Sep 1 1998

Marvin Kalb’s Unreliable Sources

A thirty-year veteran of network news at NBC and CBS, Marvin Kalb’s current position as Harvard’s leading press critic has made him one of the go-to guys when the question turns–as it often has this summer–to journalistic ethics. Whether appearing on PBS‘s NewsHour with Jim Lehrer or CNN‘s Reliable Sources (anchored by his brother Bernard), or opining in a Los Angeles Times op-ed in a somber tone, Kalb lays down the conventional wisdom when it comes to current news-media foibles.

So last July, when CNN retracted its “Valley of Death” broadcast charging that U.S. special forces targeted U.S. defectors and used poison gas in Laos, Kalb was quick to scold the network–and the two producers it fired–for producing “a rushed product that failed as reliable news” (Los Angeles Times, 7/10/98).

But Kalb has reported a few unreliable stories of his own. On the night of the U.S. presidential election in 1984, Kalb was at the head of the pack in reporting (NBC News, 11/6/84, 11/8/84) that the Soviets were delivering MiG fighter planes to the Nicaraguan Sandinistas. A Reagen White House plant designed to draw attention away from the concurrent elections in Nicaragua, the story evaporated after several days. It had been a hoax.

Kalb narrated an NBC news special ( 9/21/82) called “The Man Who Shot the Pope: A Study in Terrorism,” which advanced the thesis that the previous year’s attempt on Pope John Paul’s life was part of a plot engineered by the Bulgarian secret service in tandem with the Soviet KGB. The theory was developed by far-right journalist Claire Sterling, who served as “consultant” for the Kalb documentary, and it centered on the testimony of the gunman in the Pope’s shooting, Mehmet Ali Agca. Agca claimed he had hatched a plot with the Bulgarian secret service; he also claimed he was Jesus Christ. Far-fetched from the outset, the story deflated four years later when an Italian court acquitted three Bulgarians of conspiracy–and withered away entirely in 1991, when a CIA analyst admitted that U.S. intelligence had completely infiltrated Bulgaria’s covert operations.

Fortunately, Kalb’s unreliable reports were consistent with the agendas of powerful Washington institutions–so no jobs were lost, and no retractions or apologies were considered necessary.