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Amid the horror and tragedy of November 22, 1963, a lone newsman pulled off one of the greatest journalistic coups of the 20th century.
Merriman Smith, star White House reporter for United Press International, grabbed the only radiotelephone available to reporters covering John F. Kennedy’s motorcade and got off the first dispatch about Kennedy’s assassination minutes ahead of his hated competitors at the Associated Press. As Smith gripped the handset, a rival AP reporter pummeled his back and yelled: “Give me the goddamn phone!”
Smith, an old-school newsman in “The Front Page” mold, is the central character in Bulletins from Dallas, a vivid recounting of how the media covered two big stories – Kennedy’s assassination and the subsequent murder of his assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald.
Thanks mostly to Smith, word spread quickly on November 22. At 12:34 p.m., four minutes after President Kennedy was shot, the UPI wire moved Smith’s first dispatch: “Three shots fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade today in downtown Dallas.”
UPI’s story moved five minutes ahead of the AP — an eternity in the wire service war of seconds.
Smith and his colleagues had amazing access to the president and his entourage. He was by the side of Kennedy’s car at Parkland Hospital before the hospital attendants arrived. “He’s dead,” Secret Service agent Clint Hill told Smith before Kennedy was taken to the emergency room. Smith quoted Hill by name several minutes later in a follow-up dispatch. Later in the afternoon, Smith scored another exclusive by being the only wire reporter present when President Johnson took the oath of office aboard Air Force One. Smith rightly won a Pulitzer Prize for his vivid and suspenseful account of what he saw on November 22.
Those who knew Smith deem him the greatest wire service reporter of all time. He was a celebrity — he often appeared on late-night TV, and his byline ran on hundreds of newspaper front pages across the country. He’s forgotten today, and his style of journalism is in steep decline. Bulletins from Dallas tells the dramatic story of how Smith and his colleagues reported the biggest story of their lives and told it to Americans grieving for their president and their country and desperate for every bit of news.