Written on Wednesday December 30, 2009
My 23 hours with Marvin Kalb began on October 28, 2009, over dinner at the Skirvin Hotel in Oklahoma City. With friends from FOI Oklahoma, Inc. and the Ethics & Excellence in Journalism Foundation (underwriters of The Kalb Report), we talked about Oklahoma and Mr. Kalb's remarkable career in journalism. He told us about his days as a correspondent in the Soviet Union, CBS News, and his second career as a journalism professor.
He formed his words carefully and spoke with the authority that more than 30 years in broadcasting conveys. After a couple of hours we called it an evening, in part so the Bronx native could get to his room to catch the World Series game between the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies.
The next morning, Kalb was to give the keynote address at FOI Oklahoma's First Amendment Congress, held at The Oklahoman. It was professional day, and most of those in attendance were veteran journalists, hoping to hear the familiar as much as new ideas for the future. About half an hour before the start of the session, I grabbed a cup of coffee and sat down to scan the newspaper when I was joined by UCO Journalism Professor Mark Hanebutt and the keynote speaker himself. We talked about the cost-cutting moves of many newspapers, including shrinking the size of the paper itself. We each lamented the shrinking page sizes and news holes of so many newspapers today and wondered how much longer the newspaper, as we know it, will survive.
Morning coffee also gave us an opportunity to discuss the World Series a little more. We could have gone for some time talking about the Yankees and the game of baseball in general, but the conference was set to begin, with Kalb batting leadoff.
His speech was enthralling, for its content, delivery and honesty. Standing tall and steadfast, Kalb delivered his message with a deep, baritone voice and knowing ease. He identified himself as a "proud member of the Nixon enemies list" who was shunned, audited and suspected of being a Soviet sympathizer during the height of the Cold War. He admitted he shared information with the U.S. ambassador to the USSR, yet was not trusted by the Nixon Administration. He eschewed government control of the press, while recognizing that there are sometimes stories a reporter will not do, even if they are free, honest and objective.
Then, the talk turned to money, and its inevitable influence over news. He told us his superior at CBS fifty years before, William S. Paley, knew that he could make more money by being a good citizen than by just trying to make money. Paley, he said, had Jack Benny and Ed Sullivan to make money for the network. Paley believed CBS had a solemn obligation to provide news to the nation, and they did it very well.
"A free, vibrant, aggressive and occasionally, angry press is essential," Kalb told the crowd, "or else we have a skimpy democracy. The press needs to make sure the government stops thinking about itself and starts thinking about us." He spoke of his concern about the direction of politics ("American politics is a campaign for money, not a campaign for ideas."), the narrowing of the nation's dialogue (spurred, he said, by Rush Limbaugh and a press that listens without questioning), the evening programming on Fox News ("The dark side of Fox is the evening, which is 100% opinion.), and the decline of newspapers ("newspapers are the soul of American journalism.").
In the interest of full disclosure, Kalb told us that he is an analyst for Fox News, and has never had any problem with the management over his opinions and analysis. In fact, he thinks their daytime news operation is quite good, and fair. Despite the difficult economic times suffered by many news organizations, he cautioned against government subsidies of journalism and said the key to renewed financial success is for news organizations to raise their quality, regain the trust of the American people, and become indispensable.
I picked up a couple of tips by watching him moderate a panel discussion (his years as an interviewer and as moderator of Meet the Press showed). Then, it was time for lunch. We talked some more over our meal, then watched a presentation during which we learned about the new media initiatives that management at The Oklahoman believes is essential to its continued viability - a blending of print and broadcast into a hybrid operation calculated to attract news consumers of the 21st century. Following lunch, it was off to OETA for our one-on-one interview that will be seen as Marvin Kalb On the Record.
It took about half an hour for makeup, microphone checks, and lighting adjustments before we started our conversation. Our set, designed by stage manager Chuck Dutrow, provided a warm, library feel, and in true public television fashion it didn't cost much - less than $200. For me, several hours of preparation and the interaction of the preceding hours made the interview seem natural, even as we discussed the weighty issues facing our industry today. We spoke for almost an hour, giving us more than enough content for our half-hour program. There was so much I wanted to ask, but decided to stay close to our theme for a show - a look at journalism today and into the future.
Beside what you see in the program, we discussed how the media can regain the trust of the American people (do more stories about their lives, about what Americans face on a daily basis, and do it with better balance and less arrogance), whether the public can do without us ("They can do without us, and many of them are doing without us, and that is what is so frightening."), and the extreme partisanship in American politics (which began, Kalb believes, after the end of the Vietnam War, when people were looking for scapegoats).
On the position of America in the world, the former chief diplomatic correspondent for CBS News and NBC News, elaborated:
You've really got to go back to reading. You've got to read basic text to understand the evolution of American democracy - how we got to where we're at today, and how a number of people believe that we're losing that edge. The right-wing of American life likes to believe that America can do no wrong, that we're not losing our edge, that we're still at the top of the world. That isn't true any longer, but how do you report that without being dismissed as liberal clap-trap? Who cares what that is, because I can always retreat to my conservative cable channels and talk radio show and all, and get confirmation of my belief that America is still as fantastic as it was. No one will put me in second place - no one, and to my affection, love, devotion to this place, this country. But, I've been around the world, I read, I teach, I know that our position today is different from what it was when we left World War II. When we lost in Vietnam in 1975, we lost a piece of ourselves because we never believed that we could lose a war. We had never lost a war! But we did, and it wasn't as if you lost a war to the Soviet Union - you know, some big power. You lost it to what Henry Kissinger used to call a fourth-rate country, North Vietnam. So people began to say to themselves, "How come? How could the United States of America lose a war? We are so powerful, and we are. And we still have the most energetic economy in the world, so how can you say, Mr. Kalb, that we've lost it? I can say it because we've lost it! We are not where we were...the world is not waiting for us, it's catching up to us.
The key to an American resurgence, Kalb believes, is the media, and particularly a free press. The rest of the world, Kalb says, looks to us for inspiration, because of the idea that we (in America) are free to cover the news:
Whatever you want to call it, it is central to our lives. In the morning, we turn on a radio to find out what the traffic is going to be, or the ball scores. How did the Thunder do last night? That is a service that only the media can provide, and if the government begins to overstep the line, and begins to move into your freedom, as a citizen of this country, somebody has to report that, because if nobody reports it, they'll just keep moving in. But if somebody does report it, they'll back off. It's happened over and over again. That's why we're there - we're there to strengthen the very core of American democracy.
Kalb believes the Obama Administration is making a mistake for taking on Fox News ("He will not win that battle - no way!") and thinks it is too late to restore the Fairness Doctrine ("There is no way of measuring fairness in the world of the blog."). On his favorite program from The Kalb Report series, the host had a quick and easy answer: the program with writer, professor, political activist and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. They both laughed when Kalb asked, "Dr. Wiesel, you've been studying God for a long time. Do you think God is a good journalist? And, Wiesel responded, "Well, you're the journalist - you ask God."
After the taping ended we posed for some photographs and I drove Mr. Kalb back to his hotel in downtown Oklahoma City, taking care to discuss the Yankees again and point out that the beloved Yankee Mickey Mantle was from Oklahoma. He seemed impressed that we were near Mickey Mantle Drive and a grand statue of "The Mick" at the Bricktown Ballpark.
Talking baseball, a little more about the Vietnam War and the prospects for Kalb's next book was a good way to end a memorable day, and my 23 hours with Marvin Kalb. He thanked me for the ride and invited me to call him. Then, he clutched his coat, stepped out of the car and walked past the valets toward the lobby of the Skirvin. They paid no attention to the tall, stately, white-haired man brushing past them. But, I knew he was someone with great stories to tell and wisdom to offer. I'm glad he shared some of it with me, and with you, in Marvin Kalb On the Record.