Marvin Kalb: A head above the rest

The year was 1957. Marvin Kalb was studying in Harvard University’s Widener library when a woman walked over and said a man named Edward R. Murrow had called for him.

Kalb assumed it was a joke and told her to forget about it. “I didn’t believe it for an instant,” he said. Why would Kalb’s idol be calling him? Why would the man he sat by the radio every night to listen to now want to speak with him personally?

An hour later, another call came for Kalb. This time he thought to himself, “Marvin, let’s not be ridiculous, let’s pick up the phone.” Surely enough, it was Edward Murrow, and he said he was calling about a job.

Marvin Kalb is today an authoritative and debonair journalist, author, scholar, moderator, director and press critic. Born June 9, 1930, Kalb grew up in New York City during the great depression with his immigrant parents, Polish father Max Kalb, his mother Bell Portnoy from the Ukraine, his sister and his brother.

His brother, Bernard Kalb, is eight years older and became the first journalist in the family. “[Bernard] set an example for me,” Kalb said.

Unlike many famous journalists, Marvin Kalb was not sure what he wanted to do when he grew up. He started as a pre-law student at the City College of New York. Around his junior year of college, much to the unhappiness of his father, he decided not to be a lawyer, but instead a Russian history professor.

After graduating, Kalb went to Harvard to get his master’s degree and then became an assistant professor of 19th-century Russian history. He then became a translator and reporter in Moscow.

“I was a kid and suddenly found myself in the midst of a great story,” Kalb recalled during an interview about his experience. “A PhD would be great, I would love to teach Russian history … but, golly, what excitement [I felt] just being a reporter.”

It was when Edward R. Murrow stumbled upon an article Kalb had published about his experiences in Russia that Kalb’s journey in journalism really took off.

“Marvin is a big man … a tall man, a physical presence … he knows how to speak and he has that great deep resonant voice,” said Mark Jurkowitz, the Associate Director at the Project for Excellence in Journalism. “When Marvin speaks, people listen. … There is a real air of authority to what he says and does.”

Marvin Kalb is known for always wearing a suit and a red tie, just as his brother Bernard has always worn an orange tie.

“When [the CBS] Washington bureau chief needed a Kalb to cover a story, he didn’t have to ask for Marvin or Bernard. Instead he could call out, ‘red tie’ or ‘orange tie,'” National Press Club President Jonathan Salant joked when he presented Mr. Kalb with the Fourth Estate Award this November.

“[Marvin] is very accessible, and somebody who cares so much about the standards and practices of journalism,” Jurkowitz said. “He has really been about imparting journalistic standards, principles and ethics to the profession and because of that he is an invaluable source and a heck of a good guy.

During his 30 years working in television news for CBS and NBC, Marvin Kalb was a chief diplomatic correspondent, Moscow bureau chief, and host of “Meet the Press.” He has won some of journalism’s top honors: a Peabody, a duPont-Columbia and several overseas press club citations.

“Marvin is very smart and very well informed,” said Bob Schieffer, current anchor and moderator of “Face The Nation” on CBS and one of Mr. Kalb’s colleagues at the network. “He just kind of stood out, even among the group of CBS correspondents, who were the best in town. He was the cerebral one, he had this great ability to know what news was, he could look at the situation and know who to call just by looking. … He had a great instinct as a journalist. … He was just always ahead of everybody. Journalism can be a rough and tumble business. He was a scholar, [and] a great observer.”

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger – a man whom Kalb befriended, reported on and wrote about – said in a speech at Kalb’s Fourth Estate Award Dinner that “Marvin was extraordinarily good at analyzing trends … he was tough when necessary … [and] I cared for his opinion and I learned from him.”

Marvin Kalb also has a great relationship with his brother. Bernard Kalb shared this story about their relationship at his brother’s Fourth Estate Award Dinner:

“Marvin and I were invited to appear on a program with Larry King. I was there early, [and then] Marvin came in. We had our usual kiss. Larry said, I guess you haven’t seen each other for a long time. I said, you’re right. We’ve haven’t seen each other since lunch.”

Over the years, Kalb has made the switch from journalist to press critic. Some may question why a journalist would turn around and question the media. As host of “The Kalb Report,” Marvin Kalb holds monthly discussions on media ethics and responsibility with world-renowned media personal from Dan Rather to Elie Wiesel.

Why does he focus on media ethics and why is he a press critic?

“A better press will produce a better country,” Kalb said. As a press critic, he said he can work to improve the country that he loves.

“If you can raise issues with journalists, or if you can explain the functioning of journalists to people who aren’t journalists and put it on a common ground, namely ethics, we may in that way help journalists do a better job and help non-journalists understand the difficulty of doing first-class journalism,” Kalb said.

“I take his criticism more seriously than others,” Schieffer said. “He has been there, he knows how the press works, he is imminently qualified.

“There is nothing wrong with criticizing (the media),” said Daniel Schorr, a senior NPR news analyst. “The whole point of being a journalist is to criticize.”

“Marvin has basically made a lifelong commitment to high-quality journalism,” said Alex Jones, current director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, a center that himself founded. “It’s not just being the journalist that he cares about and doing it well, it is the state of journalism and the role of journalism in our democracy that he really cares deeply about and, that sets him a part from most journalists.”

“[As journalists our] principal job is to inform, not to entertain,” Kalb said during his Fourth Estate Award speech. “We are not P.R. people. We don’t sell toothpaste. We are not hucksters. We are not businessmen. We are journalists.”

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