F L A S H
November 22, 1963, began as a routine, even dull, news day for the United Press International broadcast news desk in Chicago.
Our newscasts were reporting the latest in an ongoing Soviet-American clash over policing of the Berlin autobahn. Roman Catholic bishops at Vatican II had approved the use of vernacular languages in the Mass. Some Koreans had been killed by a U.S. Army rocket explosion while gathering scrap metal on a firing range. The Navy was searching for a U2 reconnaissance plan that had crashed in the Gulf of Mexico after a flight over Cuba.
We were also reporting on President Kennedy's trip to Texas to act as peacemaker in the feud between factions of the state Democratic party. Tied to that, on some of our newscasts, was the report that former Vice President Nixon, in Dallas for a speaking engagement, had predicted that President Kennedy would replace Lyndon Johnson on the Democratic ticket in 1964. It was hardly world-shaking material, but it clacked out on UPI Teletypes, as our reports did every day, around the clock, to the company's 3,500 client radio and television stations across the country.
When I had arrived at work on that morning, John Pelletreau, the national broadcast news editor, assigned me to the first of the department's two editors' desks. He supervised the day shift and normally took the first desk, but he would be a writer that day, he said. He had some administrative work to catch up on and could do that better between writing assignments than as an editor. John put Bill Roberts on the second desk.
As first desker, as the first desk editor was called, I would be in charge of the shift. I'd prepare 15-minute World News Roundups, which we filed, or transmitted, every fourth hour. I would read all the other copy to be filed on the broadcast wire and make whatever final edits were necessary to insure the copy was accurate and readable before handing it to a Teletype operator. Roberts, on the second desk, would edit five-minute World in Brief newscasts and monitor a bank of Teletypes that brought news to our desk from New York and London. We had two writers to whom we assigned stories to be put into brief and direct broadcast style. That day, they were Pelletreau and Phil O'Connor, a relatively new member of the staff.
Between 11:50 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., I filed the usual sports and stock and commodity market news, the hourly headlines and the Fourth World News Roundup. At 12:30, Henry Renwald, the Teletype operator, flipped switches that split the broadcast wire circuit to allow UPI bureaus around the country to send packages of local news and features to stations in their geographical areas. We in Chicago would take control again at 10 minutes before the hour.
At the split, Renwald stayed at his keyboard to type a feature story on punch tape that could be fed into the Teletype's tape reader later for automatic transmission. Pelletreau went to an office along one side of the newsroom. I got up to go lunch but, on the way, stopped at O’Connor’s desk to explain why I had edited a story he'd written as I had. I was talking to him when dinging bells on the main news Teletype alerted us that a bulletin was coming in.
Most of the stories on the wire were routine, but stories editors deemed more consequential could take precedence and were coded so as to trigger alarm bells on the Teletypes. Five bells signaled a "bulletin," major breaking news or an important new development in an ongoing story. A five-bell "urgent" was a story that was important but not as hot as a bulletin. The top priority story, preceded by ten bells, was a "Flash," given to only the most cataclysmic events. Flashes were so rare the edition of the "Broadcast Style Book" that we used then made no mention of them. Subsequent editions would.
The five bells chimed at 12:34. Roberts turned to the machine behind him and tore off the bulletin.
"Hey. Look at this," he said. The bulletin read:
“Three shots were fired at President Kennedy's motorcade in downtown Dallas.”
As O'Connor recalled it years later, he heard me "shouting 'Jesus Christ!' after Roberts read aloud the first bulletin that came across. Larry practically flew across the room to get to the printer."
I told Renwald to take back control of the broadcast wire. He did, but it was difficult. All the bureaus were sending. Worse, New York tried to send the bulletin from Dallas.
"GET OFF GET OFF GET OFF," Renwald typed.
I edited the Dallas copy to put it in active-voice broadcast style: "An unknown sniper fired three shots at President Kennedy's motorcade in Dallas." Renwald began typing but got only as far as "President." The word disappeared in a garble.
Even as Renwald was battling the bureaus, the A-wire Teletype sounded 10 bells.
KENNEDY SERIOUSLY WOUNDED PERHAPS SERIOUSLY PERHAPS FATALLY BY ASSASSINS BULLET.
I took a pencil to that and gave it to Renwald and told him to send it as a flash. He had one false start before getting it out.
KENNEDY SERIOUSLY WOUNDED---
Five minutes had gone by and other bureaus were still trying to send, breaking up our transmission. Renwald tried to get them to stop.
STAY OFF ALL OF YOU STAY OFF AND KEEP OFF GET OFF
There was still more interference.
WILL U PLEASE STAY OFF THIS WIRE TILL WE GIVE THE GA????
STAY OFF STAY OFF
When the A-wire bells sounded the flash, Frank Spencer, the Chicago bureau chief, looked at the A-wire Teletype at his end of the newsroom. He was a bulldog of a fellow with a powerful voice, and he yelled "FLASH" so that it carried through the room. It was a hair-raising shout, and I could feel gooseflesh breaking out. Conversation stopped. Someone turned on the television set at the far end of the room.
By then Pelletreau was back in the newsroom and he made instant decisions. Roberts and I would stay on the desk. John would write the main story. We sent O’Connor out for sandwiches and coffee.
Bulletin followed bulletin on the A-wire, and we kept pace, getting the story out to the broadcast clients. One of those was CBS, and within seconds after the first bulletin, Walter Cronkite, in shirtsleeves, appeared on the television screen paraphrasing what we had just sent.
In Dallas, White House reporter Merriman Smith, who had been in the press car behind the President’s limousine, sprinted from the parking lot into the hospital. When he passed Secret Serviceman Clint Hill, he asked how the President was. "He's dead," Hill said. Smith included the quote as a paragraph in his running story that was coming out of the A-wire machine. The question was, should we go with it? My inclination was to put it out as a bulletin. I showed it to Pelletreau. More seasoned and more thoughtful, he ordered caution and set it aside on the desk. His reasoning was that Hill could not have made that final determination, and that if it were broadcast by our clients and found to be false, we would have panicked listeners unnecessarily. It occurred to me some years later that he may also have been thinking of the ill consequences to UPI's reputation of sending a flash that wasn't true. He knew wire service history better than I. We held Hill's quote for at least 15 minutes, then sent it out buried in a write-through of the story. We delayed reporting flatly that he had died until the official announcement came.
Operator Alice Guenther took over at the broadcast Teletype keyboard at 1:30. Four minutes later word was flashed from Dallas that Kennedy was dead. I had copy for a flash ready on the desk, but John waved it away. "Alice," he said, "type 'Flash President Dead.'" Alice took her hands from the keyboard, covered her face, bent over, and cried "Oh, my God." An operator supervisor, Jimmy Darr, suddenly appeared behind her, and in what seemed to me to be one fluid motion, put his hands on her upper arms, lifted her out of the chair, sat her on the floor and leaned over the chair and her and typed the flash.
While that was going on, I typed a bulletin and a follow-up paragraph.
(DALLAS)--PRESIDENT KENNEDY IS DEAD.
HE WAS SHOT TO DEATH BY AN ASSASSIN IN THE STREETS OF DALLAS.
HE WAS 45.
Alice recovered and was back at the keyboard to send that.
We didn't have a prepared obituary for Kennedy in the file, as we should have; who would have thought we would have needed one? As a result, we didn't have his age handy, and I was guessing that he was 45. I was wrong by a year, and John repeated the error in the sub, or write-through. But soon as the A-wire came out with the correct age, we sent a correction.
Dean Miller, the broadcast news manager, had been at lunch at a nearby saloon, the St. Louis Brown's Fan Club. He did not let the news interrupt his meal. He finished and walked back to the newsroom. He asked a few questions of John and disappeared into his office. He made periodic appearances later to read the file of stories we had sent out. On one of his trips, he read the correction and gave me a tongue-lashing for making the mistake. Then he retreated to his office again. That was the only comment Miller made about how we handled the story.
Tom McGann, UPR bureau chief and the third in UPR's chain of command, was on vacation. He came downtown from his home on the north side of the city as soon as he heard the news. We still had the stack of stories from earlier in the morning on the desk. He tossed them into a box under the desk where discards went. "You won't need these," he told me. That was the only work he did. He asked Miller if he could help, and Miller told him to go home.
We scrapped the usual format of sending a Roundup or a World in Brief each hour. We also cut out the splits. This was a national story, and nothing local could possibly take precedence.
In Dallas, Merriman Smith was doing a masterful job of reporting from Parkland Hospital. He questioned Secret Service agents about what they had heard; asked Malcolm Kilduff, the assistant press secretary traveling with the president, about the president's condition; buttonholed a presidential staff member to find out Mrs. Kennedy's condition. He reported that a carton of blood had been rushed to the emergency room. He told of a woman who, in the midst of all the confusion, brought in a bloody child for treatment. He reported that Kennedy had been given the last rites of the Catholic Church.
In Chicago, Roberts and I were writing many of those details as two and three sentence items, and I was putting the stories on the wire as urgents. Pelletreau was folding the new material into write-throughs. As soon as he had a new one ready, I filed it as a bulletin.
As usual, we carried the prices of the stock and commodity markets, but even those had an assassination angle: "News of the shooting of President Kennedy prompted active selling of grain futures and prices took a dive on the Chicago Board of Trade. The death of the President wasn't announced until after the close." About the only news that was not related to the assassination were three short sports items we filed shortly after 1 p.m. as "Late Sports Briefs."
At 2:52, we sent the third flash of the day:
I wrote another bulletin fleshing out the flash and followed that with more details about the swearing in aboard Air Force One. Pelletreau did another write-through, writing it as he had written nearly all of the other complete stories. He was fast, and his copy was error-free and graceful--somewhat surprising in light of what he told me later. He could hardly concentrate, he said. "All I could think about were those poor kids. I kept saying Hail Marys the whole time I was writing." At 3, the wire started to return to normal. We carried a national weather forecast, and then I wrote the opening summary for the Fifth World News Roundup:
PRESIDENT KENNEDY IS DEAD...STRUCK DOWN BY AN ASSASSIN'S BULLET AS HE RODE IN A MOTORCADE THROUGH
THE STREETS OF DALLAS.
LYNDON BAINES JOHNSON IS THE 36TH PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES...SWORN INTO OFFICE ABOARD THE
AIRLINER THAT HAD FLOWN MR. KENNEDY TO DALLAS THIS MORNING.
Just before the flash reporting Johnson's swearing in, we had carried an urgent reporting that a policeman had been shot while chasing a suspect in the assassination through a Dallas movie theater. That timed off at 2:50. We led the fifth Roundup with an urgent reporting the suspect worked in a downtown building on the motorcade route where a rifle was found. Within the hour, I wrote my last bulletin of the afternoon:
(DALLAS)---POLICE TODAY SEIZED LEE H. OSWALD, IDENTIFIED AS CHAIRMAN OF A "FAIR PLAY FOR CUBA
COMMITTEE," AS THE PRIME SUSPECT IN THE ASSASSINATION OF PRESIDENT KENNEDY
The last of the fifth Roundup cleared the wire about half an hour later, at 4:21 p.m. When it was timed off--when the operator typed the time and his initials--my work for the day was done.
A year later, in the fall of 1964, I was in graduate school at Southern Illinois University, and I met the owner of the radio station in Anna, Illinois, just a few miles south of Carbondale. He was a UPI client, and when the bells went off on the broadcast wire Teletype on November 22, he told me, he put an extension cord on a microphone and went into the closet-like enclosure where he kept his Teletype machine and read each word as it was typed out.
Until that moment I hadn't thought about the people we reached with our reports. And I couldn't venture a guess, even, as to how many other radio stations operated as the Anna station did, or how many people got their first news of that terrible event from us. But it occurred to me that afternoon that millions of Americans, driving or shopping, working in offices or doing chores around the house, heard those words we wrote that afternoon as they were delivered in all the accents of small-town American radio, from the clipped sentences of Maine and Vermont, to the the drawls of Alabama and Mississippi:
"President Kennedy is dead. He was shot to death by an assassin in the streets of Dallas."