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UPI's Pulitzer-winning coverage of JFK

By TOBIN BECK

Nov. 22 was a busy but routine Friday in the Dallas UPI bureau 40 years ago until a yell across the newsroom signaled one of history's defining moments -- the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Jack Fallon was UPI's Southwest Division editor and had prepared for a busy day covering Kennedy's campaign visit to Dallas -- but the day was about to become much busier, as he "desked" or directed coverage of one of the biggest stories of the 20th century.

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UPI White House Correspondent Merriman Smith was in the Kennedy motorcade, four cars behind the president's open limousine as it passed the Texas School Book Depository and three loud bangs were heard.

"I was sitting in the rewrite bank, we had a kind of horseshoe-shaped desk. I was thinking of doing a night lead for the morning papers, when a young man -- (Wilborn) Bill Hampton -- yelled 'it's Smith and he's saying "three shots fired,"'" Fallon said. "And I picked up the phone, and it was Smith, and he said, 'read that back to me.' And I knew he had one phone and suspected he wanted to hang on to it."

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Fallon also said there was so much static on the radiotelephone Smith was using, he made Smith repeat the report three times.

Smith, sitting in the middle of the front seat of the telephone company car that was the first press car in the motorcade, had grabbed the radiotelephone mounted in front of him and had called the Dallas bureau. He asked Fallon to read back the words as Jack Bell of the Associated Press, sitting in the back seat, frantically found himself unable to file while Smith held the phone. Sitting in back with Bell were Dallas News Washington Bureau Chief Robert E. Baskin and ABC News reporter Bob Clark. Sitting on Smith's right was Malcolm Kilduff, acting White House press secretary.

In the UPI bureau, Staff Editor Don Smith pounded out the first bulletin while Fallon talked with Smith. The bulletin was handed to teletype operator Jim Tolbert, who keyed the words onto perforated paper tape that fed the teletype machines.

In newsrooms around the world, five bells signaled major news as the teleprinters typed a "bulletin precede" -- a bulletin that starts a major story: "DALLAS, Nov. 22 (UPI) Three shots were fired at President Kennedy's motorcade today in downtown Dallas." The bulletin precede was filed at 12:34 p.m. CST -- four minutes after the shots were fired, a time later determined by the Warren Commission that investigated the shooting.

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Helen Thomas, former UPI White House correspondent now a columnist for Hearst Newspapers, said Smith was a gun collector who recognized gunfire.

"Smitty was a gun buff, he knew that sound," she said.

As Smith himself wrote in a story that won him the 1964 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting: "Suddenly we heard three loud, almost painfully loud cracks. The first sounded as if it might have been a large firecracker. But the second and third blasts were unmistakable. Gunfire."

In those days, UPI bureaus took turns filing to the wires, which ran at 60 words per minute. Immediately after the bulletin precede hit the A-wire (for national-international news), the Chicago divisional headquarters began to file a story out of Minneapolis. UPI's headquarters in New York broke in and halted all other wire traffic, clearing the line for Dallas. From New York came the order: "buos ho uphold DA it yrs" -- Bureaus hold up, Dallas it's yours" -- so Dallas could file without interruption. The Atlanta bureau started to file but immediately was cut off by New York with "buos uphold."

Hampton in the meantime had phoned a police dispatcher who confirmed the three shots and said there was a rumor the president had been hit. Hampton relayed that information and then called again, reaching the same dispatcher who told him Kennedy was en route to Parkland Hospital.

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Smith arrived at Parkland soon after the presidential limousine.

"I ran to the side of the bubble-top (limousine)," Smith wrote later in the piece that won the Pulitzer. "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.

"Gov. Connally was on his back on the floor of the car, his head and shoulders resting on the shoulders 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 gray suit," Smith wrote.

Smith saw Secret Service agent Clint Hill leaning over into the rear of the car. Hill was in charge of the detail assigned to Mrs. Kennedy and was the agent who had climbed onto the back of the limousine immediately after the shooting.

"How badly was he hit, Clint?" Smith asked. "He's dead," Hill replied.

Smith raced into the hospital and found a phone in a small office off the corridor leading to the emergency room. He called the Dallas office and dictated as litters carrying Kennedy and Connally were wheeled past him.

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The story was being filed to UPI wires in "rolling takes" -- sentences and paragraphs filed individually to get them on the wires as quickly as possible. Tolbert had just punched in a take giving the location of the shooting when Fallon took Smith's call and dictated a "Flash" that Tolbert quickly filed, breaking into his earlier take in mid-word:

"No casualties were reported. The incident occurred near the county sheriff's office on Main Street, just east of an underpass leading toward the Trade Mart where the president was to ma ... "

And then the sentence broke off, interrupted by the "flash" -- the highest priority of news, which rang 10 bells on newsroom teleprinters at 12:39 p.m. CST:

"Flash

Kennedy seriously wounded

Perhaps seriously

Perhaps fatally by assassins bullet"

Smith's report said Kennedy and Connally had been shot, and it included Hill's quote, but it also said "other White House officialswere in doubt as the corridors of the hospital erupted in pandemonium."

While Smith's flash captured what was known at the time, Tolbert said, a flash was supposed to be no more than three words, a short signal to editors that outstanding news was breaking.

"That flash is messed up, it was supposed to be just one or two words," Tolbert said. "There's a lot to that flash. There's never been a flash like that since, that I know of."

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Tolbert, retired and living in Forest, Miss., said while he focused on doing his job, he knew it was a horrific story.

"Oh, it was terrible -- I knew it was bad when I heard that he'd been shot. I knew that right away -- my wife said I was a ghost when I came home that night, that I was as white as cotton."

Five UPI reporters were at Parkland and three were at police headquarters. In the UPI bureau, 10 staffers were receiving details and writing. Three and four teletype operators punched the copy, sending it across 500,000 miles of circuits around the United States and to 114 nations around the globe. By Friday night, another half-dozen staff came in to work the story.

UPI reporters at Parkland called in their notes to editors Denne Freeman, Don Smith and Fallon in the Dallas bureau -- including several reports the president was dead. Those reports were held pending official word, which came from Kilduff in a hastily arranged news conference.

UPI's correspondents reported the news conference over three separate phones.

Hampton, Joe Carter and Preston McGraw set up a three-man relay between a pay phone about 50 yards away from the news conference so they could file without undue loss of time, with one in the news conference, one running between and a third dictating on the phone.

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In addition, Virginia Payette, wife of Southwest Division Manager William Payette and a former UPI reporter, had gone to the hospital to help. Smith wrote that he spotted her and told her to try to find a phone on the floor above, which she did, reaching the Dallas bureau to also relay Kilduff's announcement that Kennedy had died about 1 p.m.

Smith found a nurse who led him to a phone on another floor and he reached the Dallas bureau after Payette.

Tolbert punched the flash announcing "President Kennedy dead" at 1:35 p.m. CST.

Fallon, now retired and living in Bronxville, N.Y., said covering major stories at that time meant constantly thinking of how to line up phones.

"We were really a low-tech time in history -- no cellphones, things like that. The only communication was hard line, landline telephone. The main thing to me, on any kind of moving story -- this place, that place, a motorcade -- was telephone communication," he said.

After the news conference, Smith was told that Kilduff wanted him to return to Air Force One right away as part of a three-man press pool for the return flight to Washington. As Smith raced downstairs, he found Kilduff had just pulled out in the wire car.

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Smith, Sid Davis of Westinghouse and Charles Roberts of Newsweek persuaded a Dallas police officer to drive them to the airport through what Smith wrote was some of the worst traffic he'd ever seen.

Smith, Davis and Roberts were the only reporters among the 27 people crammed into the presidential suite of Air Force One as U.S. District Judge Sarah T. Hughes administered the oath of office to Lyndon Johnson. Mrs. Kennedy and Lady Bird Johnson looked on. Shortly after the two-minute ceremony, Air Force One was airborne back to Washington. Davis stayed behind and briefed other reporters.

That night, Smith wrote a 1,000-word recap of the day, which won the 1964 Pulitzer for National Reporting. The Pulitzer citation also praised the UPI Dallas bureau's coverage. Smith continued covering the White House until his suicide at his home in 1970.

"He was a superb reporter," Thomas said.

Thomas was having lunch with a staff member from Jacqueline Kennedy's office and a staff writer from the Associated Press when she heard a portable radio at the next table but couldn't make out the words. Those seated at the table told her the president had been shot.

She raced back to the UPI bureau, and although on vacation, said she was working the story. She was sent to Andrews Air Force Base to await the arrival of Air Force One.

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"Dignitaries began to show up and I phoned in color," she said. "More gathered at Andrews -- it was a very traumatic time, and reporters didn't have time to think. I saw reporters dictating with tears in their eyes."

When Air Force One arrived, Thomas said, she shouted at Smith and he gave her a bundle of copy. She had a line open and began dictating. Kennedy's body was taken to the Bethesda Naval Hospital and Thomas went to the White House.

"I got a tip when the body was going to be returning to the White House, at 2 or 3 a.m., and I was able to see the body being brought back. Jackie was with the body," Thomas said.

The deputy chief of protocol asked Jackie if there was anything he could do and she said, 'Yes, find out how Lincoln's arrangements had been handled,'" Thomas recalled.

Thomas said Kennedy's death shocked and saddened the world, but the smooth transition in the presidency after his death showed the strength of the U.S. democracy.

"It was an incredibly smooth transition in the presidency -- only in a democracy," she said.

Asked whether she believes Oswald acted alone in shooting Kennedy, Thomas said yes.

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"Yes I do. But what is the truth? The whole thing was so unreal," she said. She also said she believed Jack Ruby, who gunned down Oswald two days later as he was being transferred from Dallas police headquarters to the Dallas County Jail, was tipped off to the time Oswald was going to be moved, but she did not think Ruby was part of a wider conspiracy.

The assassination changed the way reporters cover the presidency and the way reporters interact with the president's security detail, Thomas said.

"Security changed -- we used to be very friendly with the Secret Service, and they distanced themselves more from reporters after Kennedy was shot. It used to be you could get a lot of information on schedules, when the president was going to do something, not private stuff, but where he was going next -- and all that changed, though not as much as things changed after 9-11," she said.

The story had a heavy but delayed impact on those who covered it. In a Jan. 29, 1964, speech to the New York chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, William Payette told of seeing a film about Kennedy a few weeks after the shooting and having such a strong reaction that he was unable to look at the screen.

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"At the time of the shooting and the events which followed it, we went ahead seemingly doing the right thing at the right time," he said. "It was not until days later that the enormity of the tragedy struck us."

Fallon looks back with pride on how the story was handled.

"I was very proud of what we did," Fallon said. "My job, I always viewed myself as the inside man at the wireworks. My job was to outthink, outwrite the opposition. Get it out-reported. It was a competitive business. It was a competitive story, the biggest one I ever had anything to do with.

"I suppose, from a viewpoint of 40 years later, things have blended a little, mellowed some," Fallon said. "It was wonderful cooperation by all of our people, very calm, no histrionics, very professional how they did things."

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