Times are tough for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The nation’s top law enforcement agency has been skewered for several recent cases of misconduct, most notably the bureau’s sloppy records management in the Oklahoma City bombing case. There was a time, though, when the FBI was all too adept at compiling files on Americans–including some of the nation’s most highly regarded journalists.
And some of the least subversive. Consider, for example, the FBI’s secret file on Charles Kuralt, obtained by The Independent through the Freedom of Information Act. The FBI is well-known for its zealous information gathering. But a file on Kuralt? That kindly gentleman journalist more suited for a fishing vest and fly rod than a cloak and dagger?
Kuralt is in good company: The roster of North Carolina notables who’ve found their way into the FBI’s files includes Carl Sandburg, Terry Sanford and Thomas Wolfe. (Not to mention hundreds of other unheralded citizens involved in causes ranging from civil rights to free speech to economic justice.)
Kuralt, a Wilmington-born TV journalist who died in 1997, cut his reportorial teeth as the student editor of The Daily Tar Heel at UNC-Chapel Hill and then rose to fame on the strength of his poignant human interest broadcasts. He became a television icon on CBS shows including Eyewitness, On the Road and Sunday Morning.
Kuralt was hardly a radical, but some of his best reports told the stories of American underdogs: coal miners, dispossessed farmers, unions on the wane. He also reported from several Cold War hot spots, including revolutionary Cuba. At the same time, Kuralt was unabashedly patriotic, and usually steered clear of suggesting solutions to the social problems he reported on.
That’s one reason why Asheville-based author Ralph Grizzle, who wrote Remembering Charles Kuralt, is surprised that the journalist’s work would spark the government’s suspicions.
“They said he was pro-Castro,” Grizzle says. “Well he was pro-everybody, wasn’t he?”
Kuralt never saw his own FBI file, but he had some reason to think it existed. While at UNC-Chapel Hill, he staked out controversial opinions, narrowly winning the editorship of The Daily Tar Heel after campaigning for integration and against the university’s growing focus on big-time sports.
At a 1994 speech at UNC, recalling his days as a student 40 years earlier, Kuralt noted that, “I was editor of The Daily Tar Heel in a time when censorship was much in the air.”
On April Fool’s Day, 1954, Kuralt remembered, the newspaper printed a parody edition, “The Daily Witch Hunt,” which lampooned Sen. Joseph McCarthy and other crusaders against communism. “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?’” Kuralt recalled. “‘You’ve ruined your lives,’ he said. ‘Your names are going to be in the files forever.’ 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.”
Well, they really did. Had Kuralt requested his file, here’s what he would have seen: Ten pages of internal FBI documents, half of them stamped “SECRET.” Routing information on the papers indicates that all of them crossed the desk of J. Edgar Hoover, the bureau’s director from its founding to 1972. Much of the file’s contents are still hidden from the public, since FBI censors prior to release blacked out half of the text. The bureau contends that the documents, which date from 1962-1965, contain secrets that should stay secret, even now.
So how did Kuralt attract the attention of the bureau? The story goes back to the summer of 1961, when he began one of his most exciting but lesser-known assignments as chief Latin America correspondent for CBS. Kuralt held the post for a little less than two years. It was action-packed work 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 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.
Nowhere was the drama more focused than Cuba, where Fidel Castro’s young revolution was still being consolidated. In April 1962, Kuralt went to the island to prepare a news special. At the time, relations between Havana and Washington were in tatters, and Cuban authorities were permitting only a handful of U.S. 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.
The Cubans permitted Kuralt 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.
In his memoir, A Life on the Road, Kuralt wrote that such rifling became routine while he was in Cuba.
“I left a note in the underwear drawer: ‘No secrets here, just underwear,’” he wrote. “Whoever it was made off with the note.”
Kuralt’s report, “An American in Cuba,” which aired in prime time on May 25, 1962, showed the reporter had not exactly been romanced by Castro’s revolution. He did have a few good things to say about the new Cuba, in particular the country’s considerable focus on education. But, reporting on a militant, anti-American parade in Havana on May Day, he described Cuba as a place growing dreary from dogma.
“The Communist exhortations make the island seem like a dream out of Orwell,” Kuralt reported. “And the girls, who always seemed so pretty in their flowered dresses, have gained in what is called ‘revolutionary consciousness,’ and lost some of their charm somehow.”
Despite the anti-Castro thrust of the report, it did not play well in Miami, where critics in the Cuban exile community denounced Kuralt as a pawn of the regime for having gone to Cuba in the first place.
The show also raised suspicions in Washington. On July 19, 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 exile journalist living in Miami who, as recently declassified documents show, was editor of a 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 U.S. journalists had made a tacit agreement to produce pro-Castro reports in exchange for permission to visit the island. Kuralt’s broadcast, Todd said, was a prime example.
A month later, the FBI opened its file on Kuralt. The first page was a memo sent from an FBI agent in Rio to Director Hoover. The text of the document is entirely blacked out, but a handwritten notation indicates it was placed in a file on “Cuban propaganda.” On September 14, Hoover himself wrote a memo about Kuralt. Again, the text of the message remains censored.
In January 1963, the Senate 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 ship to Brazil with his bride. “I figured I couldn’t be subpoenaed if I was on a ship at sea,” he later quipped in A Life on the Road.
For the remainder of his career, Kuralt did most of his work in the United States, but he was occasionally dispatched to cover crises like the one that broke out in the Dominican Republic in May 1965. President Lyndon Johnson ordered an invasion by 20,000 U.S. troops, forcing the outcome of a conflict that pitted a Washington-backed military against a popular uprising.
Kuralt’s hour-long report on the situation, titled “What Went Wrong in Santo Domingo?” highlighted some of the lies and obfuscations uttered by U.S. officials during the intervention. For example, he and other reporters juxtaposed interviews with officials who claimed that U.S. troops were neutral peacekeepers with footage showing those same troops assisting the fight against the rebels.
For its time, the show was an unusually penetrating critique of government disinformation. And it won Kuralt praise from some unconventional quarters.
Among his fans was journalist Hunter S. Thompson, who befriended Kuralt when both men were posted in Brazil. Thompson, then writing for the The National Observer, had not yet formally launched his career in “gonzo journalism.” But Kuralt had witnessed hints of the phenomenon, as he noted in his memoir: “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 on 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. One of Hoover’s press contacts, William Hearst Jr.–son of the historic media magnate–wrote a letter to the FBI director after the invasion of the Dominican Republic listing “newsmen alleged to be distorting the news” about the conflict. Kuralt’s name was on the list.
On June 30, 1965, Hoover assistant Cartha DeLoach wrote a memo summarizing what the bureau knew so far about Kuralt. The document noted he 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 of the document, under the heading “Observation,” stated that Kuralt and another reporter “appear to be the ones who have allegedly printed stories favoring anti-U.S. elements” in the Dominican conflict.
As is often the case, the FBI’s paper trail on Kuralt raises more doubts about the bureau than it does about its subject. Until more of the files are declassified, much of the bureau’s logic in investigating the veteran journalist will remain a mystery.
One thing is certain. After all’s said and done, Kuralt’s name is right where the FBI agent had said it would be, “in the files forever.”