Patrick J. Sloyan reconstructed Merriman Smith’s Pulitzer-winning UPI reporting of JFK’s assassination for the May, 1997, American Journalism Review. He also retold how UPI handled the story minute by minute. It’s at arlingtoncemetery.net/albertme.
I was at UPI then and I knew the story of how, after gunfire in Dallas, Smitty refused to share the radio phone in the car with AP’s reporter. That cost AP minutes in a story that demanded news in seconds.
But I didn’t know the details provided in Sloyan’s fascinating glimpse into the pre-Internet era when underdog UPI and dominant AP competed worldwide, humans typed and handled everything and teleprinters couldn’t crank out copy faster than 60 words per minute.
Sloyan wrote, “The 20th Century's finest performance by one reporter on a breaking news story ended as Merriman Smith of United Press International stood and tucked in his shirttail. He had pulled up his shirt to show me the welts on his back from the flailing fists of Jack Bell of the Associated Press. Oddly enough, the bruises were proof that it was Smith - not Bell - who had administered an unforgettable beating.”
Sloyan relies heavily on Bob Clark of ABC News for details of the famed fracas:
“Smith told the operator to connect him with the Dallas bureau of UPI. He was dictating to his office in Dallas. He was having trouble. Those radio-telephones were often staticky (sic). Smitty was repeating. He was trying to get one sentence off. I can still remember what he said.”
Sloyan describes Smitty as a shooter who could distinguish the sounds of a rifle from a motorcycle backfire. Here’s what UPI first sent at 12:34 p.m. Dallas local time:
“DALLAS,NOV.22(UPI)--THREE SHOTS WERE FIRED AT PRESIDENT KENNEDY'S MOTORCADE IN DOWNTOWN DALLAS.”
ABC’s Clark continued. “In every newsroom, editors looked at the AP A-wire teletype that always sat next to the UPI machine. There was no hint of what was unfolding in Dallas.
“... Smith was still on the radio-telephone. Bell is beginning to realize that Smith is driving an ax through his skull by getting anything off from the wire car.
"Jack got pretty upset. He demanded the phone as the motorcade hit 60 miles an hour. Smith bent over in the front seat with the phone. ‘I told Bell they couldn't hear me clearly,’ Smith said that night, beaming at his own duplicity. ‘They can't hear me,’ Smith told Bell. ‘I'm asking them to read it back.’
"’Give me the goddamn phone,’ Bell yelled. He leaned over the seat and took a swipe at the phone. Then, Bell began pounding Smith's head and back. Clark recalls only one or two blows. But Smith, doubling his body over the handset, kept the phone from Bell until the car pulled up at the hospital emergency entrance.
“When the car halted, Smith said he flung the phone at Bell and jumped out. As Smith headed for the hospital emergency entrance, he said he heard Bell on the radio-telephone saying, ‘No one knows if there was any gunfire.’ In the AP Dallas Bureau, staffers remember only a cryptic call - ‘This is Jack Bell...’ before the line went dead.”
Meanwhile, Clark said, Secret Service agent Clint Hill told Smitty, “He’s dead.”
Clark said Smith raced into to the hospital emergency room. He burst in the cashier's cage and grabbed the phone. "How do I get outside?" Smith demanded. "The president has been hurt and this is an emergency call."
"Dial nine," said the shaken cashier and Smitty dictated his second scoop:
KENNEDY SERIOUSLY WOUNDED
PERHAPS FATALLY BY ASSASSINS BULLET
Recovered teletypes show that UPI moved the dire report on its wires at 12:41 p.m.
local time. Around the world, that became:
Clark said it was about then that AP began to move its stories but there was nothing of Hill's verdict that Kennedy was dead. By then, Smitty was dictating his first full story, including Clint Hill’s assurance that JFK was dead.
• If you missed it last week, go back and read Kathy Y. Wilson’s column in CityBeat’s Voices section. It’s one of her best: hard on facts, rich in analysis. She dissects inept UC decisions that led to the hiring of Ron Jackson as dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. He wasn’t up to the job and demonstrated it immediately, according to Wilson’s reporting. Jackson resigned earlier this month. Jackson is African-American. His acclaimed hiring and bitter resignation draw renewed attention to the paucity of nonwhites in deanships and other senior campus positions. As Kathy suggests, he wasn’t hired on demonstrated administrative ability and the question of tokenism can’t be ignored.
• Josh Pichler and Jason Williams gave us the kind of fly-on-the-wall reporting that I want when they explained Cincinnati Civility governed the Port Authority’s acceptance of Cranley’s actions to redeem his promise to kill privatization of city parking meters and garages.
• For months, I waited for some local reporter to tell me why the Metro bus system can’t provide the same transportation benefits that the endangered trolley promised. Or was the trolley never about moving people, but another taxpayer-provided benefit to private (real estate) investors? Well, Enquirer’s Jason Williams comes through with just what I was seeking: an opening salvo on page 1 in the debate over using small buses v. street cars. His local sources speak clearly, his outside sources have expertise, and the details favor an informed debate. Since then, the Enquirer has tried to make sense out of conflicting cost estimates. The spread is so great, as reporter Cindi Andrews explains, that I can only wonder if any totals are valid.
• Metro’s silence during the mayor campaign is understandable; it didn’t have a dog in the Cranley-Qualls fight over the trolley. Now, however, Metro is talking about small, frequent buses over the initial and expanded routes including that proposed for tracks and trolleys. I haven’t used Metro in years; I rarely go downtown and I drive elsewhere. However, public transit in the Seattle region, Italy and Spain is great: It runs frequently, takes me where I want to go (with or without transfers) and bus stops increasingly include clear route maps and electronic advisories on when the next bus will arrive.
• Stan Chesley and his law firm often were involved in stories I covered for almost 20 years as Enquirer federal court reporter. More recently and in a case I didn’t cover, the Kentucky Supreme Court disbarred him for what it said was his unethical role in a $200 million lawsuit involved the diet pill, fen-phen. The Enquirer has a love-hate reaction to Stan: He generated great stories but some of my colleagues were uneasy with his aggressive and often innovative lawyering as a personal injury/class action attorney.
A recent headline reflected that latent hostility: “US Supreme Court drops Stan Chesley.” That’s not what the story said and it doesn’t pass the smell test. It was a cheap shot.
To quote the first paragraph of the AP story: “The U.S. Supreme Court has accepted the resignation of a prominent class-action attorney dubbed the ‘Master of Disaster' from its roster of active attorneys.”
• If you’re not reading theguardian.com, you’re missing much of the best reporting on NSA snooping and collusion by other government. The Guardian — a liberal London daily — has been at the front of this reporting from the start. It also published much of the classified cables that then-Pfc. Bradley Manning gave WikiLeaks.
• The New Yorker has a revealing profile on Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger and his paper's handling of WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden's revelations about NSA snooping on Americans and others. He talks about his decisions to reject British government appeals and threats and how he and New York Times editors cooperated to make sure vital news would get out if the Brits censored the Guardian. The New York Review (of Books) has an essay by Rusbridger on the same subject.
• Speaking of courage, the Times of Johannesburg lifted a finger to the increasingly oppressive one-party government and South African officials’ attempts to censor news of huge expenditures on President Jacob Zuma’s private home. “So, Arrest Us,” the Jo’burg Times said in a banner Page 1 headline over photos of the sprawling luxury estate. Other South African editors also are ignoring censorship threats, but few as direct as the Jo’burg Times.
• The FBI explosive expert who admitted leaking classified information to the Associated Press was sentenced to more than three years in prison by federal judge. Donald Sachtleben’s leak apparently revealed how Americans foiled an Islamic terrorist plot based in Yemen.
The London Guardian said, “The story on Yemen led to a federal leaks investigation and the seizure of AP phone records in the government's search for the information's source.”
That, and a similar seizure of a Fox News reporters electronic records, raised such a fuss that Attorney General Eric Holder issued new but nonbinding procedures meant to hew closer to the law and to be less intrusive without court approval.
The Guardian added that the Justice Department said its pursuit of Sachtleben was not identified as a suspect in the leaks case until after investigators analyzed the AP phone records and compared them to other evidence in their possession. The paper, which has published material from leakers Bradley Manning, WikiLeak and Edward Snowden, added that, “the Obama administration has aggressively pursued people it believes have revealed government secrets, including records of journalists who prosecutors believe were given classified information and then published stories about it.”
• If conditions are as bad as the news media say in typhoon-ravaged Philippines, where are reporters staying? Who’s feeding them? Who’s doing their laundry in areas where there is no running water and possibly electricity? Who’s providing their transportation in disaster areas? The only mention I can recall is an NPR reporter who said he slept in a city hall.
• What’s Arabic for “my bad?" Some Syrian Islamic jihadis are saying that after mistakingly beheading a colleague and putting the video online. Most news media are showing the proud executioner lifting the digitally obscured head for all to see. Except on liveleak.com/view. If you want the real thing, ask your search engine for ISIL and Mohammad Fares, the unfortunate Shi’ite fighter. Apparently, according to news media, his cries while being treated for combat wounds were misunderstood to denigrate the prophet and his family.
• It must have been a slow week at the New York Times Tuesday Science Times section. A front page story revealed that young men often do not assure their female partners’ sexual satisfaction before, during or after intercourse. Doesn’t that sound like, “Scientists reveal Earth isn’t flat?" Crazier yet — maybe New York really is that different — are the frustrated young women who were quoted by their own names.
• Another “fact” too good to check for Fox Business: liberal Washington Post abandons historic name to reflect new owner’s company, Graham Holdings. Nope. It was the Washington Post Company — not the paper — changing its name because the company no longer owns the paper. It was sold recently to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.