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"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.