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From AJR,   December 1999  issue

A Humbling Career Launch   

“Were there any Americans on that boat?” a flustered radio writer is asked during his interminably long, first night on the job.

By Marvin Kalb
Marvin Kalb, a senior fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, is author most recently of "One Scandalous Story: Clinton, Lewinsky and 13 Days That Tarnished American Journalism."     

I had been hired by CBS News in June 1957 as a part-time writer, a summer replacement for the full-time pros who were probably taking their families to a beach or a mountaintop. I had just returned from a year or so in Moscow, where I had served as a translator and sometime press attaché at the U.S. Embassy. I fancied myself a Russian expert, the sort hired by newspapers and networks in those days of the Cold War to analyze the Soviet press and draw conclusions about Soviet policy. And, also, in a corner of my mind, was the dream that though I was starting at the bottom--on the midnight-to-8-a.m. shift for WCBS Radio, a local network affiliate--I'd one day rise through the ranks to become a Moscow correspondent.

It was 11:45 p.m. July 2 when I entered CBS' Madison Avenue newsroom in New York--the heart of its vast global empire. I had assumed it would be abuzz with tickers and with reporters and editors shouting for attention, racing from one microphone to another with hot copy or punching a typewriter with urgent news. Instead, I was instantly struck by the fact that it seemed remarkably small for a local and network news operation, and deathly quiet.

Four desks were crowded together, flanked on two sides by news wire machines, which click-clacked news from around the world. Off to one side in front of the only window (so dirty the skyscraper across the street looked like a mirage) was a small desk, occupied by a large, bespectacled editor who was in the process of filling his battered briefcase with the next day's editions of the Daily News and the Daily Mirror, two of New York's finest tabloids. He was alone. No reporters, no one broadcasting.

"You Marvin Kalb?" he asked when he saw me shuffling nervously at the door between the newsroom and Studio 17.

"Yes," I said.

"Well," he continued, "it's all yours."

He picked himself up from his chair. "You're responsible for the 5:30 a.m., the 6, the 6:30 and the 7. Scripts should be ready 10 minutes before broadcast time." His responsibilities having thus been summarily discharged, he walked past me and toward the elevator, pausing for just a moment. "Oh, good luck," he mumbled, or grumbled, and was gone.

I was alone--totally inexperienced, untutored and terrified. Alone in the world headquarters of CBS News. What if something were to happen? What if Ike were to die? What would I do? I knew about Russia and Communism. I'd written a few New York Times Magazine pieces and Farrar, Strauss and Cudahy was committed to publishing my Moscow memoir. But, good God! What did I know about broadcasting? I began to tremble. I was lost, an admission I would make only to myself in the dead of night.

And, for me, at about that moment, it was the dead of night--midnight, actually--and I had five hours to produce a 4-minute-and-55-second broadcast for the next editor's review. I learned from an announcement on the bulletin board that his name was Hal Terkel, and he was expected to arrive at 5 a.m. I stiffened my spine, determined that my first professionally scripted radio broadcast would be terrific, the best he'd ever read.

I cleared a desk of old coffee cups and newspapers. I reached for the early editions of the New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune, and then, meticulously, as if each news item were a secret war report, I collected rolls of copy from the Associated Press ticker machine, the United Press, the International News Service and Reuters, carefully reading each and every story. Then I arranged the stories in rows of copy, like troops at attention--one row for foreign policy, another for domestic policy, a third for local news. I reread all the stories, searching for a possible lead for my 5:30 a.m. broadcast on WCBS. Behind me, at that moment, were budding careers as a college professor and as a diplomat. Ahead of me, I hoped, was a career as a journalist.

By 2 a.m., or thereabouts, I became aware of an enveloping silence in the newsroom, as the tickers slowed to an occasional tick. The phones did not ring, not once. A cleanup man had been in and out an hour or so earlier, but no one else had disturbed my quest for a lead. The rows of copy on my desk suddenly seemed pitifully limp: no story worthy, in my view, of anyone's attention. With desperation slowly building and inspiration rapidly receding, I frantically began to write a variety of different leads, hoping that one of them would leap out at me and demand its role in my writing of history.

No luck. Nothing leaped. As the clock moved toward 3 a.m., I again checked the wires, wondering if anything was happening anywhere on this vast planet.

Bingo! There on Reuters was a relatively short item from New Delhi, where I had been only a few months before. It said that a boat carrying 327 people had capsized in the Ganges and, it was believed, no one had survived. I understood that the news was terribly sad, but it was also fantastically liberating. I had my lead. On this dreadfully dreary night, as I launched my new career, news had finally been committed in India, and I was going to share this tragic development with my New York listeners. I could also enrich the copy, I felt, with my own personal knowledge of India.

I was truly excited. I felt grateful to Reuters. I had my story.

"Bulletin from New Delhi!" I began writing my broadcast, using the choppy radio lingo I had come to associate with the legendary Robert Trout. "An enormous tragedy hit India this morning. According to the British news agency, Reuters, 327 people are feared dead, their boat capsizing in the Ganges River."

I amplified the story with the few other details that Reuters had provided and then carried my tale a step further with information about India's overcrowded transportation system and burgeoning population. I timed the item, reading it as I imagined Edward R. Murrow would have read it. One-minute-twenty-eight seconds. Long, I thought, but then rationalized, it's fresh news, it's an undeniable tragedy, and besides, it's the only story I've got that isn't a steal from the AP or the Times.

I completed the rest of the script, read it and reread it to make certain it came in at 4:55, as required, and then got my sixth cup of coffee (or was it my seventh?) and checked and rechecked the wires, waiting for Terkel, whose entrance was being slowly advanced by the approaching dawn filling the dark window with the first gray specks of light. Shortly after 5 a.m., a portly, cheerful man sporting a New York Yankees baseball cap and carrying a small lunchbox entered the newsroom on cat's paws.

"Hello, Marvin Kalb?" he pronounced in a voice much larger than, after looking at him, I'd imagined he'd have. Maybe he was once a broadcaster himself, I thought, or someone who had aspired to being a broadcaster but had come up short.

"Yes, sir," I replied, happy that he knew my name, happier still that another human being had arrived to share my excitement.

"Your 5:30 copy ready?" he asked.

"Yes, sir," I repeated. "Right on your desk."

Terkel sat down, took a thermos from his lunchbox, poured a cup of coffee, reached for the late edition of the Daily News and read the sports pages. I watched his every move, waiting expectantly for him to pick up my script. 5:05 came and went. 5:10 came and went. I broke into a sweat. When was he going to read my script?

The moment came at exactly 5:15. He put the News to one side, reached for a pencil, which I had sharpened, and began to read what I'd written. I tried to look nonchalant, but in fact I was very anxious.

After a few minutes, he said, "Marvin," beginning what would prove to be my first lesson in journalism, "were there any Americans on that boat?"

"Christ!" I muttered, and raced to my desk and pulled the Reuters dispatch from the row of foreign news reports. I read it, and then reread it, to make sure. "It doesn't say," I groaned. "I don't know."

Terkel smiled. "The first thing to keep in mind is that you're writing for local radio news. The second thing is that it's the start of the July Fourth weekend. Right? Let's imagine you're a shopkeeper in Hempstead, Long Island, my hometown. Three days with no store to open, nothing to do except listen to a ballgame or cut the grass or go to a movie."

I had no idea where Terkel was taking me. I kept looking at him and occasionally sneaking a glance at the clock. We had a little more than 12 minutes to go before the 5:30 a.m. broadcast.

The local announcer had not yet arrived. Terkel acted as if we still had 12 hours to prepare.

"Now what's on your mind?" he asked. "And what do you want to know? I'll tell you what's on your mind. You want to know what the weather's going to be like. You want to know who's pitching for the Yankees today against the Indians. I'll tell you: It's Allie Reynolds and Vic Raschi, and first place is on the line.

"You're sorry all those other Indians died in the Ganges, but you're only interested in the Indians from Cleveland. Anyway, there are no Americans who died. At least that we know. So let's forget about the Ganges. You want to know what the mayor said about garbage collection in Manhattan and the strike in Brooklyn. And that's it." (Those might not have been his exact words, but that was the spirit of his lecture.)

Not waiting for any reaction, in any case, he quickly slipped a piece of copy paper into his Royal typewriter and, in less than nine minutes, completely rewrote my script and handed it to the announcer, who happened to saunter past his desk on the way to Studio 17 with just a minute or two to go before the 5:30 a.m. broadcast aired.

It was my broadcast, but I didn't recognize it. It led with the weather, segued to the doubleheader at Yankee Stadium, which was to be attended by the mayor if the strike in Brooklyn did not distract him and the garbage collectors in Manhattan did not make more trouble. When the broadcast ended, Terkel asked if I had any questions before I started to write the 6 a.m. broadcast.

"No, sir," I replied, "but can I call Reuters and ask if any Americans were on board?"

Terkel said: "You can call, but I'm still not sure it makes the 6."