How the Fall of the Soviet Union Changed the News Media

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American TV would never cover breaking news the same way again

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A Russian family watches Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev's resignation speech on live TV, Christmas day 1991 / AP

This post is part of a 12-part series exploring how the U.S.-Russia relationship has shaped the world since the December 1991 end of the Soviet Union. Read the full series here.

International media coverage of the historic events in Moscow on December 25, 1991, was a first for world broadcast news. Earlier in the year, Ted Turner's Cable News Network had a television news victory. A decade after its founding, CNN, surpassed the "Big Three" American networks -- ABC, CBS, and NBC -- in ratings with its coverage from inside Iraq during the Gulf War. The 24-hour news network had come into its own. That Christmas Day, CNN got its next major scoop in Moscow.

With the exception of a small ABC crew filming in Moscow for a documentary, CNN had exclusive access that day to both Boris Yeltsin, set to become the first-ever Russian president, and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev. After carrying Gorbachev's resignation speech live, CNN broadcast a sit-down interview with the former Soviet leader. CNN aired the speech at 11 am EST, whether on its own channel or through other networks that had bought the right to show it, in over 150 countries; history-making news broadcast around the world instantaneously. It was the first time that a news organization had broadcast, live, an interview with a world leader the same night he had resigned.

Cameras rolled as the Soviet flag, which had flown over the Kremlin for decades, was taken down and replaced with the new Russian standard.  The flag was not supposed to be replaced until after the New Year, but Kremlin workers made the switch shortly after Gorbachev's resignation. Russian News, the only outlet aware of the changeover in advance, was the sole organization to capture it on video.

While handing over the nuclear suitcase would also have made for an iconic image, it never happened, at least directly. Gorbachev's transfer of control of the Soviet Union's nuclear missiles to now-President Boris Yeltsin, a metaphor for the end of the Cold War, was an act of paperwork. The two leaders never made the direct exchange, but A wire service got a photo of Gorbachev signing the document handing over control of the weapons. The image appeared on the front page of newspapers around the world the next day.

At 9 pm that night -- Christmas day -- President George H.W. Bush addressed the nation from the Oval Office. His address was carried live by most TV networks in the United States and picked up around the world. Other world leaders also made statements regarding the events of the day, all of which was covered in both broadcast and print media. Most Western leaders praised Mikhail Gorbachev, recognized the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States -- the successor organization to the Soviet Union -- and expressed their faith in the security of nuclear weapons with the transfer of power.

For media around the world, the end of the Soviet Union was perhaps the biggest story of 1991. Coverage from Moscow on Christmas Day prompted much discussion: analysis of Gorbachev's resignation speech, what the end of the Cold War meant, the fate of the Russian economy and that of the other republics in the Commonwealth of Independent States, energy reserves, nuclear weapons, and the economic impact on other communist nations (like Cuba and North Korea).

In the days before the Internet, cell phones, social media, texting, and tweeting, the world got its news from television networks, newspapers, and magazines, often with a lag time of at least a day. But, on Christmas day 1991, people could watch history happen, right in front of them on their TV screens.

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Carolyn Deady is a freelance journalist and former international producer at C-SPAN in Washington, DC. She is an Adjunct Fellow at the American Security Project.

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