Jockeying and fisticuffs en route to the greatest scoop in a generation

Photo credit: Walt Cisco

Merriman Smith liked being front and center among the reporters who covered presidential motorcades. On November 22, 1963, Smitty–everyone called him that–was, as always, poised for the battle to get the story first and right. Smitty took the middle front-seat spot next to the radiotelephone in what reporters called the wire car, a blue hardtop Chevy near the front of President Kennedy’s motorcade.

Sitting by the phone suited Smith, a gadget freak who liked anything that got his stories out quicker. The radiotelephone, a two-way radio link to the Dallas telephone exchange, would let Smith inform his editors instantly of anything that happened on the motorcade route. Smitty’s insistence on sitting next to the radiotelephone was something of a joke to his colleagues, since he was usually the only reporter who wanted to use it.  His non-wire service competitors didn’t care as much about being in constant touch with their offices. Even if the car didn’t have a radiotelephone, Smitty might have insisted on sitting in front. In motorcades, he demanded choice, front-seat spots he believed he needed and deserved as a White House reporter whose job was to always be with the president.

 

Smitty’s insistence on sitting next to the radiotelephone was something of a joke to his colleagues, since he was usually the only reporter who wanted to use it.

 

With Smith in the wire car that day was Jack Bell of the Associated Press. Sometimes, AP and UPI reporters took turns sitting by the radiotelephone. It might have been the AP’s turn to sit next to the phone that day. Bell either didn’t know or didn’t care. He usually covered the Senate, and was not a White House regular like Smitty. Bell sat in the back seat, with two other pool reporters, Robert Baskin of The Dallas Morning News and Bob Clark of ABC News. In the front, the driver was on Smith’s left. Kennedy’s deputy press secretary, Malcolm Kilduff, was on Smith’s right.

Smitty, 48, and Bell, 59, were longtime rivals. They stood next to each other at Harry Truman’s first presidential news conference in 1945, and competed covering Thomas Dewey’s 1948 presidential campaign. Smith respected Bell enough to praise him as “a fine, tough, competitive reporter” and an expert questioner on the Sunday TV political shows on which they sometimes appeared together. Bell was an expert on the Senate’s arcane machinations, and was on a first-name basis with the capital’s top politicians.

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Merriman Smith put the first report of the Dallas shooting on the UPI wire five minutes ahead of the AP. Veteran journalist Bill Sanderson describes how Smith scored one of the 20th century’s greatest scoops in this excerpt from his new book out this week, Bulletins from Dallas. Smith won a Pulitzer for his narrative of JFK’s assassination printed in newspapers the next day. Credit: Skyhorse Publishing

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But Bell was not known for covering breaking news. If something happened in the motorcade, there was no doubt who would get the story first. When it came to breaking news, Smitty was a gunfighter. “Jack Bell was a very nice man,” said Robert MacNeil, who was in Dallas that day for NBC News. “But he was a rather more passive reporter and less aggressive reporter than Smitty.”

The motorcade headed out of Love Field at about 11:50 a.m., five minutes behind schedule.

Thousands of excited, cheering people lined Dallas’s downtown skyscraper canyon hoping for a glimpse of the glamorous president and first lady.

On its way out of downtown Dallas, the motorcade turned right from Main Street onto North Houston Street, on the eastern side of Dealey Plaza. Next, a short block north, the cars turned sharply left, about 120 degrees, onto Elm Street in front of the Texas School Book Depository, on the plaza’s northern side. In the wire car, Smith and Kilduff chatted about how well the trip seemed to be going. Kennedy’s car was moving at about 11 miles per hour, heading toward an underpass beneath railroad tracks where three roads converged.

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President John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy arrive at Love Field, Dallas, Texas. Kennedy was assassinated later in the day.

Above, at a sixth-floor window in the Book Depository, Lee Harvey Oswald waited until just after the presidential limousine passed below. At 12:30 p.m., he fired three shots.

Oswald’s first shot sounded to Mrs. Kennedy like “a motorcycle noise.” She heard Texas Governor John Connally cry out from his seat in front of the president. “My God, they are going to kill us all,” Connally said.

The First Lady saw a flesh-colored piece of her husband’s skull torn off. Then, she said, “he slumped on my lap, his blood and brains were in my lap.” “Oh my God, they have shot my husband,” she said, cradling him. “I love you, Jack.”

The reporters weren’t sure what the first sound was. “There was a loud bang as though a giant firecracker had exploded in the caverns between the tall buildings,” wrote Bell. Then they heard the next two shots. Smith owned several guns. “The second and third blasts were unmistakable. Gunfire,” he wrote in his story for the next day’s morning newspapers.

The wire car stopped. “Everybody in our car began shouting at the driver to pull up closer to the president’s car,” Smith wrote. As they did so, Kennedy’s limousine and motorcycle escort roared away at high speed.

“We screamed at our driver, ‘Get going, get going,’” Smith wrote. The wire car steered around Lyndon Johnson’s car–Smith didn’t say how jittery Secret Service agents and cops reacted to this dodgy maneuver. The wire car was “barely able to keep in sight of the president’s car and the accompanying Secret Service follow-up car.”

Smith now took advantage of his seat by the wire car’s radiotelephone. He picked up the handset and called the Dallas UPI bureau. “Bulletin precede!” he shouted. By shouting “bulletin precede,” Smith informed the bureau that he had news that would supersede the other Kennedy stories he had filed so far that day.

Then, Smith yelled: “Three shots were fired at the motorcade!”

“What? I can’t hear you,” answered Wilborn Hampton, a novice reporter who’d picked up the phone in the UPI office. Static afflicted radiotelephones. “There was a great deal of interference on the circuit,” Smith recounted later. But Hampton had no problems with the connection. “I heard Smitty perfectly. He was screaming at the top of his lungs,” he said.

Hampton typed out Smith’s sentence–he thought his fingers fumbled as he took down the words. He handed the typed copy to Jim Tolbert, a Teletype operator. Tolbert prepared to transmit the bulletin by retyping it on a machine that converted the words into a long strip of punch paper tape.

As Tolbert typed, Hampton handed the phone to Jack Fallon, UPI’s Southwest division director. Fallon was sitting at another Teletype machine, typing out a message to UPI’s Austin bureau about coverage plans for Kennedy’s visit there later in the day.

“Jack, this is Smitty on the phone,” Hampton said.

“Yeah, what is it? What does he want?” Fallon sounded as if he didn’t want to be bothered.

“He says three shots were fired at the motorcade.”

“What?!” Fallon yelled. “Give me that!” Fallon grabbed the phone, and Hampton showed him a carbon copy of the dispatch he had just written.

Fallon quickly read the two lines. “Send it!” he yelled to Tolbert.

At the time, the A-wire was under the control of UPI’s Chicago bureau, which was transmitting an account of a murder trial in Minneapolis. Fallon pressed a “break” lever on his terminal that cut off the Minneapolis story in mid-sentence. Then he fed the punch paper tape coded with the bulletin into the terminal.

The bulletin said:

              PRECEDE KENNEDY

    DALLAS, OV. #22 (UPI) – THREE SHOTS FIRED AT PRESIDENT KENNEDY’S MOTORCADE TODAY IN DOWNTOWN DALLAS. JT1234PCS..

Everything was capital letters on the wire services in those days. The typos in the dateline didn’t stop anyone from understanding the news. The last bit of the dispatch included Tolbert’s initials and the time it was sent, 12:34 p.m. Central Standard Time–four minutes after Oswald fired his three shots.

 

On AP machines, there was nothing–because back in the wire car, Smith was hogging the radiotelephone.

 

After the bulletin ran, Chicago tried to resume sending the murder trial story. Editors at UPI’s New York headquarters immediately stopped the Chicago transmission, and sent out this terse message in wire-ese: “BUOS . . . UPHOLD DA IT YRS NX.” Translation: “All bureaus, hold your copy—Dallas, the A-wire is yours. New York.” Next, the Atlanta bureau tried to correct a story. It only managed to transmit “CORRECTE” before New York jumped in again: “BUOS UPHOLD—NX.”

On AP machines, there was nothing–because back in the wire car, Smith was hogging the radiotelephone. He scrunched down under the dashboard. “Repeat my bulletin back to me!” Smith shouted into the handset. The other reporters in the car thought the yelling was a ruse. They heard clear voices on the other end of the line.

Jack Bell wanted his turn on the phone. As the wire car raced to the hospital at 60 miles per hour, the AP man tried to grab the phone from Smith. “Give me the goddamn phone!” Bell yelled. He swung his fists into Smith’s back. Bell realized Smith was beating him on a big story.

Kennedy’s open-top limousine pulled into Parkland Hospital at about 12:36 p.m., six minutes after the shooting. The wire car was just behind it. Finally, Smith relinquished the phone. Bell immediately called the AP’s Dallas bureau. “This is Jack Bell,” he said. The line went dead, but Bell kept talking. He shouted that three shots had been fired at Kennedy’s motorcade. When he realized no one could hear him, he tried to get an operator. But the phone was still dead.

 

He swung his fists into Smith’s back. Bell realized Smith was beating him on a big story.

 

While Bell tried to call the AP bureau, Smith and the others jumped out of the car and dashed up to the limousine in the emergency room ambulance bay. It was a scene of blood-soaked horror. “The president was face-down on the back seat. Mrs. Kennedy made a cradle of her arms around the President’s head and bent over him as if she were whispering to him,” Smith wrote.

“Governor Connally was on his back on the floor of the car, his head and shoulders resting on the arm of his wife, Nellie, who kept shaking her head and shaking with dry sobs. Blood oozed from the front of the governor’s suit.

“I could not see the president’s wound. But I could see blood spattered around the interior of the rear seat and a dark stain spreading down the right side of the president’s dark gray suit.”

Smith turned to Secret Service agent Clint Hill. “How badly was he hit, Clint?” he asked.

“He’s dead, Smitty,” Hill replied.

The hospital gurneys hadn’t even arrived yet.

Smith ran into the hospital’s emergency entrance. Inside he saw a clerk. On a shelf behind the clerk was a telephone.

“How do you get outside?” Smith asked. “The president has been shot and this is an emergency call.”

“Dial nine,” said the startled clerk. Smith tried twice before he got through to the Dallas UPI bureau with a fresh dispatch.

Fallon wanted to send this news as a flash, the designation reserved for the very biggest stories. Tolbert was seated at the Dallas bureau Teletype terminal that controlled the UPI A-wire. Tolbert typed Fallon’s words directly onto the wire, without bothering with paper tape:

“Kennedy seriously wounded—”

Bill Payette, the UPI Southwest Division vice president, overheard Fallon’s dictation. He ordered a revision: The flash was to use the word “perhaps.” So in those seconds, Tolbert typed this slightly awkward dispatch directly onto the A-wire:

 KENNEDY SERIOUSLY WOUNDED

                                             PERHAPS SERIOUSLY

PERHAPS FATALLY BY ASSASSINS BULLET

                                                                 JT1239PCS

The flash moved at 12:39 p.m. Nine minutes had passed since the shots in Dealey Plaza, and Smitty had already sent several dispatches that put UPI ahead on the story.

His competitors at the AP were just getting started. At 12:39 p.m., five minutes after Smitty’s first report of shots fired, the AP finally moved its first dispatch to Teletype machines west of the Mississippi. Because of a quirk in the AP’s transmission system, it wasn’t until 12:40 p.m. that the news moved on Teletypes east of the Mississippi. The AP was behind UPI’s Smitty, who died in 1970, on one of the biggest stories of the century.

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Bill Sanderson is a veteran journalist whose newspaper resume includes the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire, the Bergen Record in New Jersey, and the New York Post. He’s also written for The Wall Street Journal, MarketWatch.com, and Politico NY. He lives in New York.