Marvin Kalb’s career in journalism was shaped by the Cold War. The constant threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union “was acute and frightening,” he said.
That mutual threat made Kalb’s pieces that aired on The World News Roundup every morning so essential.
“It was important that I get it right. And so, I felt an additional sense of responsibility to the craft of journalism,” Kalb said.
Now, 57 years after the start of his career Kalb has been recognized as a Fellow of the Society, among the highest professional honors awarded by the Society of Professional Journalists for extraordinary contribution to journalism.
Kalb has a three-decade-long career of award-winning reporting and commentary for CBS News and NBC News, where he was Chief Diplomatic Correspondent, Moscow Bureau Chief, and moderator of Meet the Press. Then at the point many would retire, Kalb spent the next 28 years hosting The Kalb Report, a program about media ethics and responsibility. He was the founding Director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy from 1987 to 1999.
Richard Drew, Soledad O’Brien, Dana Priest and Lesley Visser were also recognized.
“SPJ is proud to welcome these five luminaries as Fellows of the Society,” SPJ National President Claire Regan said in a press release. “We are inspired by their passion and professionalism, and look forward to celebrating their outstanding work and many accomplishments at SPJ23.”
Kalb’s start in journalism
Kalb wasn’t always interested in pursuing a career in journalism. In early 1957, Kalb was pursuing his Ph.D. in Russian history at Harvard. He had just finished a 13-month assignment at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and had been writing for various news organizations using his knowledge of Russia.
“The idea that I would write about Russia was sort of natural,” Kalb said, considering it was the middle of the Cold War and he had just lived there.
One day Kalb got a call on a Monday afternoon. He was at Widener Library doing research when the librarian tapped him on the shoulder. She told him a man on the phone wanted to talk to Kalb. His name was Edward R. Murrow, an American broadcast journalist and war correspondent who distinguished himself during World War II.
“I said, ‘That’s ridiculous. Murrow was not calling me, hang up on him. I mean he’s obviously a kook,’” Kalb recalled.
Later that afternoon the librarian tapped him on the shoulder again. She said it was the same man, Murrow, and that he didn’t sound like a kook. After apologizing profusely, Kalb agreed to meet Murrow in his office at 9:00 the next morning.
Murrow and Kalb talked about all things Russia. They talked about young people, old people, education, religion, work, transportation and literature. The 30-minute meeting ended up going on for three hours. At that point, Murrow’s secretary reminded him of a lunch date.
Murrow then got up and walked over to Kalb, putting an arm around his shoulder. He asked Kalb if he would like to work for CBS.
“Took me about two seconds to consider, and I said, ‘Yes, of course,’” Kalb said. “That was the moment at which I said goodbye to my scholarly career and switched over to journalism.”
CBS started Kalb in an overnight shift with local radio. While he knew about Russia and how to write a news story, he had no experience as a radio or television reporter.
“I always had the feeling that Murrow was sort of checking on my progress,” Kalb said. “After every three or four months or so, I began to get a better job.”
After two years, Kalb began writing commentaries relating to the Soviet Union for an analysis program called The World Tonight. Eventually, he lent his own voice to the program and by May 1960, Kalb became a Moscow correspondent.
Dedication to the craft of journalism
Even President Kennedy, Kalb said, was listening to his broadcasts during the Cuban Missile Crisis. For these reasons, he felt passionate about making sure the information he provided was correct and clear.
But as time went on, the journalistic atmosphere changed. Kalb said the craft of journalism back then compared to today is “dramatically different.” First, the technology was different. At the time, Kalb had to have a circuit from Moscow to New York.
“The Russians could and did pull the plug whenever they wanted to,” Kalb said.
Kalb also didn’t have a television crew. He had to shoot his own film and put it together with the audio himself. There was also an overarching sense of responsibility in journalism at the time. Journalists needed to get information as quickly and responsibly as possible, “always with the understanding that what you said could be the basis of important decisions, and you had to get it right,” Kalb said.
Regardless of the constraints, Kalb said during the 1950s and 60s, journalism had a powerful, positive influence. There wasn’t the same polarization between news organizations during that time.
“All of us sought to do the same thing: report the news. Clearly, straight. No politics, just do it,” Kalb said.
That’s why The Kalb Report was started back in 1994. It aimed to educate the public about the importance of journalism and media ethics. Kalb said it always tried to get top journalists, not scholars, on the program to explain their craft. It was meant to show that journalism is a form of education and freedom.
The element that meant the world to Kalb, and probably to those who listened and watched, is that there is an “intimate connection between a free press and a free society.”
The future for Kalb
Kalb is the Edward R. Murrow Professor Emeritus at Harvard and is currently senior adviser at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and senior fellow in foreign affairs at the Brookings Institution.
In the last episode of The Kalb Report, Kalb said he also wanted to continue teaching and perhaps write a book. He has already authored and co-authored 17 nonfiction books and two best-selling novels and is currently working on another one. The book will be a memoir of what it was like to be a CBS reporter covering the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 60s.
Kalb continues to write books and teach so more can be educated about the “crucial importance of a free press in the maintenance of a free society.”