01 March 2017

Excerpt & *Giveaway* BULLETINS FROM DALLAS by Bill Sanderson

Reporting the JFK Assassination

  Genre: Biography / Journalism
Date of Publication: November 1, 2016
Number of Pages: 280

Scroll down for Giveaway!

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.

“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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EXCERPT from Bulletins from Dallas 
Chapter 5
The wire car

Smith had the advantage of his seat by the wire car’s radiotelephone. He picked up the handset and called the Dallas UPI bureau. “Bulletin precede!” he shouted. By shouting “bulletin precede,” Smith informed the bureau that he had news that would supersede the other Kennedy stories he had filed so far that day. 
Then, Smith yelled: “Three shots were fired at the motorcade!”181 
“What? I can’t hear you,” answered Wilborn Hampton, a novice reporter who’d picked up the phone in the UPI office. Static afflicted radiotelephones, so at first no one in the wire car was surprised Smith had difficulty dictating his dispatch. “Smitty was repeating,” said Bob Clark. “He was trying to get one sentence off.”182 
“There was a great deal of interference on the circuit,” Smith recounted later. He blamed police radio traffic and interference from nearby buildings.183 But Hampton had no problems with the connection. “I heard Smitty perfectly. He was screaming at the top of his lungs,” he said.184 
Hampton’s typewriter was loaded with several sheets of paper separated by carbon paper, a very thin paper coated with dry ink. The carbon paper would produce multiple copies of whatever he typed onto the top sheet. 
He typed out Smith’s sentence—he thought his fingers fumbled as he took down the words. Then he handed the typed copy to Jim Tolbert, a Teletype operator. Tolbert prepared to transmit the bulletin by retyping it on a machine that converted the words into a long strip of punch paper tape. As Tolbert typed, Hampton handed the phone to Jack Fallon, UPI’s Southwest division director. Fallon was sitting at another Teletype machine, typing out a message to UPI’s Austin bureau about coverage plans for Kennedy’s visit there later in the day. Today, one would do the same thing via a mobile phone text message. 
“Jack, this is Smitty on the phone,” Hampton said. 
“Yeah, what is it? What does he want?” Fallon sounded as if he didn’t want to be bothered. 
“He says three shots were fired at the motorcade.” 
“What!” Fallon yelled. “Give me that!” Fallon grabbed the phone, and Hampton showed him a carbon copy of the dispatch he had just written. 
Fallon quickly read the two lines. “Send it!” he yelled to Tolbert. 
At the time, UPI’s A-wire—seen by clients across the country—was under the control of its Chicago bureau, which was transmitting an account of a murder trial in Minneapolis. Tolbert took over the A-wire by pressing a “break” lever on his Teletype terminal that stopped the Minneapolis story midsentence. The A-wire’s break lever was like the emergency brake cord on a train. It was only for the most urgent news. 
Then, Tolbert fed the coded punch paper tape into the Teletype terminal. The machine converted the code into a bulletin that was printed out on hundreds of UPI Teletype machines across the country. The bulletin said: 
Everything was capital letters on the wire services in those days. The typos in the dateline didn’t stop anyone from understanding the news. The last bit of the dispatch included Tolbert’s initials and the time it was sent, 12:34 p.m. Central Standard Time—four minutes after Oswald fired his three shots. 
Tolbert also pushed a button that rang a bell five times on UPI A-wire machines, signaling to newsrooms that they were receiving a bulletin. 
After the bulletin ran, the Chicago bureau tried to resume sending the murder trial story. Editors at UPI’s New York headquarters immediately interceded. They stopped the Chicago transmission, and sent out this terse message in wire-ese: “BUOS . . . UPHOLD DA IT YRS NX.” Translation: “All bureaus, hold your copy—Dallas, the A-wire is yours. New York.” Next, the Atlanta bureau tried to correct a story. It only managed to transmit “CORRECTE” before New York jumped in again: “BUOS UPHOLD—NX.” 
On AP machines, there was nothing—because back in the wire car, Smith was hogging the radiotelephone. He scrunched down under the dashboard. “Repeat my bulletin back to me!” Smith shouted into the handset. The other reporters in the car thought the yelling was a ruse. They heard clearly voices on the other end of the line.186 
Jack Bell wanted his turn on the phone. As the wire car raced to the hospital at sixty miles per hour, the AP man tried to grab it from Smith. “Give me the goddamn phone!” Bell yelled. He swung his fists into Smith’s back. Kilduff later told a reporter that he probably took more of Bell’s punches than Smith did.187 Bell realized Smith was beating him on a big story. “Smith is driving an ax through his [Bell’s] skull by getting anything off from the wire car,” recalled Clark. “Jack got pretty upset.”188 
But Smith and Fallon, who was now taking his dictation in the Dallas bureau, had good reason to keep talking. They needed to sort out what was going on. They did not know if Oswald’s bullets hit anyone. It was hard for them to even think that Kennedy had been hit, let alone mortally wounded. 

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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