Frank Kearns covered the dangerous stories in Africa, the Middle East and other parts of the world in the 1950s, ‘60s and early ‘70s for CBS News. By his own count, he was nearly killed 114 times. He was a second generation CBS News Correspondent who worked alongside of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite and helped to establish the way foreign news is reported to audiences back in the United States.
He always wanted to be a reporter. His parents had other ideas: a doctor, a lawyer or a professional of some type. But he knew from an early age that there were stories to be told and adventures to be had, mostly across the vast oceans in lands very different from the one in which he grew up.
Frank Kearns was born in Gary, Indiana in 1917 but grew up in Morgantown, West Virginia. He studied journalism at West Virginia University, and when he graduated signed on with his hometown paper, The Morgantown Post. However, being a reporter-photographer in Morgantown was too limiting, so he moved to Miami Beach, Florida to work as a reporter there. Then World War II broke out. So he enlisted.
Kearns went to London as one of a special group of soldiers who formed the U.S. Army’s Counterintelligence Corp, handling background investigations and catching spies. There he learned to gather facts beyond what he learned in journalism school and to write brief, accurate reports that allowed the command structure to act quickly. This skill set, along with natural leadership abilities, saw him rise in rank from enlisted man to sergeant to lieutenant and finally to captain. It was while serving in London that he befriended Captain Edward Saxe, a member of General Eisenhower’s staff who would prove useful to him after the war as Kearns furthered his writing career.
When the war ended, Kearns signed on with a literary agent and wrote for magazines. He also took freelance assignments to write speeches, to lend his deep, resonate voice to radio and even write a documentary film. It was Edward Saxe who convinced the publisher at Prentice-Hall to allow his wartime friend to act as a ghost writer for General Eisenhower’s driver and secretary, Kay Summersby, for her memoir Eisenhower Was My Boss. It was an international bestseller.
Although his reputation grew among editors and publishers as a good and reliable writer, Kearns became restless. He was ready for a bigger assignment. In 1953, Ed Saxe intervened once again. He introduced Frank Kearns to the managers at CBS. After a successful audition in New York, he received his prized assignment to become the network’s stringer – a part-time reporter – in Cairo, Egypt, which was quickly becoming a hotbed for news following a successful coup d’état by Egypt’s military to overthrow King Farouk I. Cairo was fast becoming the hub of Arab unity and a dividing line in the Cold War. It also was the new home to two other wartime friends, James Eichelberger and Miles Copeland, Jr. They were working for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
“When you talk about people meeting up in distant places, it is almost like a Graham Green novel,” said historian Dr. Scott Lucas. “All of a sudden you have Frank Kearns, the broadcast journalist. You have Miles Copeland, almost building up his own legend as a CIA operative; and then you have James Eichelberger, the head of the CIA station. Now, conspiracy theorists are going to say they got to be there at the same time because they used to be flat mates (in London). They knew each other real well. Then again, you don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist. The old legendary story that used to be told about the CIA or, in fact, its predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services, is that OSS stood for “Oh So Social.”
For Kearns, being a new journalist in Cairo was daunting, but having old friends there gathering information proved to be an advantage and a convenience. Kearns also hired as his cameraman Yousef Masraff, or “Joe” as he was known. He worked as a photographer for Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. “Frank must’ve gotten scoops that nobody else got,” said Sandy Gall, a competitor working for Reuters and ITN. “Access to Nasser wasn’t easy.”
Frank Kearns early success got a boost in 1957 when he and Masraff took an assignment that his foreign editor Ralph Paskman called “a bit unrealistic or impossible.” They convinced the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) to allow the CBS crew to record the Algerian rebels’ side of their fight for independence from the French. The result of filming six weeks of interviews and fighting in the mountains outside of Algiers was the awarding winning CBS documentary Algeria Aflame. For their risky reporting, Kearns and Masraff won the Overseas Press Club award for “Best Foreign Reporting,” the George Polk Award for “distinguished achievement in journalism,” and a Peabody Award for “going behind current happenings to identify related problems and underlying causes.”
Their extraordinary courage earned both Kearns and Masraff full-time employment with CBS News. Frank Kearns joined the elite tier of CBS News Staff Correspondents in 1958. “You really had to bust your back to be promoted to become a CBS News Correspondent,” said Sandy Socolow, the former executive producer of The CBS News with Walter Cronkite. “It was a badge of honor. Very few people had that badge and mostly they were the Murrow Boys.”
After Algeria, reports initiated by Kearns seemed to change. Prior to the explosive time he spent with the rebels, his reporting was influenced by his old friends who worked for the CIA. The story always hinged around the conflict between the Americans and their nemesis the Soviet Union. Now he shifted his attention to the real struggles of newly minted independent countries in Africa and the Middle East.
Frank Kearns was named the Africa Bureau Chief for CBS News in 1963. However, like many of his colleagues at the network, he not only had his “beat,” but he covered stories wherever the need arose: the ongoing civil war in Nigeria, the Aberfan mining disaster in Wales, thalidomide babies in Germany, the Six Days War between Egypt and Israel, the Paris Peace Talks between the Americans and North Vietnamese, and the street battles in Northern Ireland.
After imprisonment in Nigeria and subsequent health problems, Frank Kearns was finished with being a war correspondent. “What fairly sane man would face death an average of more than once every two months over a period of 15 years?” he asked himself. The answer was obvious.
He retired in 1971 and became one of ten Benedum Professors at West Virginia University, using what he had learned in the field to train the next generation of professional journalists. He quickly gained his sea legs in the classroom and became a popular professor with both undergraduate and graduate students. Then in February 1976, questions were raised about his past. Executives at CBS told a Congressional committee that while working in Egypt in the 1950s, Kearns also “was employed the CIA.” He vigorously denied it.
The damage to his reputation had been done. Why did CBS officials offer Kearns’ name to the committee? They never said, and nobody ever investigated it. Later, CBS President Richard Salant told The Los Angeles Times that “it would be too strong to say he was a spy.”
When he died in 1986, CBS News Anchorman Dan Rather described him this way on The CBS Evening News, “Legend may be an overworked word among journalists. But in his quiet, courageous way, Frank Kearns was one around here.”