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Charles Kuralt's FBI File

J. Edgar Hoover's snoops spied on one of Charlotte's favorite sons

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Charles Kuralt was retiring, and he had some stories to tell. In March of 1994, the veteran journalist, and one of Charlotte's favorite sons, was visiting his alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and recalling his time as an undergraduate 40 years earlier. Speaking before a packed auditorium, Kuralt covered many topics, but his fondness for the university stood out. He spoke of the unique free-spiritedness he encountered there: "a certain democracy in the air, a certain tolerance that distinguishes Chapel Hill."However, that tolerance was not immune from the tug of mid-1950s politics, as Kuralt learned while working for the campus newspaper. "I was editor of the Daily Tar Heel in a time when censorship was much in the air," he remembered. Early on, the budding broadcaster had staked out controversial opinions. In fact, he had narrowly won the editorship after campaigning for integration and against the university's growing focus on big-time sports.

And then, Kuralt used the position to sound off on touchy issues. On April Fool's day, he recalled, the newspaper printed a parody edition, "The Daily Witch Hunt," which lampooned Senator Joseph McCarthy and other anti-communist stalwarts when they were near the peak of their power.

That brought a swift reaction from the government, Kuralt recalled in his speech. "There was an FBI agent who was ubiquitous on the campus, and he came by the Tar Heel office the next morning and said, "Don't you kids know what you've done? You've ruined your lives.' He said, "Your names are going to be in the files forever.'"

Kuralt never forgot that threat. "I have toyed with the idea of writing to them under the Freedom of Information Act and see if they really did put our names in their files," he said.

Well, they really did. Had Kuralt requested his file, here's what he would have seen: 10 pages of internal FBI documents, half of them highly classified. Routing information on the papers indicates that most of them passed the desk of J. Edgar Hoover, the bureau's longtime director. Much of what the file says is still hidden from the public, since the FBI blacked out half of the text before releasing the papers in response to a 2001 Freedom of Information Act request. The bureau contends that the documents, which date from 1962-65, contain secrets that should stay secret, even now.

Declassified files like these can serve as a modern-day cautionary tale: With the passage of sweeping anti-terrorism legislation like the USA PATRIOT Act, the FBI has acquired new authority to probe into the private lives of national security suspects. And the Bush administration and senior FBI officials have prodded field agents -- including the ones stationed in North Carolina -- to become much more aggressive in their national security investigations.

The FBI's Kuralt file, compiled during the era of Hoover's most aggressive and intrusive "investigations," offers a reminder that innocent bystanders -- including the occasional journalist -- can get caught up in the web of aggressive domestic intelligence operations.

In Good Company
The story of the Kuralt file will remain incomplete until the FBI lifts its blackout and declassifies the rest of the documents. But for now, the portions made public reveal substantial details. To begin with, the documents offer stark reminders of how deeply the FBI delved into media matters during the Cold War. They were written during the heyday of the FBI's secret snooping on Americans, and the targets included some of the most highly regarded journalists in the country. And some of the least radical or subversive. The FBI is well-known for its zealous information-gathering, but a file on Charles Kuralt? That kindly gentleman journalist more suited for a fishing vest and fly rod than a cloak and dagger?

Unlikely as it may seem, in making his way into the FBI's files, Kuralt is in good company: The roster of North Carolina notables who have done so includes Terry Sanford, Carl Sandburg, and Thomas Wolfe -- not to mention the hundreds of mostly unheralded citizens involved in causes ranging from civil rights to free speech to world peace.

Kuralt, a Wilmington-born and Charlotte-raised newsman who died in 1997, cut his reportorial teeth at the Daily Tar Heel and the Charlotte News, then rose to fame on the strength of his poignant human interest broadcasts for CBS. He became a television icon on shows including Eyewitness, On the Road, and Sunday Morning, the last of which became, for millions of Americans, a weekly ritual as regular as a visit to church.

In some respects, the FBI's interest in Kuralt is not so mysterious. He was not an especially political person, but, for a time at least, he reported on highly politicized stories. And though he was hardly a radical, some of his best reports told the stories of American underdogs: coal miners, dispossessed farmers, unions on the wane.

"I can understand any sort of social leanings he had, because his father was a social worker" in Mecklenburg County, says Asheville-based author Ralph Grizzle, who wrote Remembering Charles Kuralt shortly after the journalist's death. ". . .when he was just a kid, he traveled around with his father and he got to see how many kids were living in poverty, so he had sympathy toward the poor."

At the same time, Kuralt was consistently neutral on questions of how to solve the social problems he was reporting on, and unabashedly pro-United States. That's why Grizzle is surprised that Kuralt's work would spark J. Edgar Hoover's suspicions.

"Izzy Bleckman, his cameraman, said that had Charles been around in 1776, he would have been among the first to pick up a musket," Grizzle notes. "He was truly patriotic."

So how did Kuralt come under the government's glare? The incident at the Daily Tar Heel office doesn't show up in the publicly released version of the file. But the declassified parts do indicate that the FBI took notice of two of his news reports: one from Cuba and one from the Dominican Republic.

The Truth Shall Get You Investigated
It was a sign of the times, and a consequence of one of Kuralt's most exciting but lesser-known assignments. He was just 27 years old in the summer of 1961, when CBS News appointed him chief Latin America correspondent. A one-man bureau, Kuralt would stay at the post for just a year and a half, but it was an action-packed assignment in a key Cold War battleground where journalists were inevitable players in the struggle.

From his bureau in Rio de Janeiro, Kuralt, who had always felt a deep wanderlust, traveled relentlessly throughout the hemisphere. Along the way, he rubbed shoulders with rebels and generals, peasants and presidents, filing reports on international crises and more mundane matters with the same zeal.

His host country provided plenty of drama by itself. Brazil was torn by political divisions and instability, and Kuralt had a front-row seat for some of the most newsworthy upheaval. In August 1961, a reform-minded president resigned under pressure from the military and right-wing political groups. As Vice President Joao Goulart, a leftist, claimed the presidency, the military command refused to accept his rule. But troops loyal to Goulart sheltered him in his hometown of Porto Alegre, where they waged a war of nerves that Goulart would eventually win.

During the coup attempt, Kuralt staged his own journalistic coup, reporting from behind the loyalist lines in Porto Alegre. He was the only American broadcaster to make it there, but the phone lines weren't working. How to file reports? Kuralt improvised and arranged to send dispatches to CBS via Radio Legalidade, a short-wave broadcast run by Goulart backers. Every day during the crisis, at 10am and 6pm, Kuralt was granted 10 minutes to transmit the news to New York.

"I felt frustrated after each of these exercises, unsure of whether I was triumphing over the opposition [other American reporters] with reports they couldn't possibly have or making an ass of myself talking into thin air," Kuralt wrote in his memoir, A Life on the Road. But the reports had gotten through, telling the world what Goulart's side was saying before it triumphed. Back in Rio, the telegrams flowed in to Kuralt's office with accolades for his scoop.

The next hot spot Kuralt hit was Cuba. He'd been there before, in the summer of 1960, shortly after rebels led by Fidel Castro had seized power. On that trip, he had scored an interview with Che Guevara, the charismatic Argentinean who became a hero of the Cuban revolution. Kuralt wasn't too impressed with Guevara, whom he later described as a "pompous braggart."

By the time of his second trip to revolutionary Cuba, in April 1962, relations between Havana and Washington were in tatters, and Cuban authorities were permitting only a handful of US journalists to enter the country. Upon arrival, an official informed Kuralt he'd been issued a visa by mistake -- a consular officer had assumed he was Brazilian.

Kuralt made the best of it. The authorities permitted him to stay for three weeks, but kept a close eye on him. One afternoon, he returned to his hotel room to find that someone had rifled through his things. "This became routine," Kuralt wrote later in his memoir. "I left a note in the underwear drawer: "No secrets here, just underwear.' Whoever it was made off with the note."

Kuralt's half-hour report, "An American in Cuba," which aired in prime time on May 25, 1962, showed that the reporter had not been romanced by the revolution. He did find a few good things, such as the Castro government's considerable focus on literacy and learning. "Education in the new Cuba was pervasive, and touching, even inspiring, to witness," he wrote later.

But the thrust of Kuralt's TV report was critical. Reporting on a militant, anti-American parade in Havana on May Day, he described Cuba as a place growing dreary with dogma. "The Communist exhortations made the island seem like a dream out of Orwell," Kuralt said in a voice-over.

Despite the anti-Castro emphasis of the broadcast, it did not play well in Miami, where hardliners in the Cuban exile community denounced Kuralt as a pawn of the Castro regime for having gone to Cuba in the first place. The clamor spread from there to Washington. On July 19, 1962, the Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security held hearings on "attempts of pro-Castro forces to pervert the American press," and Kuralt's report became a centerpiece of the discussion.

His chief accuser was Carlos Todd, a Cuban journalist living in Miami who, as recently declassified documents show, was editor of an anti-Castro newsletter published with secret subsidies from the Central Intelligence Agency.

"Kuralt endeavored to present a very rosy picture of Communist Cuba," Todd charged in his Senate testimony. He asserted that several US journalists had made a tacit agreement to produce pro-Castro reports in exchange for permission to visit the island. Kuralt's recent show from Cuba, Todd alleged, was a prime example.

Reports like Kuralt's were duping the American people, Todd argued. "Audiences, ignorant of the facts about Cuba, accept the words of these men as gospel truth, and the nation is conditioned to accepting communism in this hemisphere."

This charge appears to be what put Kuralt on the FBI's radar. A month later, the bureau opened its file on Kuralt. The first page was a memo from an FBI agent in Rio, where Kuralt was still stationed, to Director Hoover. The text is entirely blacked out, but a handwritten notation indicates it was placed in a file on "Cuban propaganda." Then, on September 14, Hoover himself wrote a memo about Kuralt. Again, the full text of the message remains censored.

When shown the FBI documents on Kuralt in 2001, Ralph Grizzle offered a quick response: "They said he was pro-Castro. Well, he was pro-everybody, wasn't he?"

Indeed, Senate investigators who looked into the matter ultimately concluded that Kuralt was no threat to national security. In January 1963, the Subcommittee on Internal Security cleared Kuralt of Castro-boosting, publishing a detailed analysis of his Cuban dispatch that acknowledged Todd's charges were false.

For his part, Kuralt dodged the fracas by getting married for the second time and hopping on a cruise to Brazil with his bride. "I figured I couldn't be subpoenaed if I was on a ship at sea," he later quipped.

More Questions Than Answers
In 1964, CBS brought Kuralt back to the United States, and most of his subsequent reports focused on stories from his homeland. But having proven himself on the Latin America beat, he was still dispatched to cover the occasional international crisis, like the one that broke out in the Dominican Republic in May 1965. There, a populist uprising was trying to unseat a Washington-backed military junta. President Lyndon Johnson forced the outcome by ordering an invasion by 20,000 US troops.

Again, Kuralt would be reporting from a den of intrigue that he'd visited before. A year earlier, in the summer of 1963, he'd spent a week in Santo Domingo, the Dominican capital. It had been a busy week, one in which Kuralt tapped all sorts of clandestine sources, according to his expense report from the trip. The document, found among his personal papers at UNC-Chapel Hill's Wilson Library, charged CBS for dinners with shadowy figures: Haitian exiles planning a coup attempt in their country, and one "Samuel Talbot, CIA agent," who briefed Kuralt on the activities of Dominican communists.

This time, Kuralt and a team of CBS reporters arrived on the heels of the US Marines. The resulting hour-long report, titled "What Went Wrong in Santo Domingo?," highlighted some of the lies and obfuscations uttered by US officials during the intervention. The report juxtaposed interviews with officials who claimed US troops were neutral peacekeepers with footage showing those same troops helping the Dominican military suppress the rebels.

For its time, the show was an unusually penetrating critique of official disinformation. And it won Kuralt praise from unconventional quarters. Among his fans was writer Hunter S. Thompson, who had met Kuralt when both men were posted in Brazil. Thompson, then working as a correspondent for The National Observer, a weekly newspaper in the United States, had not yet formally launched his career in "gonzo journalism." But Kuralt already had an inkling that Thompson was an unusual character, as evidenced by a passage from A Life on the Road: "I knew him from Rio, where I had once lent him bail money to get out of jail after he had slugged a guy who had kicked a dog in a bar."

Thompson was impressed by the CBS report from the Dominican Republic. "It was a damn good job," he wrote in a letter to Kuralt. "Somehow, you have developed a sort of [Edward R.] Murrow image, a gaunt and baleful presence that implies authority, credibility, a tone of reluctant judgment on the actions and affairs of less candid men."

The guardians of national security were not so enthusiastic, and the show earned Kuralt one more mention in the FBI's files. This time, the allegations of disloyalty came from a fellow American newsman.

As FBI Director Hoover closely monitored suspected journalists, he maintained close ties to sympathetic ones. One of his press contacts, William Hearst Jr., son of the historic media magnate, wrote a letter to the FBI listing "newsmen alleged to be distorting the news" about the Dominican intervention. Kuralt's name was on the list.

As a result, on June 30, 1965, an FBI officer wrote a memo summarizing what the bureau knew about Kuralt and other journalists who had reported on the intervention. The document noted that the journalist had visited Cuba and had been accused, and absolved, of having "slanted his reports in favor of Castro." But a short note at the end, under the heading "Observation," noted that Kuralt and another reporter "appear to the ones who have allegedly printed stories favoring anti-US elements" in the Dominican conflict.

As publicly released, the document is riddled with deletions, making it impossible to determine how far the FBI went to keep tabs on Kuralt. As is often the case, Hoover's file on Kuralt raises more questions about the bureau than it does about its subject. Until more of the file is declassified, the FBI's actions will remain obscured by the fog of secrecy.

At present, the papers do offer two clear findings. First, that Kuralt's reports from countries caught up in the Cold War prompted the FBI to suspect his loyalty to the United States -- his own country, a country he was enamored with. Second, that after all was said and done, Kuralt's name is right where the FBI agent who visited the campus newspaper office had said it would be: "in the files forever."


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