I am obsessed with John F. Kennedy. He was the defining political figure of my life, and his assassination 51 years ago was the most unforgettable moment of my young life, as I suspect it was for many readers of this magazine. If I see a new book about JFK, I will open it; if there is a column or news story on the web, I will click on it; if there is a documentary or movie, I will watch it; if someone starts a “where were you when” conversation, then I’m in. I rarely go a month without seeing something that sends me to my study to plow through the familiar books and pictures one more time. This has been especially true in the last few years, when new entries have included former White House intern Mimi Alford’s shocking Once Upon a Secret, novelist Stephen King’s 11/22/63, and the movies Parkland and Killing Kennedy. I am also obsessed with changes in journalism and the way events get reported and stories get told today, as opposed to yesterday. The intersection of my twin obsessions comes with stories about the Kennedy assassination, whether they purport to be factual, fact-based, or fictional; often it’s hard to tell the difference. This brings me to Merriman Smith.
Smith was a correspondent for United Press International (UPI), my first news employer. A wire-service, I should probably explain for the benefit of younger readers, was a global network of newspapers and radio and television stations. If you worked for UPI, Smith was a legend because he scored the greatest “scoop” in the history of journalism. Not because he was the only person who had the news, but because he was the only person who could get the news out to the rest of the world. To put this in modern terms: For a few precious minutes at a critical moment in history, Merriman Smith had sole access to the internet.
On November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Smith was riding in the motorcade in the press pool car behind the presidential car. There were six people in the pool car, including the driver. As senior correspondent, Smith was in the middle of the front seat, over the transmission hump and right behind the radiophone — a primitive and wildly expensive 1960s precursor of the cell phone — mounted onto the dashboard.
When shots were fired, Smith seized the radiophone and dictated his report to the Dallas bureau: “Three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade in downtown Dallas.” This went out as a bell-ringing “flash,” on sophisticated telegraphic devices called news tickers, to every UPI customer around the globe. Call it a Tweet, if you will, just 65 characters long.
Smith’s competitor, Jack Bell of the rival Associated Press (AP) wire service, was in the backseat. Historian William Manchester describes what happened next in his bestseller, The Death of a President: “[Smith] dictated one take, two takes, three, four. Indignant, Bell rose up from the center of the rear seat and demanded the phone. Smith stalled . . . Bell, red-faced and screaming, tried to wrest the radiophone from him; Smith thrust it between his knees and crouched under the dash.” When he finally surrendered the phone, as the car reached Parkland Hospital, it had gone dead.
Meanwhile, Dallas garment manufacturer Abraham Zapruder was watching the motorcade pass through the lens of his movie camera. He had a perch just 30 yards from the street. When the shots rang out, he had the presence of mind to keep filming, for 26 seconds in all. To put this again in modern terms, he had the only cell-phone camera in the area. He had the only video of the fatal shot.
Merriman Smith’s scoop held for nearly five minutes, an eternity at the time. He pressed his advantage by commandeering a telephone (a land line, of course) in Parkland Hospital and filing more reports. UPI bureaus around the world were ordered to clear the wire for Dallas. An e-mail chain was created, if you will. (One bureau didn’t get the message and continued to file a mundane story before obeying the order.) As Kennedy’s body went from hospital to plane, Smith kept filing reports in the just-the-facts style of wire-service journalism. In 1964 he won the Pulitzer Prize; he’s also credited with the first use of the term “grassy knoll” to describe the murder site. Six years later Smith committed suicide, despondent over his son’s combat death in Vietnam.
Abraham Zapruder gave his film to the Secret Service and kept a copy for himself. He entertained bids from eager media outlets and sold it for $150,000 paid over six years. The winner was not CBS or ABC or NBC. The winner was a weekly magazine (!) called Life, which ran stills in its next two issues. The first broadcast of the Zapruder film was not until 1970, the year Merriman Smith died. For years, in other words, Life magazine had sole custody of the signature YouTube clip of the Kennedy assassination.