So much news happened in November and December 1963 that it was several weeks before word got out of how Merriman Smith of United Press International beat the Associated Press in reporting the news of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
Leonard Lyons, a columnist for the New York Post, was the first to tell the story in print. Lyons wrote an “item” column – it usually included several interesting newsy or gossipy items about celebrities and news events. He described Smith’s beat in his lead item on Dec. 18, 1963.
According to Lyons, Smith and one other reporter were riding in a radiotelephone-equipped car several car lengths behind President Kennedy’s open limousine in downtown Dallas. “When the assassin’s rifle shots rang out, Smith reached for the mobile telephone in front of him, phoned his Dallas office and started dictating the bulletin … The other pool reporter kept demanding the phone, and tried reaching over Smith’s shoulder to grab it. Smith held on … The other reporter started pawing and pummeling Smith – who ducked under the dashboard to avoid the blows.”
Actually, there were four reporters in the “wire car,” which got its name from the fact that it always carried reporters from the AP and UPI wire services. Smith’s Associated Press competitor that day was Jack Bell, who usually covered the U.S. Senate. The other reporters in the car were Robert Baskin of The Dallas Morning News and Bob Clark of ABC News.
Bell was the reporter who took swings at Smith. “They’re good friends, the two correspondents, but in the competition for getting the news first, friendships vanish,” Lyons wrote. Then he quoted Smith saying of Bell: “He’d have done what I did, and I’d have done what he did.”
Actually, Bell and Smith were not good friends – certainly not after November 22. Bell took his anger over this incident to his grave.
Lyons’ column was the first report of a story that became journalism legend. By hanging on to the phone in the car, Smith kept the AP from getting the story. He also helped UPI build up a lead of several minutes in reporting one of the biggest news stories of the 20th century.