Marvin Kalb in Moscow: “When TV news was more serious business and less partisan gasbggery”

From a Wall Street Journal review by Edward Kosner of Marvin Kalb’s book “Assignment Russia”:

Roger Mudd ascended to Network News Heaven at 93 last week. There he was reunited with Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor, Douglas Edwards, Howard K. Smith, Edward R. Murrow and other luminaries. Still with us are old hands Dan Rather, Diane Sawyer, Bernard Shaw, and the Kalb brothers, Marvin and Bernard—living witnesses to the days when TV news was more serious business and less partisan gasbaggery.

Now Marvin Kalb, himself 90 but acute as ever, has written a memoir of his early career, especially his years as Moscow correspondent for CBS News in the direst period of the Cold War. His earnest and discursive “Assignment Russia” will be a nostalgic treat for older readers. For younger ones it’s a wake-up call about what they’re missing in their daily feeds of cable news, Facebook, Twitter and the clamorous rest.

Tall and angular—Nikita Khrushchev called him “Peter the Great” after Russia’s towering czar—Mr. Kalb had dreamt for years of covering the Soviet Union. He’d grown up in New York of Eastern European parents, gone to City College, then on to Harvard as a nascent Russia scholar. With good Russian, at 27 he spent a year as a translator for the U.S. embassy in Moscow before being the last of Murrow’s recruits for CBS News. After decades at CBS, he went on to “Meet the Press” at NBC, a long run at journalistic and academic think tanks, and more than a dozen books.

Anyone who ever started a journalistic career in a deserted newsroom on the midnight-to-8 a.m. “lobster” shift will be entranced by Mr. Kalb’s account of venturing into CBS News Radio on June 27, 1957. His task was to write the scripts for four five-minute local newscasts beginning at dawn. He’d never done one before, and nobody was there to tell him how. Scouring the papers and wire copy, he decided to lead with a tourist-boat accident on the Ganges River that killed 27. The old-pro editor showed up, praised his maiden effort—and totally rewrote it to lead with a local subway delay. But the kid was a natural. Soon, he was writing commentaries for the big-time evening anchors and he was launched….

Led by the charismatic Murrow, CBS News was a powerhouse devoted to in-depth coverage of the Cold War world, with stars like Eric Sevareid, Charles Collingwood and Richard C. Hottelet. Besides its many daily television and radio newscasts….

“Assignment Russia” is filled with glimpses of Murrow and admiring sketches of his “boys”—there were no women in the network’s “Murderers’ Row.” In his Savile Row suits, chain-smoking and delivering his scripts in a voice that linguists called “Great American,” Murrow constantly fretted that TV news wasn’t properly informing the American people—and that television itself was, as he said in a famous 1958 speech, “nothing but wires and lights in a box.”…

There’s lots more—the invisible Moscow censors, the camaraderie of his competitive fellow correspondents, the thrill of participating in what turned out to be Murrow’s last broadcast, the heartbreak of having an American tourist courier his exclusive, undeveloped film of Pasternak’s funeral past Soviet customs on a flight to the West only to have the woman and the film disappear.

The book ends with Mr. Kalb’s painful rejection of a job offer from his hero Murrow, now the new Kennedy administration’s head of the U.S. Information Agency. He was still living the dream.

Mr. Kosner is the former editor of Newsweek, New York, Esquire and the New York Daily News.

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