BULLETINS FROM DALLAS
Reporting the JFK Assassination
Genre: Biography / Journalism
Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing
Date of Publication: November 1, 2016
Number of Pages: 280
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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.
PRAISE FOR BULLETINS FROM DALLAS:
“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
HALL WAYS REVIEW: ✪✪✪✪✪ Before I started reading Bulletins from Dallas: Reporting the JFK Assassination, I considered myself fairly well-schooled in the events surrounding that terrible event. What I had never considered (or learned about) is that the reporting of the tragedy is a story in itself. Bulletins tells the story of Merriman Smith (another tragic story) and Smith’s job as a designated White House reporter for UPI. The story is very much about the nature of the press in relation to the events of the times and much broader than being only the story of Merriman Smith, though Smith’s story is the heart and soul of the book. Readers will find themselves immersed in the action, feeling tense and even distressed amidst the chaos and sadness surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Some of the things that caught my attention about journalism back in the day:
*reporters were selective about what was reported and respected or ignored the presidents’ more personal matters (for example, Roosevelt’s paralysis and Kennedy’s indiscretions);
*most reporters (Merriman Smith especially) aimed to provide information, not commentary in their reporting;
*wire services were cautious, and typically used a just-the-facts approach to many stories;
*it took 20 minutes for network cameras to warm up (this is why Walter Cronkite was off-screen for several of is initial broadcasts following the assassination).
But that’s not to say everyone acted politely; the name of the game was to get the story first, and sometimes that meant trickery and even a well-placed shove or punch! Time after time, as I read quotes in Bulletins, I was struck by how so much has changed (now it’s the celebrities punching the journalists), but also by how so much has remained the same and/or is still echoed in today’s political arena. Here’s a line that caused me to pause:
“Smith worried that ‘vicious personal attacks on government leaders could have only one motivation that would make any sense at all—and that is to tear down public confidence in the establishment—and by establishment, I mean authority on almost any level.’”
Sanderson does an outstanding job of helping readers feel how the delays in information being relayed felt during the minutes after Kennedy’s assassination. For example, he contrasted the chaos surrounding the shooting to the calm, festive atmosphere at the Trade Mart, where the people waiting for the president had cocktails in hand and steak dinners on their plates. Sanderson sums-up what we’ve gained with modern technology to give us instantaneous reporting of events, but he also shows quite clearly what we’ve lost. Sanderson also does an outstanding job of showing readers the character of Merriman Smith, faults and all. Smith was really a piece of work, but he was intelligent, insightful, and his journalistic instincts were amazing.
Beyond the basic stories that Bill Sanderson tells of Merriman Smith and his decades of reporting, he includes a bunch of helpful, enriching elements. There are several interesting "Side Bar" stories that give a clearer picture of not only Smith’s movements outside his job, but other peoples’ activities as well. These really sketch-in additional details of the times. Also included are two appendices, “Appendix A” which includes Smith's Pulitzer Prize winning eye witness essay and “Appendix B,” a timeline of the UPI's and AP's reporting of the assassination. These were both real assets to the book, and I wish I had known the timeline was there before I started reading. (At times, there were an overwhelming number of time stamp details and flipping back and forth between UPI and AP activities; referencing “Appendix B” would have been a huge help.) Additionally, there is an extensive notes section as well as an index –- all of which really make the book easy to read and re-read.
On a personal note, in Sanderson’s acknowledgments, I enjoyed the shout-out he gives to librarians and archivists who helped him with his research and his advice that "the best deal going for anyone who lives in New York City is a New York Public Library Card," (and can say first hand that it has awesome internet access for those of us who aren't there in NYC).
The book is very-well written, readable, and cleanly edited. Bill Sanderson seems to report very much in the same manner as the subject of his book, Merriman Smith: mostly thoughtful, straight-forward, and just-the-facts journalism with strategically placed lines that make the reader think. The only writing I do not care for is Sanderson’s repeated referencing of the splattering of President Kennedy’s blood and brains. (his words, not mine) It doesn’t feel right. . . disrespectful? Coarse? Sensationlistic? I am not sure, but in any case, that particular wording seems unnecessary given the descriptive direct quotes that use those words. And again, Sanderson uses unnecessary bluntness in describing Smith's suicide, which detracts from the otherwise highest quality writing. Pet peeves more than problems.
I highly recommend Bulletins from Dallas: Reporting the JFK Assassination to all readers, whether familiar with JFK’s assassination or not. I especially think younger readers who were born well after Kennedy’s assassination should read it to grasp the differences and the similarities between then and now.
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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