Monday, January 16, 2017

Book Review: Bulletins from Dallas: Reporting the JFK Assassination

Before he takes the oath of office, President-elect Donald Trump should read Bill Sanderson’s outstanding book, Bulletins from Dallas, about how the country’s two leading wire services covered President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.  Silicon Valley titans Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, Larry Page (no relation to this reviewer) and Sergey Brin could stand to read it, too. 

After calling CNN “fake news” last week, Trump could use a tutorial about how reporters go about their jobs.  It’s not always pleasant – it might even take down our most sacred institutions or a favorite person – but that’s how the business operates.  At its best, it covers events and people without fear or favor and always with accuracy, balance and fairness.  Silicon Valley’s leaders could also use the book so they can discern which news is fake and which is real.

In this day and age of fake news websites and, recently, a network news anchor gone rogue, I’m sure it’s difficult to believe that two news wire services, The Associated Press and United Press International, once competed ferociously to not only get the news first but to first get it right.

The physical beating UPI White House Correspondent Merriman Smith took at the hands of his competitor, an AP reporter, is UPI lore and is vividly recounted by Sanderson, a New York Post editor, detailing how President Kennedy’s assassination was reported by the two wire services shortly after shots were fired across Dallas’s Dealey Plaza on Nov. 22, 1963.

Sitting in the front seat of what was called the wire service car, with easy access to its radio phone, Smith quickly called UPI’s Dallas bureau once gunfire rang out, dictating details as the car followed the presidential limousine to Parkland Hospital, where Kennedy died. 

Realizing Smith was hogging the phone, the AP reporter, Jack Bell, punched Smith numerous times to get it back.  His pummeling didn’t work and a story about the shots crossed UPI’s wire before the car carrying the two reporters arrived at the hospital.  There’s even speculation Smith knocked the car’s phone out of order so UPI could maintain its increasing minute by minute lead in reporting the assassination’s details.

Nearly an hour before the White House announced Kennedy’s death, UPI did something out of the ordinary, quoting a Secret Service agent – the famous Clint Hill – that the president was dead by the time he arrived at the hospital.  UPI officially announced Kennedy’s death, based on a statement by White House Deputy Press Secretary Malcolm Kilduff, at 1:35 p.m. CST, and the AP followed two minutes later.

In the arena of wire service journalism, where every second and minute mattered, that was similar to losing the Super Bowl 100 - 0.  In other words, the AP was resoundingly defeated. 

UPI and AP clients, at the time, included hundreds of newspapers around the world, along with numerous television and radio stations.  They demanded accurate and fast reporting.  If they took both wire services, they often compared their reports for accuracy, speed, even writing style.

On that fateful day, most Americans didn’t realize what Smith, Bell and their cohorts were enduring to provide an accurate account of Kennedy’s death.  Instead, they saw the news delivered by the man considered the country’s most trusted news source, CBS News Anchor Walter Cronkite, who spent his early years working for UPI’s predecessor, The United Press.

Like his fellow Unipresser, a term used to describe those who worked or were previously employed at UP or UPI, Cronkite was ahead of his television news competitors.  He was a man of great integrity and feared reporting Kennedy’s death until it was confirmed, knowing an erroneous report of such magnitude would ruin if not end his career.

That value is lost today.  NBC News Anchor Brian Williams was caught fudging the truth about his time covering the early days of the Iraq War in 2003.  The New York Times had its own issues with Jayson Blair, a reporter caught making up stories.  More recently, Rolling Stone magazine in 2014 reported a rape at the University of Virginia that never happened.

And while the news industry might want to be smug over Trump’s callouts of what’s fake news, it would be better served to remember that some of this problem starts with us.

Sanderson’s book traces Smith’s life from his youth in Georgia up through covering six presidents, from Franklin Roosevelt to Richard Nixon.  He was a media star in his own right, writing stories for leading magazines and even appearing on television’s “The Tonight Show.”  Sanderson also shows that Smith was a Washington insider, perhaps too friendly with the presidents he covered, especially Lyndon Johnson.

The problem with today’s technology is that anyone can be a “reporter”.  But instead of having an editor review, correct and ask questions about stories before they’re published or broadcast, anyone can write a blog, publish a video, or post on Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram and rarely be corrected or stopped, unless, perhaps, they say something libelous or they’re publishing an act of terrorism.  In other words, we’re in the era of fake news, deliberately or not.

As Sanderson opines, “The Internet made news faster (but) we ... gained four minutes (and) lost a lot more.”  (page 212) 

The changed habits of today’s news consumers – taking in more information online – hasn’t helped the newspaper business.  It resulted in fewer advertising dollars and fewer reporters, Sanderson writes.  In 2000, newspaper newsrooms employed 56,200 editors, reporters, photographers and support staff.  It’s down to 32,900 as of 2016. 

This decrease isn’t just compromising the news business.  It’s also harming the country.  It’s hard to believe the nation’s depleted newsrooms didn’t contribute to some of the reporting prior to the November 8th election predicting Hillary Clinton winning the presidency.  An election involving 50 states cannot be covered from the newsroom.  Reporters need to be on the ground, finding out what the citizenry is thinking about those who would lead them.

Only now are the editors at The Times and The Boston Globe discovering states like Iowa and Wisconsin and sending reporters there.  From reading the stories, you might think they were covering foreign countries.

The news business and the United States were fortunate to have Merriman Smith and certainly a UPI which covered politicians and events across the globe as the world’s largest, independently owned news wire service. 

The wire services have suffered many setbacks since the early 1960s.  UPI is much smaller, nothing like it was twenty or thirty years ago, having been sold a few times.  It’s owned by News World Communications, a media entity founded by the Unification Church.  The AP suffers the same woes as the media industry it serves, seeing its revenues decline nearly 25 percent from their peak in 2008.

Sanderson’s book is very well sourced, and he told me both AP and UPI cooperated with him on the book.  He also said AP’s archivists worry about how UPI is maintaining its archives.  Maybe there’s a deal to be done there, with UPI allowing AP to manage and store their archives.

Smith’s life ended in tragedy in 1970 with a self-inflicted pistol shot.  He’s buried at Arlington National Cemetery.  It’s a fitting tribute to him.  The man who stood for everything journalism holds near and dear – getting the story right – lays with America’s heroes, including his son, Albert, killed in 1966 while serving in the Army in Vietnam.

(Publishing details:  Bulletins from Dallas:  Reporting the JFK Assassination, Bill Sanderson.  New York:  Skyhorse Publishing, November 1, 2016)


About me, the reviewer:  I’m a freelance reporter in Massachusetts and worked for UPI between 1984 and 1987, in Washington, Dallas, and Philadelphia.  I’m also the co-author, with Philip L. Kilbride, of Plural Marriage for Our Times:  A Reinvented Option? 2nd Edition, Santa Barbara, CA:  Praeger Publishers, 2012.  My dad, Bob Page, was UPI’s general manager between 1975 and 1980.  He spent 20 years at UPI, from 1960 to 1980.

Link to my book:

AP staff cuts: 

AP 2015 annual revenues: on a fake “mommy” blog:

Cisco on fake blogs:

Pew report on the U.S. newspaper industry:

Arlington National Cemetery obituary of Merriman Smith’s son:

The New York Times story about Rolling Stone magazine’s fake rape story at the University of Virginia:

The New York Times story about Jayson Blair:

The New York Times story about early voting leading to a Hillary Clinton presidential victory: