An Eyewitness To History: NPR's Mike Shuster Moves On
Mike Shuster has been reporting for NPR for more than 30 years, most recently as the network's diplomatic correspondent. From Tehran to Islamabad, Berlin to Moscow, he has had a front row seat to some of the most significant events in recent history. As he prepares to move on, he reflects on his years in the field.
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. For over 30 years, NPR's Mike Shuster reported vivid stories from across the world but maybe none as dramatic as this piece from 1989 as people in East Germany awoke to the stunning news that they would be allowed free passage through the fearsome checkpoints in the Berlin Wall.
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MIKE SHUSTER, BYLINE: People had even gathered at points along the Berlin Wall that were not crossings, and some from both sides met by climbing up on top of the wall. There were chants of "the wall is gone," and in at least one spot, police doused those dancing on top of the wall with water hoses.
CONAN: We counted. Mike filed more than 3,000 stories for NPR since he started out as a freelancer in 1980. He covered both Gulf wars, a couple of conflicts in Israel, Bosnia, Kosovo. He was in Moscow for the collapse of the Soviet Union, in New York on 9/11, and as you know, he's focused most recently on Iran.
As of this week he moves on from NPR, but we couldn't let him go without an exit interview. If you have questions about what it's like to cover momentous events like those, we'd like to hear from you, 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, Larry Abramson joins us to talk about the newest fighter plane that joins the American arsenal and the most expensive, the F-35, but first Mike Shuster joins us from NPR West in Culver City. Mike, happy New Year, nice to have you with us as always.
SHUSTER: Thanks, Neal. Happy New Year to you, as well.
CONAN: And no one welcomed your arrival at NPR more than I did because that meant you had to cover the United Nations, and I didn't have to anymore.
SHUSTER: That's right, yeah. It is, it's like a long time, back in I think 1980, maybe even late 1979, when you were the chief correspondent in New York, and I was looking to start to freelance with NPR. That's the first time you and I met, and I had been covering the U.N. somewhat. And it's true, it was something that I picked up and you let go willingly.
CONAN: Willingly, back in the old Kurt Waldheim days.
SHUSTER: Yeah, right.
CONAN: As you look back on the stories, and there have been so many, but these past dramatic stories particularly, that day in Berlin had to be just amazing.
SHUSTER: It was, Neal, and it's actually something that I will absolutely never forget, absolutely never forget. The - I was in Berlin the day before the wall came down because there was an expectation, this was November 9, 1989, there was an expectation that something important was going to happen in East Berlin and East Germany.
What that was going to be was not clear, and the leaders of the Communist Party of East Germany at the time met all day long, and reporters from all over the world were hanging out waiting to hear what they had to say, what they were going to do. And there was a press conference at 6 p.m. in East Berlin, and the leader of the local Communist Party, the Berlin Communist Party, came out to be the spokesman.
And he droned on and on and on for an hour, essentially saying nothing. And then came the end of the hour, and he basically said, well, that's the end of the press conference. And there was absolutely no news. And there was a great deal of frustration on the part of the foreign press there.
And one Italian reporter stood up from the back and simply yelled in English: What about the wall? Or words to that effect, anyway. What about the wall? And the spokesman essentially said: Oh, haven't you heard? The wall is open.
And this was the first that the East German authorities had actually made the decision to allow their people to go through the wall, and it was just - it was just astounding. And I was listening through headphones to a translator, and as those words were spoken in English, the hairs stood up on the back of my neck, and I realized that this was - one way or another, this was going to be the most extraordinary story in my lifetime.
And actually I was deeply gratified to be able to cover it for NPR. But it was just an - it was an amazing moment in history.
CONAN: Then it goes on, not just the fall of the wall, we think of that as the seminal event, but then the collapse of the Soviet Union.
SHUSTER: Well, that - in 1991, I moved from London, where I was the chief correspondent, to Moscow. That was in the fall of 1991, right after the coup that overthrew Gorbachev and confused so many people and raised the danger of conflict in the Soviet Union.
CONAN: The failed coup.
SHUSTER: Yeah, the failed coup. I got there just after that and reported things that fall, and over the course of that fall it became quite clear that the leaders of the - what they call the constituent republics of the Soviet Union no longer supported Gorbachev's notion of the Soviet Union. And it just disappeared. It just went pfft, just like that.
It was - I mean, it was exactly the opposite of the way that everybody thought if the Soviet Union were to disappear someday it would disappear violently or dangerously. And this was - it was Christmas night, and the Soviet Union was gone, and Mikhail Gorbachev was no longer the leader of the second superpower in the world.
CONAN: Those who were of - aware, conscious at that moment will never forget it. Those who came to consciousness afterwards, it's like reality has changed. But before that, before the fall of the Berlin Wall - I mean, up until then the fall of the Soviet Union in some ways seemed inevitable, that there was going to be change of some sort. But before the fall of the - this just seemed inevitable. This seemed permanent, like it would never change.
SHUSTER: That's right. And we all grew up, I think, being inculcated with that notion that the Soviet Union was a permanent fixture. I mean, the United States was a permanent fixture, and like the United States, we all were educated and came to believe that the Soviet Union was going to be a permanent on the geopolitical stage so that when these changes start in the mid-1980s and then just picked up at a speed that was mindboggling to make the change that occurred by 1991, truly astounding.
I can't say enough just how thankful I was that I had an opportunity to see all this.
CONAN: We're talking with NPR's Mike Shuster after more than 30 years with the network, most recently as the roving foreign correspondent and diplomatic correspondent. He's moving on from NPR, but we want to talk about some of the great events he's had the good fortune to cover in all that time.
If you wanted to ask questions about what it's like to cover things like that, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Steve's(ph) on the line calling us from Woodburn in Oregon.
STEVE: Hi, I was a fan of the late William L. Shirer, who wrote "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich." When the Berlin Wall fell, he said to beware of a unified Germany. And Mike, were you influenced by Shirer? And what do you think of his warning? I'll take the answer offline.
CONAN: Thanks very much.
SHUSTER: There was a great deal of discussion at the time about the effect of a unified Germany on Europe. And there were fears expressed, some in France, some in Great Britain. I'm not sure that those fears have been realized at all. Germany obviously is an economic powerhouse in Europe and is having a great effect on the unified Europe that evolved since the end of the Cold War.
But I don't think that - I don't think that the threat or the danger that Shirer referred to and wrote about is - reflects the reality of Germany in the new Europe.
CONAN: It's interesting, Shirer of course a broadcaster for CBS in the great years leading up to the Second World War from Germany, where he was based and was part of that group that Ed Murrow put together to cover Europe in those days. And he invented the whip-around as people went from Berlin to Vienna to London to Rome to cover the different news.
And I remember thinking about that back in '89 as I was listening to you there in Berlin, and our colleague Alex Chadwick was in Czechoslovakia where the leakage through the wall had started even before that, and some of the other great broadcasters, of course Sylvia Poggioli in Rome and many of the others.
SHUSTER: I think that that particular event put NPR's foreign coverage really on the map. I think that we began to attract many, many more listeners as a result of those events, and I think that the - our coverage became essential listening for many more Americans as a result of the way that we covered that and those events and the realization among our listeners that this was a very important time in history and that NPR was providing access to it.
CONAN: Let's see if we can go to another caller. This is George(ph), George with us from Prairie Village in Kansas.
GEORGE: Hi, thank you. Mike I just wanted to see on the seismic scale how the Arab Spring compares to the two events that you've talked about before? I mean, it seems to have caught equally as flat-footed.
SHUSTER: I think that that's true, and I think the Arab Spring is an enormous event, and it's still playing out. There is profound change in nearly every nation in the Middle East. And where it's going we don't know, and we haven't been able to predict.
It's an extraordinary period of time in the Middle East, probably as profound as the changes in Eastern Europe were in 1989 and 1990, '91 and so forth. It - you know what? It feels like that somehow after the end of the Cold War that history has become accelerated or compacted so that things happen much more quickly and much more profoundly and sometimes much more violently than we could have expected before.
CONAN: There was that long period after the Second World War where things were sort of glacially frozen in place by the Cold War. We think of Central and Eastern Europe for the most part peacefully transitioning. Of course that skips out on the former Yugoslavia, which was quite bloody.
SHUSTER: That's right. It was impossible to predict all these events, and that keeps being true. The wars in the former Yugoslavia were also quite extraordinary, very difficult to cover because of the breakup of territory that Americans were very unfamiliar with. Truly tragic set of wars that broke apart maybe the one nation in Eastern Europe that had a good future and expectation of a good future at the end of the Cold War, very sad because that didn't work out the way many people had hoped and that many people in Yugoslavia had hoped.
CONAN: And there was, up until that point, an air of certainty about American policy, for one, and other countries for that matter, as well. Then nobody knew what to do.
SHUSTER: No, I think that American policymakers and American presidents have been scrambling since that time to understand the changes in the world, and they often went against expectations. I can remember going back to the first George Bush presidency, and there was a period leading up to the disappearance of the Soviet Union where there had been - there was a movement for independent in Ukraine, and eventually there was a referendum in Ukraine in the fall of 1991, and it led to the breakup of the Soviet Union.
And President Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, simply were wrong about it and didn't know what to do about it.
CONAN: We're talking with Mike Shuster, longtime correspondent for NPR. If you have questions for him about what it's like to cover major events like the collapse of the Soviet Union, the two Gulf wars, or we'll get to Iran after a short break, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION; I'm Neal Conan. Mike Shuster's been with NPR since it was less than 10 years old, more than 30 years ago. He's brought an incredible breadth and depth of stories to our air. In recent years, he's focused much of his energy on Iran. He made seven trips there. In September 2009, Iranians took to the streets of Tehran after the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
SHUSTER: Protesters gathered spontaneously in Central Tehran, and soon after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the official winner of Friday's presidential election, they began to march. Suddenly there were thousands in the streets.
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SHUSTER: Join us, join us the crowds roared as they marched, and it seemed with each passing minute the crowds became larger and larger. Down with the lies, down with the dictator they cried. Give us our votes back.
CONAN: If you have questions about what it's like to cover events like that, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can join the conversation on our website, as well, npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Mike, that was a moment where it seemed like things could really change in Iran, that this movement might be unstoppable the way, well, Tahrir Square was just a few years later. You were also there, though, to see the crackdown that changed all that.
SHUSTER: That's right, it was a truly momentous political event, this demonstration, after the - what turned out to be the fraudulent election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009. The estimates that newspapers made and that historians are now using is that there were three million people in the streets of Tehran that day protesting the handling of that election and chanting give us our votes back.
It was the largest and most extraordinary public display of anger and desire for political change that I've ever seen anywhere. And it was truly astounding, and there was the feeling in the streets that this was going to change the outcome, that those who manufactured the number of votes for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would be forced to back down.
Of course they weren't. Then there was a long period of time, the better part of a year, when there were ongoing demonstrations. And eventually the authorities were able to lock that down. But this doesn't - this does not mean, in my view, that people have given up in Iran. They expect change, and they just don't know how it will come and when it will come.
CONAN: Yet we follow all of these events, and there's hope now for another round of negotiations. We'll have to see how that works out. But underneath lying it all - underlying it all is a sense that those events, that election undermined the legitimacy of the regime in Tehran, and that's a problem they're going to have a hard time overcoming.
SHUSTER: I think that's right. The powers that be in Iran since the Islamic revolution in 1979 have always used this notion of elections, electing a parliament and electing a president, as demonstrating to the world and to their own people the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic.
What this presidential election in 2009 did was the very opposite. It undermined, deeply undermined the sense of legitimacy that the Islamic leaders of Iran wanted to instill in the public and in the international, in the international notion about Iran. And I think that it's been quite clear that the authorities have not been able to get that sense of legitimacy back.
We have - we're going to have another presidential election, it looks like...
CONAN: In the spring.
SHUSTER: In the spring in Iran, and it will be very interesting to see how the authorities handle that and how the public responds.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in on the conversation. Let's see if we can go to Patrick(ph), Patrick with us from Tulsa.
PATRICK: Hi, Mr. Shuster, you've had the opportunity to be present at numerous world-changing geopolitical events. And - but it occurs to me that each of those things is just that, a singular event, albeit with wide-ranging implications. I'm wondering with your exposure, if you were to zoom out to where each of these things was a microscopic event, has your exposure given you any sense of the macroscopic scale of the world at large?
CONAN: Just to restate because the phone line was crackling, each of these individual events, can you zoom out and give us some macroscopic sense? Go ahead, Mike.
SHUSTER: You know, I - that's a very difficult thing to do. We are journalists, and we cover what - things that happen day to day and pull back a little bit and try to make sense of them, try to understand their history and the way things are changing. But it really is for the historians later on.
We won't know what the impact of all these changes in Iran will make ultimately on the Middle East and on Iran and on the United States. We don't know in - how the long run will bring us change in Egypt. It's all quite confusing. As a journalist, I can testify that it is very confusing, trying to make sense out of it from day to day. But we're not historians. Sometimes I think I would like to be, but we're not.
CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Sally(ph), Sally with us from Shawnee in Kansas.
SALLY: Hello, I was wondering what your take is on the Nobel Peace Prize Committee's award this year to the European Union, which seemed extraordinarily incongruous given all the difficulties with sovereign debt in Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, et cetera? And...
CONAN: It didn't get the prize of economics, it got the Peace Prize.
SALLY: No, the Peace Prize.
SHUSTER: You know, I'm not sure that I have a good answer for you, but it struck me that the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, in awarding this to the European Union, meant to remind the people of Europe just how horrible centuries of conflict had been in Europe and after the Second World War how far Europe had come in uniting and trying to overcome those impulses toward violence that so characterize European history.
Now maybe that wasn't in the mind of the Nobel Committee, but it seemed to me that that must have been a part of it. And it was important to remind the people of Europe and the people in the wider world just how far they had come in Europe.
CONAN: Just as a reminder, the tensions between France and Germany, all those years through much of the 20th century, had been the cause of so much horror before - that of course predates the tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union - and the, well, going back to the coal group right after 1945, that these organizations that developed into the European Union have largely gotten around that problem.
SHUSTER: That's right. I think they've largely been successful. Now the financial crisis in Europe is a global problem, and it seems that - it seems that the Europeans have gone a long way toward roping it in. That's - at least that's what analysts are saying right now. I'm not sure about that.
But Europe has been a problem on the world stage for many, many long years, and it seems to me that there has been a great deal of progress in trying to overcome the way that Europeans solved their political and economic problems in the past.
SALLY: Do you think that the peace prize was a legitimate award to the European Union this year?
SHUSTER: I think that the Nobel Peace Prize Committee had legitimate reasons for what it did, and perhaps they are - there's much disagreement about that, but it sparks discussion, and that makes it interesting.
CONAN: Sally, thanks very much. Let's see if we can go next to Miranda(ph), and Miranda's on the line with us from Minneapolis.
MIRANDA: Hi, I'm a journalism student and a very big fan. Thank you for having me. I wondered if there was ever a time, Mike, where you couldn't or found it impossible or hard to separate your journalism duties from your concerns as a citizen?
SHUSTER: There are - there were many times that that was the case for me, and you struggle with this as a journalist. I particularly remember being in Kosovo in 1999, and there were - there was a lot of murder. There were a lot of murder of Kosovo civilians by paramilitary groups. And they - a lot of bodies were thrown in wells and in shallow graves, and I had to report on that, and that was very, very difficult, perhaps one of the most difficult sights that I've ever seen. And it - you're tempted to want to editorialize, but I think it's far more effective to report accurately and well what you're seeing. That, I think, that maximizes the trust that our listeners put in our coverage, and it, I think, informs them far better than my expressing my own opinion about that.
MIRANDA: Thank you so much. You really are an inspiration.
SHUSTER: Well, you're welcome.
CONAN: Thanks, Miranda. I wanted to play a cut of tape that - Mike Shuster actually changed, well, broadcast law, broadcast history. This was back in 1989. Mike Shuster was in New York, covering the trial of John Gotti, a mob figure you may not remember, but known as the Dapper Don, a man whose public charm, well, was at variance with what he did for a living. And during the trial, the FBI played some wiretaps, including one, well, let's let Mike Shuster describe it.
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JOHN GOTTI: And you get your (bleep) down here and see me tomorrow.
ANTHONY MOSCATIELLO: I'm going to be there all day tomorrow.
GOTTI: Yeah, never mind you'll be there all day tomorrow. And don ma, let me have to do this again, because if I hear anybody else calls you and you respond within five days, I'll (bleep) kill you.
CONAN: The eloquent John Gotti.
SHUSTER: Yeah. And don't forget, Neal, you were the executive producer of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED...
CONAN: Oh, I don't forget.
SHUSTER: ...that day, and we had a very interesting discussion about whether to use that tape, or use it in full with the profanities that...
CONAN: And there were many more than that.
SHUSTER: Yes, they were.
CONAN: And - but what it did was illustrate the fact that Mr. Gotti was, despite that public image as the Dapper Don, a thug.
SHUSTER: Yeah. And what this did is it sparked a lawsuit on the part of someone who didn't like the fact that we played that tape. There was a lawsuit against the FCC, and eventually, it went all the way to the Supreme Court. And the Supreme Court, if I have my facts correct, essentially found in our favor and the FCC's favor, that this was a legitimate use of what is deemed indecent language for news purposes. So it protected speech, especially in the context of news coverage.
CONAN: Overturned the previous doctrine, the seven dirty words doctrine, you know...
SHUSTER: That's right, yeah. Right.
CONAN: ...and made new law. So I was deposed for that suit, and was asked if I had cut out any words at all, and had to reply that, yes, I did cut out the word mother.
SHUSTER: Very good.
CONAN: NPR's Mike Shuster...
CONAN: ...is with us, and we're just remembering some of the great assignments that he had. Mike, there was - going from that moment to something much more dramatic. Back in 1992, the Gulf War - the First Gulf War, I guess we have to call it now - and the experience of being in a city that is being attacked with guided missiles.
SHUSTER: That's right. I was one of many reporters - and later on, you were, as well - who covered the First Gulf War. And I was in a hotel room in Dhahran in Saudi Arabia when the war started, when the U.S. air war, the air attacks against Iraq occurred, and Iraq launched - Saddam Hussein launched Scud missiles against Saudi Arabia. And there were some really loud explosions not far from the hotel that I was staying in. That night I remember quite clearly being - it - very, very unnerving.
CONAN: The Dhahran International Hotel, I - as Mike said, I later moved into that same hotel room. It was like the layers of Troy. There was the Deborah Amos layer. There was the John Burnett layer.
CONAN: There was the Mike Shuster layer. Eventually, I added my own detritus to that back in 1992. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And let's see if we can get Jennifer on the line, Jennifer with us from Bridgman, in Michigan.
JENNIFER: Yeah. My question is that I'm a broadcasting student hoping to get into international correspondence, and I was wondering if Mike had any advice.
SHUSTER: Well, I do, actually. I've given covering foreign places a lot of thought, particularly after I went to the Soviet Union and covered Russia in those years. It's very hard, and it's very hard operating in a language that you may not be as familiar with as your native language, English. And there's a way in which I felt that I was triangulating on the truth, that I never - I often felt that I didn't have the absolute truth of what was taking place, but that by going to different sources and triangulating on an understanding, it would give us and it would give me as the journalist and NPR as the news organization and the listeners a sense of what was true without claiming that this was absolute truth.
I think that that really characterizes a great deal of what international reporting is all about. And the other thing is, always worry about whether you're getting it right or not. I don't think I've ever done a story that I was 100 percent confident that I got it all right, and I think that always kept me on my toes and always had me looking for additional information to be confident that I was reporting accurately what I was living through.
JENNIFER: OK. Thank you so much.
CONAN: Jennifer, thanks for the call. You had the opportunity, Mike - we were talking earlier - to live through that whole cycle from London to Berlin to Moscow, the end of the Soviet system. Is there a story that you think you've left unfinished?
SHUSTER: Well, from that time, no. But I feel that I've left the Iran story unfinished. I had a great opportunity to go to Iran many times between 2004 and 2009. It was the only way that we were able to cover Iran, because the Iranians wouldn't let us have a bureau in Iran. And then that stopped after the presidential election in 2009. They didn't issue press credentials to us after that. And I've done a lot of stories since that time based on sources outside of Iran, sometimes in Iran.
And that's definitely an unfinished story and a fascinating story, a fascinating place. I think it's a great place for reporting, and I hope we'll continue to hear as much reporting from or about Iran on NPR's air.
CONAN: Email from Ray: Do you have anything optimistic to say regarding relations between Iran and Israel?
SHUSTER: Between Iran and Israel, do I have anything optimistic to say? I mean, it's not really for me to judge. I think that there are solutions to these conflicts. I think that there are solutions to all conflicts, but they take - sometimes, they take a great deal of time, and exactly how those conflicts get resolved is - seems completely remote and impossible at a certain time, and then comes into focus later on.
CONAN: And, in retrospect, seems obvious.
SHUSTER: That's right. But specifically, no, I don't.
CONAN: And this from Bill: What will you be doing next?
SHUSTER: Well, I have some ideas for projects. I actually, along the way, wrote a screenplay with a co-author, and I wrote two pilot scripts for TV series, one about the nuclear emergency search team and another about Wall Street in the 1860s, '70s and '80s - which is, I think, a fascinating period of time in American history that's largely overlooked. So I want to keep writing and find also a way to keep reporting and doing work as an independent producer and reporter for public radio. I think there's a lot of opportunities there.
CONAN: Work on that Gotti script, OK?
SHUSTER: Good idea.
CONAN: All right, Mike. Thanks very much. We're going to miss you.
SHUSTER: Thank you, Neal. I'm going to miss you all, as well.
CONAN: After a short break, NPR's Larry Abramson joins us to talk about the most expensive military procurement program in history: the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.