BULLETINS FROM DALLAS
Reporting the JFK Assassination
Genre: Biography / Journalism
Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing
Date of Publication: November 1, 2016
Number of Pages: 280
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Thanks to one reporter’s skill, we can fix the exact moment on November 22, 1963 when the world stopped and held its breath: At 12:34 p.m. Central Time, UPI White House reporter Merriman Smith broke the news that shots had been fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade. Most people think Walter Cronkite was the first to tell America about the assassination. But when Cronkite broke the news on TV, he read from one of Smith’s dispatches. At Parkland Hospital, Smith saw President Kennedy’s blood-soaked body in the back of his limousine before the emergency room attendants arrived. Two hours later, he was one of three journalists to witness President Johnson’s swearing-in aboard Air Force One. Smith rightly won a Pulitzer Prize for the vivid story he wrote for the next day’s morning newspapers.
Smith’s scoop is journalism legend. But the full story of how he pulled off the most amazing reportorial coup has never been told. As the top White House reporter of his time, Smith was a bona fide celebrity and even a regular on late-night TV. But he has never been the subject of a biography.
With access to a trove of Smith’s personal letters and papers and through interviews with Smith’s family and colleagues, veteran news reporter Bill Sanderson will crack open the legend. Bulletins from Dallas tells for the first time how Smith beat his competition on the story, and shows how the biggest scoop of his career foreshadowed his personal downfall.
PRAISE FOR BULLETINS FROM DALLAS:
“So much of what we know about any story depends on how reporters do their work. Bill Sanderson takes us through every heartbreaking minute of one of the biggest stories of our lifetime, with sharp detail and powerful observations. As you read the book, you’ll feel all the pressure and adrenaline rush of a reporter on deadline.” —Neal Shapiro, former president of NBC News, current president of WNET
“The life and work of a noted White House reporter…. Focusing on [Merriman] Smith’s reporting of the Kennedy assassination, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize, Sanderson conveys the tension and confusion after the event, as Smith and other newsmen scrambled to ascertain facts.” —Kirkus Reviews
“To read Bulletins from Dallas is to touch the fabric of history, through Sanderson’s artful weave of many voices, from presidents across the decades to the last words uttered by J.F.K. Swept back through the corridors of time, we hear the urgent bells and clatter of the teletype machine: Merriman Smith’s first report to the world, ‘Three shots fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade today in Downtown Dallas.’ This compelling narrative takes us to that moment when our whole nation cried, and, even now, to tears of primal sympathy that never seem to end.” —Allen Childs, author of We Were There: Revelations from the Dallas Doctors Who Attended to JFK on November 22, 1963
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Bulletins from Dallas: One Reporter’s Triumph — and
Another’s Resentment in the Wake of JFK’s Assassination
Guest Post by Bill Sanderson
Originally published on Skyhorse Carousel; used here with permission
When I started researching Bulletins from Dallas, I feared that everything about John F. Kennedy’s assassination had already been revealed by other writers. But a random discovery in an obscure archive proved me wrong.
Bulletins tells the story of Merriman Smith, the star reporter for United Press International. Smith broke the story of the assassination on UPI’s newswire minutes ahead of his competitors at the Associated Press.
On November 22, 1963, Smith and three other Washington reporters traveled with Kennedy’s Dallas motorcade in what reporters called the wire car. Smith sat in the front seat next to the car’s radiotelephone. It was the only thing like a mobile phone available to the Washington journalists on the trip.
When gunshots rang out in Dealey Plaza, Smith grabbed the phone and reported the news to UPI’s Dallas bureau. At 12:34 p.m., four minutes after the shooting, UPI told the world what Smith saw and heard. “Three shots fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade today in downtown Dallas,” his first dispatch said.
Jack Bell, a reporter for the Associated Press, was in the back seat of the wire car. He wanted his turn on the radiotelephone. But Smith held on to the handset while Bell punched him and tried to grab the phone away. Smith didn’t relinquish the phone until the wire car arrived at Parkland Hospital at 12:36 p.m. At last, Bell called the AP Dallas bureau. “This is Jack Bell,” he said before the line went dead.
AP finally reported the shooting at 12:39 p.m., five minutes after UPI. Its bulletin was based on an eyewitness account by an AP photographer.
But the AP bulletin was late. In those days, UPI and AP competed story-for-story. Being five minutes behind on one of the biggest stories of the century was a huge defeat. UPI was ahead of the AP on the story for the rest of the day. UPI even beat AP by two minutes in reporting the official announcement of Kennedy’s death.
Bell never got over what happened in the wire car. He made no secret of his anger at Smith. “I should have yanked the goddamn phone out of its socket,” he told colleagues. He took his frustration to his grave. When he died in 1975, Bell’s official AP obituary did not mention he had been in Dallas.
Smith and Bell’s fight over the radiotelephone is journalism legend. But part of the story has been a secret for the last 53 years: Bell expressed his rage to Smith in a nasty letter.
Not quite a month after the assassination — on December 18, 1963 — New York Post gossip columnist Leonard Lyons ran an item that described the wire car fight. Lyons’ account quoted Smith directly, so there was little doubt as to its source.
Bell heard Lyons’ column discussed on WTOP, a Washington radio station. On December 23, Bell typed a snarling note to Smith on Associated Press letterhead.
“Dear Smith,” Bell began. This greeting itself was angry — everyone who knew Smith called him Smitty.
“I think you’ve milked this for about all the personal publicity you can get out of it,” Bell wrote. “I’m getting a little tired of this Krap about how I ‘pummelled’ you and you have the bruises on your back to prove it. Also about the ‘world beat’ that you got which doesn’t seem to have showed up on your wires. Now you add a filip that I never got the phone.”
Bell went on to say he had forwarded to his lawyers a transcript of the WTOP broadcast based on Lyons’ item. “They may be interested in knowing who told Lyons this imaginative version,” he wrote. He signed the letter, “Bell.”
I gasped when I found Bell’s letter among Smith’s personal papers at the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison. I could find no one alive who knew Bell put his anger and frustration in writing.
Finding the letter proved again something I knew from years of reporting for newspapers; Search, even if you don’t know what you seek. You never know what will turn up. The lesson applies even to stories like the assassination of John F. Kennedy, which has been the subject of hundreds of books and which everyone thinks they already know.
Bill Sanderson spent almost two decades as a reporter and editor at the New York Post. His work has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Observer, and the Washington Post. Sanderson lives in New York City. Connect with Bill:
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