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Algerian Diary: Frank Kearns and the "Impossible Assignment" for CBS News

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Frank Kearns was the go-to guy at CBS News for danger- ous stories in Africa and the Middle East in the 1950s, ‘60s, and early ‘70s. By his own account, he was nearly killed 114 times. He took stories that nobody else wanted to cover and was challenged to get them on the air when nobody cared about this part of the world. But his stories were warning shots for conflicts that play out in the headlines today.

In 1957, Senator John Kennedy described America’s view of the Algerian war for independence as the Eisenhower Administration’s “head in the sand policy.” So CBS News decided to find out what was really happening there and to determine where Algeria’s war for independence fit into the game plan for the Cold War. They sent Frank Kearns to find out.

Kearns took with him cameraman Yousef (“Joe”) Masraff and 400 pounds of gear, some of which they shed, and they hiked with FLN escorts from Tunisia, across a wide “no-man’s land,” and into the Aures Mountains of eastern Algeria, where the war was bloodiest. They carried no passports or visas. They dressed as Algerians. They refused to bear weapons. And they knew that if captured, they would be executed and left in unmarked graves. But their job as journalists was to seek the truth whatever it might turn out to be.

This is Frank Kearns’s diary.

ISBN-13: 9781933202624

Media Type: Paperback(1st Edition)

Publisher: West Virginia University Press

Publication Date: 03-01-2016

Pages: 208

Product Dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

Gerald Davis is the producer, writer, and director of Frank Kearns: American Correspondent, a one-hour documentary film developed by Greenbriar Group Films in association with West Virginia Public Broadcasting. A native of Elkins, West Virginia, Davis earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from the P. I. Reed School of Journalism at West Virginia University, where he was a student of Frank Kearns.

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Algerian Diary

Frank Kearns & the "Impossible Assignment" for CBS News

By Gerald L. Davis Jr.

West Virginia University Press

Copyright © 2016 Gerald L. Davis Jr.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-940425-76-4


A Small Office in Cairo

As the middle of the twentieth century rolled along, most of America was settling into a new suburban lifestyle. Demand for manufactured products and the good fortunes of an "Eisenhower economy" ushered in the age of consumerism. Safety and growing security at home allowed this to develop.

The first armed conflict in the Cold War era had ended in a stalemate at the 38th parallel on the Korean Peninsula, and Americans were feeling safe but cautious. They hadn't lost that war. They just hadn't won it. Vietnam wasn't yet the flame on the horizon that would burn into the American psyche. Politically the country had turned conservative.

The postwar surge of consumerism of the 1950s grew rapidly. By 1957, signs of it were everywhere. The Wham-O Company in Pasadena, California, produced the first Frisbee. Efficient and cost-effective mass-production houses — built on concrete slabs like those at Levittown, New York, or in a new style known as "mid-century modern" — were in high demand nationwide, even in the growing towns of West Virginia, where Frank Kearns had grown up. The average cost of one of these new homes was around $12,000.

Two-thirds of all new cars were purchased on credit, and the average car sold for almost $2,800. Marketers at the Ford Motor Company that year were finalizing plans for the second largest car launch ever. Their attention was focused on an unconventional and highly stylized new automobile debuting in the fall at more than 1,500 dealerships nationwide. It was named for the company founder's late son, Edsel. Ford's advertising medium of choice was television. It was a relatively new medium and worked like no other tool in the automobile manufacturer's marketing mix. Their message: Ford cars come from " 'You Ideas' — developed, not just to arouse your curiosity, but to do something for you." In an era of only 4 percent unemployment, many people would succumb to their enticing definition of who should drive an Edsel. Many would later regret it.

That year, forty-one million homes had television sets. Less than 1 percent received a signal in color; the rest watched grainy, rolling black and white. After dinner each evening, families settled down in their living rooms to watch television on a very small screen, eagerly anticipating the premier that fall of programs like the family sitcom Leave It to Beaver on CBS.

Actor Humphrey Bogart died in January, yet people still went to the movies. One of the trendy new films was based on a racy novel popularized the year before and then a decade later would be made into a television program for ABC. It was called Peyton Place. It grossed $16.1 million at the box office, not far behind David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai, which was named the Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

Some people, meanwhile, cheered that fall in 1957 as the Milwaukee Braves beat the New York Yankees in seven games of the World Series. The NBA Championship went to the Celtics in seven games, too, the first of many trophies to be displayed at the Boston Gardens. The Stanley Cup stayed in Montreal.

Although life at home was relatively protected, Americans were told to fear the growing influence of the Soviet Union in the "us-versus-them" thinking of the time. Every evening around dinnertime, families tuned in to watch the fifteen-minute newscast of Douglas Edwards with the News on CBS. John Cameron Swayze drew a larger audience over on NBC. Just as it does today, the New York Times influenced every facet of media — newspapers, radio, and television. The Wall Street Journal published the first of its still-running cartoon feature, "Pepper ... and Salt."

In the United States, television was a local medium until AT&T finished linking the country with coaxial cables, which had enough bandwidth to not only carry the growing number of homes and businesses with telephones but to share the space with the more expansive needs of television signals. What began locally in the late 1940s now extended nationwide in the 1950s with what has been called "the Golden Age of Television." Despite technical limitations, the country was connected. Not only could people read about important stories of the day in newspapers or hear of them on radio, but now they could see events for the first time. Only five years before the launch of the Edsel and just as Frank Kearns was preparing to move his family to Egypt, television sets in American homes were establishing the groundwork for what later would become the world's largest advertising medium.

But TV didn't just mean news. It also meant variety shows, game shows, teleplays by noted writers of the day, and other creative productions. In fact, while financially lucrative, news helped the networks — ABC, CBS, NBC, and the DuMont Television Network. What these two categories of programs had in common in the early 1950s was the same thing: the networks that broadcast them didn't necessarily produce the programs that they were showing. Advertisers created entertainment programs, and for a period of time, the White House and other government agencies created public affairs programs, which helped to nudge public opinion in favor of America's Cold War policies. At the same time, it helped assure that the network-owned and operated stations were fulfilling their obligations as licensees by providing programs "in the public interest." This worked well in the early part of the decade when Sen. Joseph McCarthy claimed that communists were influencing governmental institutions. The final separation of government and the media really didn't end until Vietnam.

President Dwight Eisenhower alerted Congress to the growing global influence of the Russians who by the fall would flex their scientific muscles with that remarkable achievement, the first earth-orbiting satellite they called Sputnik. The two nations were locked in a competition to develop the now frightening Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) systems.

The so-called Eisenhower Doctrine, announced in a special message to Congress in January, stood in for the faltering English and French in order to keep the shipping lanes open to commerce in the Suez Canal. America was going to balance the growing global influence of the Soviets and their politically aligned but "neutral" friend in the Middle East, Egypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Wherever the president of the United States focused his attention, the news media was there. CBS was well represented in Europe as tensions between East and West grew. Most of its correspondents there were part of the first generation of hand-picked reporters who covered World War II as part of Edward R. Murrow's "Boys" — Charles Collingwood, Bill Downs, Larry LeSueur, Richard C. Hottelet, Howard K. Smith, Eric Severeid, and William L. Shirer. But the spotlight now moved farther south, and CBS expanded its coverage area by recruiting second-generation members of Murrow's team — Walter Cronkite, Alexander Kendrick, Robert Pierpoint, and David Schoenbrun. In early 1953, the decision had been made by CBS in New York to open a small office at No. 8 Salah Ayoub Street in one of the British colonial–style villas on an island in the Nile River, called Zamalek, a fashionable residential suburb of Cairo. The reporter they chose to be based there was Frank Kearns, a part-timer.

He brought into the Cairo office a stylish local photographer, Archak Yousef Masraff. "Joe," as he was known to the Americans, worked only part-time, too. He was a cosmopolitan, sophisticated, and talented professional of Armenian descent who spoke several languages fluently, among them Arabic, English, French, German, Italian, and Japanese. He was well known in Cairo for his work as chief picture editor of Al' Ahram, a weekly news magazine. In fact, Masraff was among the favored photographers used by President Nasser for official portraiture and other government business. Years later, former CBS News President Van Gordon Sauter, who worked with Masraff in Paris, described him as "a marvelous raconteur." While working in Egypt at the time, he was a good enough competitor to be invited regularly to join up-and-coming Egyptian actor Omar Sharif 's contract bridge tournaments.

Frank Kearns and Joe Masraff formed a unique relationship from the very beginning as TV news grew in importance. They had professional respect for each other's talents as they moved from assignment to assignment in locations throughout the hostile and undeveloped Middle East and Africa. Theirs ultimately would become a lifelong friendship — a brotherhood — where they survived numerous attempts on their lives in hostile locations as well as attempts by the network to separate them. Their children often liked to refer to each man as father and stepfather, depending upon who was doing the speaking.

In the summer of 1957, a cable from New York arrived for Kearns in Cairo. The sender was Ralph Paskman, the gruff and grumpy, street-toughened CBS foreign editor in New York who handed out assignments to the stringers. His correspondence was followed by a series of written directives to both Kearns and Masraff, advising them of the network's desire to cover the Algerian side of the war for independence and as precisely as possible how they should go about doing it.

Kearns was quickly earning a well-deserved reputation back in New York as a good, hard-nosed reporter unafraid of covering tough stories. He had recently reported on the violence at the Suez between the Egyptians and British, French and Israelis. From there, he moved over to Cyprus, where Greek and Turkish factions squared off and where he was nearly hit by a ricocheting bullet. Fortunately, the shell lodged deep in the tape recorder hanging from his neck instead of in his chest. That assignment earned him his first citation from the Overseas Press Club of America.

This time, however, the orders from Paskman were unusually detailed. The network planned "a very special story," he told his reporter. Since France did not consider this to be a war, he warned them, a news crew on the other side of the barrel from the French would certainly be working at great personal risk.

In 1957, several million French citizens called Algeria home. This southernmost outpost of the Fourth Republic had been occupied by France for over 120 years. This war or whatever it was called that Kearns and Masraff were going to cover had been underway for three years. Why an American news organization wanted to take such a risk with its employees wasn't completely clear since the United States thus far had shown only creative ambiguity toward Algeria. President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles figured that France eventually would have to negotiate with the nationalists, but they didn't apply pressure on France "for fear of straining the Western alliance," which had been badly stressed because of the Suez crisis and France's unwavering relationship with Israel. Furthermore, policy makers back home were concerned about the growing tide of Arab unity in North Africa, but the audiences of nightly fifteen-minute television newscasts weren't following this story line. Americans were watching the Russians and not what was happening in Algeria.

As for Kearns, he needed the special pay that would come from an assignment like this. Not only was the network asking for footage for a planned documentary, but it also wanted filmed stories for nightly television news and audio reports for radio. So, of course, he'd go. He and Masraff wasted no time making the appropriate contacts in Cairo that would lead them across Tunisia and into Algeria with the nationalist rebels.


La Guerre d'Algérie

By the time Frank Kearns had picked up the cable from his editor in 1957, the histories of France and Algeria had been intertwined for over a century, going back to 1830 when France, under King Charles X, first occupied the country. At the time, Algeria was thought to be the least developed of all the North African countries that made up the Maghreb, and therefore, the one with the greatest opportunity for French settlement. Abd al-Qadir al-Jazairi, an Islamic spiritual and military leader, was elected emir by fellow tribesmen and he set about unifying them in order to secure peace with the French. Later as his geographic influence spread, Abd al-Qadir planned to drive the French from Algeria, beginning near the border with Morocco, but the eastern tribes didn't give him their full support. It wasn't long before France's aggressive and determined policy of dealing with resistance soon overcame him and his followers. Al-Qadir surrendered in 1847 and was deported to France. He is widely recognized as the first hero of Algeria's war for independence. Over a hundred years later, his white-and-green flag was used as the symbol for the independence movement led by the nationalists in 1954.

During the Franco-Prussian war of 1871, France lost control of its agriculturally important border region known as Alsace-Lorraine. So it turned its attention to the fertile farmlands of Algeria as over 100,000 Alsatians chose to remain French citizens and relocated to Algeria, causing France to step up efforts to fully integrate the country within its metropolitan political structure. Bloody resistance was the norm, but by the turn of the century France was in firm control. It had successfully blended the productive natural resources of Algeria, dominated by enterprises run by the occupying European settlers, called colons, with the French economy. The primary industry was agriculture, led by development of its most productive properties for use as premium vineyards. The French regarded Algeria as its responsibility both administratively and constitutionally.

For the next sixty-five years, the biggest challenge that confronted France in colonizing this Muslim nation was how to allow the more educated and enlightened Algerians who wished to align themselves with France to do so without having to renounce Islam. What seemed a brilliant idea was met with intense political rejection by the pied noirs ("black feet" was the name given specifically to French settlers who grew up in Algeria), who forced the so-called Blum-Viollette proposal of 1936 off the table. Named for Popular Front leader Leon Blum and Maurice Viollette, the French premier and governor-general of Algeria, the bill would have extended citizenship rights to those Muslims — accountants, bankers, soldiers, lawyers, professors, and government administrators, known as évolués, the more "advanced" segments of Algerian society — who accepted it.

According to Columbia University historian Mathew Connelly, "French historians have long treated the defeat of the Blum-Viollette bill as a turning point — the point at which pied noir intransigence completely discredited loyal Muslim opposition." Thus, a new and distinct social order in Algeria failed to develop.

The beginning of the latest Algerian uprising took place on November 1, 1954, All Saints Day. It was led by an inexperienced, ill-prepared faction of the newly formed Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), the National Liberation Front, concerned not so much with planning and execution as with their being discovered. Their aim: Wage a military-style assault across the country and a diplomatic war from outside the borders of Algeria in order to bring an end to France's colonial rule. At that time, over three million French citizens lived and worked in Algeria with most settling in large cities along the coast. These colons, as they were called, were part of a growing movement of Algérie française who favored tighter integration by Algeria with metropolitan France.

The FLN's leadership group was made up of twenty-two young men who grew up in rural working-class families. These were "not ideologues" but nationalists "who modeled their movement on the French resistance against the Nazis." It had worked for the French a decade earlier, but they failed to comprehend it when it was used against them by the FLN.

The revolt they planned was widespread and well coordinated. French intelligence failed to detect the coming insurrection. More than seventy locations were hit around the country, mostly in northwest Algeria. In Oran, one person was killed trying to protect a public service utility from a small group of terrorists. Elsewhere, shots were fired at a police station, killing a man. In Batna, an Arab Berber tribal town situated in a wide valley among the Aures Mountains and part of the Algerian Sahara Atlas range where Kearns and Masraff were headed, an ambush killed a rural chieftain and a passenger in his car. The passenger's wife was stabbed and raped, but she survived. Not far away, another group of rebels opened fire on an administrative center in Arris, near the Tunisian border, and an entire town was evacuated to protect its people from further threats.

While this new movement didn't lack volunteers, it was impoverished when it came to arming them. French war historian Yves Courriere suggested that "only half of those who took part in the All Saints uprising were armed." It took the FLN months after the initial assault to organize shipments of armament from outside sympathizers. Its big break came only when France granted independence to neighboring Morocco and Tunisia in 1956. This completely opened the borders on both sides, allowing arms to flow.


Excerpted from Algerian Diary by Gerald L. Davis Jr.. Copyright © 2016 Gerald L. Davis Jr.. Excerpted by permission of West Virginia University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.


Table of Contents


A Note to the Reader,
Foreword by Tom Fenton,
1 A Small Office in Cairo,
2 La Guerre d'Algérie,
3 A Reporter's Journey to Algeria,
4 "The Unrealistic or Impossible Assignment",
5 Algerian Diary,
6 "Evidence of Considerable Interest",
Appendix: Sound on Film Scripts from Algeria,
About the Authors,