What became “the 20th Century’s finest performance by one reporter on a breaking news story” began with a telephone call and a fight for control of that telephone.
The first word to the world that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas was sent with a call from United Press International reporter Merriman Smith. Recalling the circumstances of that telephone call not only recalls the start of a terrible four days that degenerated into an awful decade that altered the spirit of our nation, but it brings to mind how different news reporting was in 1963.
Former Unipresser (that’s what United Press International people called themselves, and call themselves today) Patrick J. Sloyan wrote about the historic role Smith played that day in an article in the American Journalism Review in May, 1997: “The UPI coverage of the Kennedy assassination was unparalleled in the history of journalism becuae of one man, albert Merriman Smith, UPI’s White House reporter, dominated the most important spot news story since Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.” Sloyan wrote the quote we used to open this entry.
Fifty years ago, events such as the Kennedy motorcade through Dallas included what was known as a “wire car.” It was a car for reporters in the press pool. It was six cars behind the Lincoln carrying the Kennedys and Texas Governor John Connelly and his wife. In the car were Smith of UPI; Jack Bell of the Associate Press, the fierce and bigger competitor with UPI; and Bob Clark of ABC radio. The car was owned by AT&T, which provided vehicles for this purpose to the media pool. The important thing about the “wire car” was that it had a radio-telephone in it. Decades before cell phones, there were telephones that used radio signals to transmit.
The participants in the wire car were supposed to rotate locations in the car from trip to trip. Smith, who was known as a reporter who grabbed any edge he could when it came to getting a story, was known to grab the front seat any time he could even if he had to intimidate a younger colleague to get it.
Sloyan wrote that Bell and Smith were bitter rivals, dating to the 1948 campaign when Bell told Republican candidate Thomas Dewey that Smith had a bias for Harry Truman.
Smith was the first reporter in the wire car who realized the first sound they heard was not a car backfire or a firecracker. It took a couple of minutes for the realization of what was happening to settle in. Smith grabbed the telephone and asked the operator to connected him with Wilborn Hampton at UPI’s bureau in Dallas. Hampton passed the phone to Don Smith, a staff editor who began to write as Smith began to dictate the story over the erratic connection as the motorcade speeded away from the scene. What he dictated to Smith and Hampton became the first bulletin in a day filled with bulletins.
In newsrooms throughout the country, the wire machine’s went “ding” five times, the universal wire service alert that a bulletin was being printed. The only higher priority was a “flash.” When reporters heard fifteen bells, they knew something of greatest importance had happened or was happening. Five and fifteen bell alerts would become common in the next four days.
Wire service protocols in those days had someone write the copy and give it to a teletype operator who would use a typewriter-like device to punch holes in to a narrow strip of paper which was then fed into the teletype machine. The operator hit “send,” and the machine began to read the holes in the paper and send them out as letters. Since the operator punching the paper could not actual see letters as he was working on the strips of paper, an error could slip onto the wire unnoticed except by those who received the story typed on regular paper in their newsrooms. The coding at the end of the bulletin indicated that Jim Tolbert was the teletype operator. He hit the “send” button at 12:34 p.m., Central Standard Time.
The story hit the wire while UPI’s Minneapolis bureau was sending a story about a trial out over the wire. The note after the initial bulletin was a message from the New York headquarters telling all other bureaus to hold up (“uphold” in wire service lingo) on any further transmissions because the information coming from Dallas had priority, and telling the Dallas bureau the entire wire was theirs.
A small red light mounted over the audio control board, at eye level for the board operator, suddenly went on In the main studio of KFRU radio in Columbia, Missouri. It was a signal that ABC radio was about to feed a bulletin. The board operator opened the switch and turned up the “pot,” the volume control, and listeners of the regular noontime programming heard newsman Don Gardiner read Merriman Smith’s first stunning words from studio 3B in New York.
ABC’s program log shows the first broadcast bulletin went out at 12:36:50, CST, only about six minutes after the shots were fired, only about five minute after Smith had grabbed that radio-telephone in the wire car. At CBS television in New York, Walter Cronkite dashed into a radio booth while the network threw a “bulletin” slide on the screen because the cameras didn’t have time to warm up, and read the same bulletin at 12:40. NBC television didn’t get information on the air until a booth announcer did the same announcement at 12:45.
The return to regular programming was brief. The light went back on in 17 seconds, and the local board operator was on alert again. The second bulletin aired at 12:38:55. The first AP bulletin was aired a minute later.
Sloyan, who recalled Smith telling the story later that night back in Washington, wrote that Smith asked the Dallas bureau to read back to him what he had dictated, presumably to make sure the information was correct but also to continue monopolizing the phone.
Jack Bell had no way to communicate to the Associate Press bureau that a momentous and possibly tragic event was unfolding in front of him as long as Smith controlled the radio-telephone. He demanded the phone but Smith bent over to protect his possession of it and also to make sure the person he was dictating to understood what he was saying. The irate Bell began beating Smith on the back and head, but Smith bent lower and kept the phone until the car stopped at Parkland Hospital. He threw the telephone to Bell as he jumped out and dashed into the hospital. The line went dead just as Bell started to talk to the AP Dallas bureau.
(Sloyan recalled that when Smith got back to Washington later that night on Air Force One and went to the UPI bureau, he lifted his shirt to show Sloyan “the welts on his back from the flailing fists of Jack Bell.”)
Kennedy was still in the limousine, his bloody head cradled in the lap of wife Jackie, when Smith reached the car. He asked Secret Service agent Clint Hill how bad the wound was. “He’s dead, Smitty,” said Hill. Smith ran into the emergency room cashier’s office and grabbed the telephone and dictated what became the “flash” in the segment of wire copy above. It was the first indication that the American people got that their President might have been murdered.
Then he began dictating more information to the Dallas office, the next bulletin. The story was fed onto the wire in “takes,” the punched tape being fed into the sending machine as quickly as Tolbert could type it, the word “more” telling readers it was still a story in process.
That was about the same time a young graduate student at the University of Missouri School of Journalism returned to the now-gone rooming house at 508 South Ninth Street in Columbia after producing the noon newscast at the University’s television station, KOMU-TV. One of the top stories had been that President Kennedy was in Texas to assure Texans that he was not going to dump Lyndon Johnson from the ticket in 1964.
“Is that Priddy down there?” shouted housemate Roger Forshee as I opened the door. “Yeah,” I shouted back. “Get up here,” Roger yelled back down the stairs. “Kennedy’s been shot.”
I dashed up the stairs and joined others as we listened to Gardiner update the story about the time ABC was able to get Bob Clark on the phone. ABC’s log says it was 12:42:05 when Clark reported from Parkland Memorial Hospital that the President might be critically wounded. It was 12:43:10 when Gardiner read a UPI report that Hill had said to Mrs. Kennedy, “He is dead,” The broadcast went silent for fifty seconds while reporters and citizens alike felt the blow of the information Merriman Smith had relayed from the hospital.
The reports in those chaotic moments were conflicting. It appeared Texas Governor John Connally also had been hit (he was, of course) but there also were reports that Vice President Johnson “looked” as if he had been hit. Clark reported at 1 p.m. that Kennedy was still alive but critical. Less than half a minute later, however, Gardiner was reporting that a priest had been called for last rites for Kennedy. What none of the reporters knew, what none of them were told, was that at that moment, Kennedy was pronounced dead. But the public announcement would be withheld until Vice President Johnson could leave the hospital. His whereabouts were being kept secret because there were fears the gunman who had killed Kennedy and had wounded Connally was part of a larger conspiracy. Johnson left the hospital for the airport at 1:26, two minutes after Gardiner told listeners “Texas now says the President is dead.’ It was an unconfirmed report. But the information being gathered by Smith and Bell and Clark, among others, contained nothing positive. The audience by now was surely growing more aware that the worst news was imminent.
And it was. The official announcement came in Dallas at 1:30 and was on the national wire five minutes later.
PRESIDENT KENNEDY DEAD
Two minutes later, the nation heard the sometimes unsteady voices on the radio and television sets making the announcement.
The young reporter, who was the assistant news director at KFRU although he had student-produced the newscast that already seemed a distant memory, checked with KFRU news director Eric Engberg (who went on to a long career as a CBS correspondent), then went to the newsroom. It was time to start accumulating local reaction.
My job was to get reactions from our two members of the legislature, Senator A. Basey Vanlandingham and Representative Larry Woods. Off I went to the portable tape recorder, one of those with two 3 ½ inch reels of tape, to their offices. Both struggled, as millions of people struggled, with finding appropriate words.
We put together a program ready to run when ABC cut away from its broadcast for local news. But it never did cut away. And neither did the other major networks. In ABC’s case, the coverage continued until 1:29 Monday morning.
Merriman Smith won a Pulitzer Prize for his work that day. Jack Bell of the AP did finally get to a phone and did file story after story from Dallas.
Some broadcast historians say that weekend was the day that “made” television news. The impact television had on the American public that weekend is unmistakable. This account has focused on only a small part of the story, how the first word of those events reached the public, and a few of the people who covered a tragedy that changed the way people looked at television, underlined radio’s power of immediacy, and was the end of an era. Many who read it will have their own still-vivid memories of November 22-25, 1963. In many ways, all of us were changed by these events. And we are still pondering the way these events changed our nation.
I don’t think I ever did eat lunch that day.