 1967 when thousands of stone-throwing students and townsfolk in Addis Ababa went on a rampage against the government, attacking anything that smacked of authority, from police stations to banks to public buildings. I was driving through the city when I saw the first mobs forming. I drove quickly to my VOA office and had the shutters lowered and the doors locked. When a part of the mob reached our building it began hurling rocks (which are everywhere in Addis Ababa) and smashing windows. Frustrated at not being able to break in, it called for setting the building on fire.  We were trapped this way for several hours until the police finally gained control of the mobs melted away. I cabled back to the VOA an account of what had transpired, unmindful that this would prove to be the first manifestation of ongoing unrest that would eventually unseat Emperor Haile Selassie and his government. Within a couple of years, after I had left Ethiopia, left leaning army officers overthrew the government, killed the Emperor and established a regime called the Dirg. Eventually, the Dirg itself was overthrown by a regional movement. The moral of this story is that one should never underestimate the significance of violence in a developing country or the prospect of instability.

Do you have any ideas--whether yours or someone else's--for how the news industry can sustain serious international reporting at a time of great upheaval in the media?

How do you sustain serious international reporting at a time of great upheaval in the media? There needs to be new configurations of support for foreign reporting. Perhaps we need an organization devoted to foreign reporting to which individual media outlets can subscribe. Such an organization would employ correspondents with language skills and knowledge of the foreign cultures. Their reports would be much broader than those of the AP, with stress on in-depth features and interpretative reporting as well as straight news. With such an organization, (1) even the smallest media outlets would have access to good foreign reporting and (2) it would provide of means of continuing the best in U.S. international reporting.

 

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