Eric Engberg, a longtime political correspondent and investigative reporter for CBS News, who developed one of the first fact-checking segments in broadcast news, died March 27 at his home in Palmetto, Fla. He was 74.
The cause was a heart ailment, said his wife, Judith Engberg.
After beginning his career in radio, Mr. Engberg spent 27 years at CBS News, based primarily in the Washington bureau. He covered presidential campaigns and traveled overseas to report from Northern Ireland, the Middle East, China and other hot spots. He covered the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
“He was our ‘go-to’ man anytime there was an especially difficult story,” former CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather said in a Facebook post about Mr. Engberg, “particularly if it required deep-digging investigative skills and the guts to face controversial blow-back from powerful people.”
In the 1990s, Mr. Engberg became known for his weekly “Reality Check” segments on the CBS Evening News, holding politicians and governmental agencies accountable for their words and deeds. His reports were forerunners of modern-day fact-checking efforts at many news organizations, including The Washington Post’s Fact Checker, the Tampa Bay Times’s PolitiFact.com and the independent FactCheck.org.
The idea for Reality Check was launched during the 1992 presidential campaign, when Mr. Engberg and other reporters examined promises made by candidates. After the election, Mr. Engberg took over the franchise, focusing on fraud and waste in the federal government.
After citing a particularly outrageous example, he would shout, “Time out!” He then set the record straight, relying on information from document searches and Freedom of Information requests.
“I’m not a cynic, and I don’t hold bureaucrats or public servants in contempt,” Mr. Engberg told the Associated Press in 1995. “I’m just thinking: What would the average taxpayer say if he knew this is going on?”
Mr. Engberg was among the first to report on an $18 million subway built under the U.S. Capitol for the exclusive use of senators. He found that federal agencies employed more than 700 historians — a number larger than Yale University’s entire faculty at the time.
He looked into the security arrangements for Cabinet officers, learning that the secretaries of agriculture and interior were more closely guarded than the secretary of state.
“When we found out that not only the secretary of agriculture but also the deputy secretary of agriculture was protected by armed guards,” Mr. Engberg told the AP, “I said to my producer, ‘Protecting him from what? Woodlice?’ ”
Mr. Engberg made one of his most dramatic discoveries in 1998, when he presented evidence that the Vietnam veteran buried in the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery could be identified.
“A seven-month CBS News investigation has revealed that the identity of that unknown serviceman is almost certainly known and that some military officials, for whatever reason, knew it all along and tried to hide it,” Mr. Engberg said in his report.
He said the person in the tomb was almost certainly Michael J. Blassie, an Air Force pilot whose plane was shot down in 1972. Mr. Engberg interviewed members of Blassie’s family and technicians at a military laboratory.
Because science had made it possible to identify virtually any human remains through DNA testing, the lab workers said they were all but certain of Blassie’s identity. Nonetheless, the evidence was ignored by top Pentagon officials, Mr. Engberg said, when the remains were placed in the Tomb of the Unknowns in a 1984 ceremony presided over by President Ronald Reagan.
Months after Mr. Engberg’s report, the remains were exhumed and subjected to DNA analysis. Blassie was identified beyond doubt, and his family had him reburied in his native St. Louis.
Mr. Engberg and his CBS team won a Columbia University DuPont Silver Baton award for the investigation.
Since that time, no remains of U.S. service members have been placed in the Tomb of the Unknowns.
Eric Jon Engberg was born Sept. 18, 1941, in Highland Park, Ill. His father was an accountant for an electrical utility.
Mr. Engberg graduated from the journalism school at the University of Missouri in 1963 and worked for a Missouri radio station before moving to Washington in 1968. He was a radio reporter at WTOP and WMAL before joining the Westinghouse broadcast group in 1972.
He joined CBS in 1975, worked in Dallas for several years, then returned to Washington in 1981. He retired in 2002 and moved to Florida.
Survivors include his wife of 52 years, Judith Klein Engberg of Palmetto; three sons, Robin Engberg of Palmetto, Jason Engberg of San Francisco and Mark Engberg of Fort Collins, Colo.; a brother; and five grandchildren.
Last year, Mr. Engberg waded into a fray concerning his experiences with Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly. In 1982, both were in Buenos Aires to cover the Falklands War for CBS.
In his book “The No Spin Zone,” O’Reilly wrote that he was in a “combat situation” in Argentina and that “many were killed” in riots he covered. He also said he rescued a cameraman who had been struck during the protests and was bleeding from his ear.
After Mother Jones magazine published an article early in 2015 casting doubt on O’Reilly’s story, Mr. Engberg wrote a 1,700-word post on Facebook. He refuted many of O’Reilly’s claims about the Buenos Aires disturbance, noting that it “consisted mostly of chanting, fist-shaking and throwing coins at the uniformed soldiers who were assembled outside the palace.”
There was no record that anyone was killed or that an injured camera operator was pulled to safety by O’Reilly, then a junior reporter at CBS. O’Reilly, Mr. Engberg wrote, “is misrepresenting the situation he covered, and he is obviously doing so to burnish his credentials as a ‘war correspondent.’ ”
When Mr. Engberg refused to appear on O’Reilly’s show, a furious O’Reilly said, “Eric Engberg is a coward.”
In a subsequent CNN investigation, seven witnesses failed to corroborate O’Reilly’s version of events.
Among journalists, Mr. Engberg was known for his loud voice, his generous expense account and a tough demeanor that served him well in the field. After covering a trial in New York on New Year’s Eve 1984, he was accosted and robbed by two young men who said they had a gun.
After they took his wallet and fled, Mr. Engberg gave chase, calling on bystanders for help.
“I yelled, ‘Hey! They just robbed me,’ ” Mr. Engberg told The Post in 1985.
“People came from everywhere, like ants from an anthill,” he said. “One guy knocked down one of the kids and several others jumped on him.”
Police made an arrest and returned Mr. Engberg’s wallet.
“Don’t tell me,” Mr. Engberg said, “people in New York are cold and heartless and don’t want to get involved.”