by Aileen Jacobson
At an urgent pace, Bill Sanderson recounted the tale of how reporter Merriman “Smitty” Smith got the news that President John F. Kennedy had been shot onto the UPI wire in only 4 minutes, much faster than anyone else
Changes in the “speed of news” was one transformation Sanderson addressed in his study of the fateful day in 1963 when President Kennedy was assassinated, he told Silurians at the October 20 Zoom meeting. “Today we’ve gone down from 4 minutes to 0,” Sanderson said. Another big change, he said, is that newspapers are no longer the dominant way people learn about the news. Smart reporters and editors are still necessary, however, added Sanderson, who has been a reporter for the New York Post and is now a writer and editor at the Daily News. In 2016, he wrote a book, “Bulletins from Dallas,” about the events surrounding those shots that Lee Harvey Oswald fired into the young President’s limousine.
Smitty, who had been the UPI’s White House correspondent since 1941, sat in the front seat of the pool car in the motorcade that followed JFK’s car. He was sandwiched between the driver and a presidential press agent. That put Smith on top of the car’s radio telephone, a then-new device that was meant to be shared by all four reporters in the car. As it happened, the AP reporter—the AP being Smith’s main rival—sat in the back. He wasn’t the usual White House correspondent (who was on the press bus) but a different reporter who was there to collect “color” for his own piece.
When the passengers heard shots fired, Smitty grabbed the phone, called his office and wouldn’t let go. The AP reporter cursed him, punched him, hit him and pummeled him, but Smith wouldn’t hand it over until the press car, a few cars behind the limo, stopped in front of the Parkland Hospital. Smith jumped out, dumping the phone on his way. When the AP reporter grabbed it, he found the line dead. Some thought Smith had sabotaged it somehow, but UPI always denied it, and the mystery was never solved, Sanderson said in his breathless narrative.
Before President Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connally, who had been seriously wounded, were even wheeled into the hospital, Smith jumped on the running board of their limo and witnessed the blood surrounding both men. Smith then hopped on the side of the next car in the motorcade and spoke with a secret service agent he knew, who told him the President was dead. Smith ran into the hospital, commandeered a phone in the emergency room and called in updates to his story as it unfurled.
The first AP dispatch, which came in five minutes later than UPI’s, came from a photographer who had been close to the action. The AP story was also garbled and contained several errors, Sanderson said.
Smith was known as a “reporter’s reporter, who went all out to get his story” and is often ranked as “the greatest wire reporter ever.” He won a Pulitzer Prize for the swift and full coverage that he wrote the next day.
Many people remember first hearing the news of the President’s death from Walter Cronkite on TV, Silurian vice-president Joseph Berger pointed out during the Q and A. But Cronkite was relying initially on Smith’s account, Sanderson said—and that came later: It took about half an hour for studio cameras to warm up in those days, and at first Cronkite was only heard but not seen.
Asked about persistent ideas that Oswald was not the lone shooter, Sanderson replied, “Merriman Smith resolutely hated the conspiracy theories.” Smith would say that he was there and “I know what happened.”