When Frank Kearns: American Correspondent debuted on West Virginia Public Television on October 15, 2012, WVPB radio reporter Glynis Board interviewed Producers Gerald Davis and Chip Hitchcock. Davis, who also wrote and directed the documentary, first tried to make the film when he was a graduate student at West Virginia University in 1975. But Kearns turned him down. In 2002, Sara Kearns, the correspondent’s widow, asked Davis to reconsider and tell Kearns’ story. Below, Davis and Hitchcock share some insight into their film.
Davis: “I can very vividly remember having a conversation with my father the weekend after I met Frank Kearns for the first time. He walked into the classroom, and I remember telling my dad: ‘I have seen the personification of James Bond.”
Hitchcock: “Frank was a super-top-notch journalist and for various reasons—mainly because he’d had enough of being shot at and sitting in prison cells—he came back to WVU to teach and that’s where Jake and I both had him as a teacher in the early 70s.”
Board: That’s West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Chip Hitchcock who co-produced the film with Gerald (Jake) Davis. The two joined forces to explore the man who, born in Morgantown, spent a large part of his life reporting the news from all over the globe.
Board: One striking aspect of this film is how Kearns’ reports strangely parallel news affairs being reported in the Middle East today. Instead of Cold War terminology we speak in terms of the War on Terror. I wonder, did you intentionally draw those parallels?
Davis: “I think we were lucky from the standpoint to the film to be able to draw some of those parallels. It wasn’t our intention when we set out to make the film. We were just reporting on what was going on at the time Frank Kearns was in the Middle East and Africa covering news. But as the old adage goes, history has a way of repeating itself and we seldom learn from it. I mean, one of the issues in Egypt in the early 1950s was how to keep the Muslim Brotherhood away from power, and it’s taken them some 60 years now, but they’ve finally gotten it.”
FRANK KEARNS EXCERPT: “This is Frank Kearns reporting from the Middle East... The communists are winning. We are losing.”
Board: Controversy surrounded Kearns later in his life. He was accused of being spy for the CIA while simultaneously working as a newsman. Kearns vehemently denied the allegations. The question of ethics and journalism is consequently a recurring theme throughout the film. Here’s an excerpt featuring an interview with former CBS news correspondent Tom Fenton who knew and worked with Kearns.
TOM FENTON EXCERPT: “In the ‘60s and the ‘70s you actually gathered news. You had a beat. It may have been all of Africa, it may have been the Middle East, it may have been just Israel—whatever your beat was—and you actually covered the news. You went there. You schmoozed with people. You got to know people. You can’t simply parachute into a story and understand what’s going on. For one thing, if you parachute into a story, you’re there too late! I don’t think there’s a place nowadays for Frank Kearns. And we’re all—I mean this seriously—we’re all the poorer for it.”
Board: Was it a challenge, coming from a journalism background, to investigate this mentor in both of your lives?
Hitchcock: “Well I’m a documentary filmmaker and of course, what I’m always trying to do is to get at the truth. We’ve always wondered if Frank was really CIA or not, and we were going to take that question wherever it went. Jake, I think for you—you were even closer to Frank than I was, so it must have been really hard for you.”
Davis: “Yeah, probably more than any other student who had a relationship with Kearns, mine went from being a student to then a work-study student working directly for Kearns, and ultimately a friendship that grew out of that. I was challenged by it. From a personal side I was always hoping there was no connection with the CIA, but every time we turned over a rock we had something that led us a little father into that hole. The CIA issue was always the elephant in the room.”
Board: I understand it was late in the project when you sort of lucked into a lead that shed new insight into this CIA question. Tell us about Lorraine Copeland and what she brings to the film.
Davis: “Lorraine Copeland was somebody that we knew about early on, we just couldn’t find her. She is the wife of Miles Copeland, Jr. who was a well known CIA operative in the Middle East. And as it turned out, he and Frank Kearns and another man, James Eichelberger, were roommates in London together during World War II. They worked for the Counterintelligence Corps as part of Eisenhower’s headquarters. Mrs. Copeland worked for MI6, the international intelligence agency for Great Britain, and taught the French Resistance how to blow up trains and train tracks. We knew we wanted to get in touch with her because she had early familiarity with Frank Kearns. We were starting to edit the film and one day out of the blue I got an email saying, ‘This is Lorraine Copeland, I understand you want to talk to me.’ Thank goodness she found us because she changed the story, I believe.”
LORRAINE COPELAND EXCERPT: “We called where our husbands were working—in other words the CIA—we called it the old glue factory, which was a way of not saying ‘the CIA,’ not naming it. So amongst ourselves we would refer to it as the old glue factory.”
Board: When you consider more recent events like the death of journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002, who was beheaded exactly for this reason—he also was accused of being a spy—do you think that we’re putting our journalists today at risk by telling this story?
Hitchcock: Frank went to Algeria in the late ‘50s, and he sneaked in with the insurgents. And he was in constant danger of being captured by the French or being bombarded by the French, and if he had been caught, he almost certainly would have been executed by the French. The reason why he went was that we [the U.S. government] were trying to find out who the insurgents were. Were they nationalists? Were they Islamists? It’s exactly the same type of question journalists are trying to answer today. The information needs to be found out, and so how do we find it out? Frank was taking a risk in the ‘50s and people are still doing that.Hitchcock: And I think that in a great many places in the world it’s already assumed that journalists are already intelligence agents. Our film sort of does the opposite. It says, ‘Is this a good thing? Or is this a bad thing?’ And a lot of people like [former CBS News Correspondent] Marvin Kalb weigh in and say there’s no way that our journalists are or ever would have been intelligence agents. So in a lot of ways, I think it makes it look like, in America, we consider being an intelligence agent, working for the government, and at the same time being a journalist who is seeking the truth, to be two bi-polar opposite things that can’t exist in the same person.”
***Special thanks to John Nakashima, editor of the documentary, for supplying excerpts from the film.
****Interview excerpts courtesy of West Virginia Public Broadcasting.