Personally recruited to CBS News by Edward R. Murrow, Marvin Kalb abandoned his Ph.D. work in Russian history at Harvard University to plunge into a journalism career that spanned decades, including five and a half years living in the U.S.S.R.
Today, at age 93, he resides in Washington, D.C., serving as a nonresident senior fellow with the foreign policy program at Brookings — and also putting the finishing touches on his 18th book.
“It’s a memoir,” Kalb said. “It’s the third in a series of three, devoted especially to what it was like to be a CBS reporter in Moscow during the Nikita Khrushchev era of Soviet history.” Asked how long he wants to keep working, Kalb’s response is simple and to the point: “Until I drop dead.”
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Did you always want to be a journalist?
No. I first wanted to be a doctor, then a lawyer. But things began to get complicated toward the end of college, when I developed a fierce interest in Russian history. My brother, Bernie, strongly recommended that I apply to Harvard to do graduate work in Russian history. I was accepted in 1951, and stayed there until 1953, when I joined the Army. My mother and father had come from Eastern Europe before World War I, and had been very warmly accepted into the United States. I felt I had an obligation to pay that back. After two years in the Army, I went back to Harvard and resumed work on my Ph.D. I did an article for The New York Times Magazine, and the next Monday morning I got a phone call while I was at the library, doing research. The librarian tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Marvin, there’s a man on the phone who identifies himself as Edward R. Murrow. Would you talk to him?” I told her that was ridiculous and to just hang up on the guy. But later that afternoon she came back and said, “It’s that same man. He would like to talk to you. And he still says he’s Edward R. Murrow.”
So you took the call.
I picked up the phone, and the minute I heard his voice I realized what a foolish, stupid person I’d been. I apologized, and Murrow said, “Forget about the apology, can you get down here [to New York City] tomorrow morning at 9 o’clock?” I said yes, without even knowing what I was agreeing to. I was there very early the next day, and we spoke for three hours. Murrow asked me one question after another about the Soviet Union. I really feel we would have gone on for much longer had not his secretary reminded him he had a lunch date. He got up, put his arm around my shoulder and said, “By the way, how would you like to join CBS?” I’ll never forget that. It took me about three seconds to say yes. That was when I realized I was switching from scholarship to journalism. And I loved it.
Did you know anything about journalism?
I knew nothing about radio or television news. Absolutely zero. I think Murrow had a great deal to do with encouraging CBS to send me to Moscow to teach me the business. I joined CBS the July Fourth weekend of 1957 and began to write hourly radio newscasts. In addition, I began to write about Russia. I had lived in Russia in 1956 and ’57, working at the U.S. Embassy. And I spoke fluent Russian.
You’re best known for TV journalism, but you’ve also written more than a dozen books and numerous articles. Which do you prefer?
I’ve done 17 books and I’m writing my 18th at the moment. That would suggest I love writing books, and that’s accurate. Most have been about Russia, Vietnam, the Middle East and American presidential politics.
Would you encourage someone to consider pursuing a journalism career today?
There’s no doubt in my mind that if a college kid came to me and asked whether he or she should get into journalism, I would be an enthusiastic supporter. It’s a phenomenally important craft at the moment. I use the word “craft” and not profession, because there is no specific set of rules that govern a journalist. A journalist should seek information, get it as quickly and as accurately as possible, and transmit it to the people and let them make up their minds. When I was at the height of my career as a radio and television reporter, I truly believed that what I was telling people was the truth, as best as I could find it. I believe today that journalism is split, in a very significant way, between reporters who are part of the political warfare that we see before us in America, and those that continue to believe, as I did years ago, that it is their responsibility to cover that political warfare, but not become part of it.
So with your expertise on Russia, are people asking you a lot of questions these days?
There have been a lot of questions, but that doesn’t mean there have been a lot of good answers. I’ve taught Russian history, speak fluent Russian, and lived there for 5½ years, but when you have an incident like the recent coup attempt, you realize how little you really do know. One can easily speculate, but I hope we do it with much more humility. We have very few sources of information and we need to be very careful about how we use them. Clearly, when you live in a country like that for that long a period of time, you have met people. You think you know them. I got on quite well with the Russians I knew, but at the same time, I knew there were KGB people who were following me all the time. I knew there were Russians who were put up to being nice to me so they could get information out of me. This seemed rather silly. I told them all the time that if they wanted to know what I knew, they needn’t go to so much effort. They could just listen to CBS.
Interesting that you say reporters and commentators, including yourself, should approach a topic with humility. What do you think of cable news pundits who seem ready to offer hot takes on everything?
We live in a state of rushed reality. Everything has to be done quickly. Everything has to be analyzed quickly. You say, wait a minute, you may not have enough information. Okay, I’ll go with the information we’ve got. Well, are you going to check the information you’ve got? Very good reporters do still check. Peter Baker [chief White House correspondent for The New York Times] for example. He’s steeped in American politics and in recent Russian history, and he takes his time. He knows instinctively what he can say comfortably, and what he truly does not know. Unfortunately, there are not enough Peter Bakers. There are many reporters who mean well but who are under tremendous pressure to produce information rapidly. They’re obliged, given the environment in which they work, to come in with analysis of events that have sometimes not yet even finished their cycle. There’s a compulsion to take a fact of limited scope and inflate it beyond its intended reality.
How much of this sort of mentality just springs from the fact that news services must fill up hours of broadcast time with very limited information?
You’re talking principally about cable television, but keep in mind that even if you’re talking about The New York Times, it’s also not the way it used to be. Decades ago, a reporter typically had one story he was going to write for the paper that night. And he devoted himself to getting as much information as he could. Murrey Marder at The Washington Post always held back writing his story until the very last minute, because he wanted to get as much new information into it as possible. That’s a luxury reporters no longer enjoy. Today they’re called upon to provide hour-to-hour or issue-to-issue facts and analysis. And newspapers today have web presences and podcasts. Reporters of 30 or 40 years ago had only one story to write, but today they have many stories, many versions of the same story to produce for the many different facets of either a newspaper, magazine or network.
How does one decide what to do with the firehose of information available from social media outlets such as Twitter?
The first thing I do is not read Twitter. I’m aware that Twitter today is the lifeblood of mass communication and contemporary journalism, but I’ve always been suspicious of it. Given what the current ownership has done to it, I think anyone who today depends on Twitter is a fool.
Whatever happened to the concept of gatekeepers?
In the old days you had very serious people reading your copy and questioning it. And you weren’t resentful of those questions. You thanked them because at the end of the day they made your work better and more accurate. There are still some of them around, but far fewer. When you add modern technology to the equation, everything becomes more rushed. There’s no time for reflection before publication.
Can you give an example of that difference?
Let me tell you a story about Edward R. Murrow, who in April of 1945 visited a Nazi death camp with Eisenhower. He was overwhelmed by what he saw. People he knew were imprisoned there, like the mayor of Vienna. He could see acres of bodies. Well, if you came into that camp today with a television crew, you would show the bodies, probably do an interview with the former mayor, and you would do it live. But Murrow went back to his hotel room and realized he could not yet write the story. So he waited two days to allow the facts, the impressions and the statements to become real. Murrow, because he was Murrow, could take the time to explore the depths of what he’d experienced. And then he wrote his story. But if you waited 48 hours these days, you’d be fired. The understanding of ideas remains a fundamental responsibility of the journalist. It’s his or her responsibility to get it straight. And if it takes him or her two days, then so be it. But today’s media owners have to be willing to accept that. And not just the owner. Reporters themselves have the choice to do good work or do sloppy work, mindless work, or work from only a particular point of view. That, to me, is one of the fundamental crises faced today by American and world journalism.
What is your responsibility as a reporter?
It’s to convey the news as quickly, as fairly, and as accurately as you can. How do you do that? You go somewhere, you look around, you talk to people, and you convey it back to the home office. All of that is understandable and is as true now as it was in the past. What has changed is the means of communication. Technology is driving editorial content. It’s not necessarily in a thoughtful way, and it’s not necessarily based on fact. During my time as an active reporter, the most important thing we did was get information as fairly, honestly and straightforwardly as we could, be confident in what we gathered, write it and then go on the air. A lot has changed, but that shouldn’t. Be confident that you are above the fray, and that you are not part of the political warfare of the time. I fear that today journalists are split down the middle on this. And that makes it extremely difficult for the public to believe what they see and read. ,
Sam Stall, formerly editor of Indianapolis Monthly, has won countless Society of Professional Journalists awards and authored or co-authored more than 20 books.
Featured Image: Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg participate in a taping of “The Kalb Report” with host Marvin Kalb at the National Press Club. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)