How Many Bells Were Ringing That Day?

By Jack Limpert

To mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the Washingtonian has a terrific piece, Angel Is Airborne, that’s a narrative of what happened the afternoon of November, 22, 1963, on the plane that brought JFK’s body back to Washington. Jackie Kennedy refusing to change her blood-soaked pink suit: “I want them to see what they have done to Jack.” Vice President Lyndon Johnson talking by phone with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, the dead President’s brother, about when he should be sworn in as the new President. JFK aides ordering the plane to leave Dallas and being told the plane wouldn’t take off until Johnson was sworn in.

One graf in the story, written by Washingtonian editor Garrett Graff, stopped me:

Merriman Smith—the mustachioed 50-year-old UPI wire correspondent known to everyone as “Smitty”—was trying to hide his inner turmoil as the day’s events unfolded. He had broken the news of JFK’s shooting—the 15 bells that had rung in every newsroom in the country alerting editors to his urgent FLASH from the motorcade press car: “Dallas, Nov. 22 (UPI)—THREE SHOTS WERE FIRED AT PRESIDENT KENNEDY’S MOTORCADE IN DOWNTOWN DALLAS. JT1234PCS—”

A flash with 15 bells? That didn’t sound right—in 1963 I was a UPI staffer in Detroit and I remember flashes being sent with 10 bells. So I e-mailed Garrett:

A terrific piece. The Jackie stories, the JFK people vs. the LBJ people, especially Kenny O’Donnell and some of the lesser known figures, such as Kilduff and McHugh, make for great reading. What a plane ride. What a day in history.

Only an old wire service guy would raise this: In chapter 12, “the 15 bells that had rung in every newsroom in the country…”

My memory of the flash-bulletin-urgent system was three bells meant urgent, five bells a bulletin, ten bells a flash. I bounced it off Ron Cohen, the longtime Washington bureau manager for UPI, and he also remembers it as a 3-5-10 bell system.

Garrett e-mailed me back:

I’d gotten the bells reference from a Merriman Smith’s Arlington Cemetery write-up: http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/albertme.htm. I wonder if the confusion was with there being a bulletin and a flash (which would equal 15 bells) or if the writer was just wrong?

We left it at that. I read the Merriman Smith Arlington Cemetery story—it’s also a terrific read about how the press covered the JFK assassination. I looked on the web for  something about the AP and UPI bell system for stories slugged urgent, bulletin, or flash but couldn’t find anything solid. Ron Cohen did add this:

Yes on the 3-5-10 bells. And with the advent of video display terminals in the early ’70s, replacing teletype operators, the computer automatically rang the bells when the editor put a “u”, “b” or “f” designation at the top. I personally pushed the button for UPI’s flashes on Nixon’s articles of impeachment and his resignation in 1973.

In 1968 I did cross paths with Merriman Smith, then a legendary figure in wire service lore, but didn’t have a chance to talk with him about 1963. I was on leave from journalism as a Congressional Fellow, assigned to the office of Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey. Smith was out covering the Humphrey presidential campaign, and we both were riding the plane that carried the writing press. Before there was a time and place where I could tell him about my UPI background and talk with him, we had landed in some city—I think Houston—and  he came up to me and said, “You SOBs seem to have lost my luggage.”

Comments

  1. The “Merriman Smith Arlington Cemetery story,” included in the red link above, does indeed refer to 15 bells being used, as can be seen here in the following paragraph from that link:

    A mistake by anyone in the chain could break the link with the world and end in journalistic disaster. It was up to the puncher to ring 15 bells to alert editors around that globe that UPI was sending news that would stun everyone. Stories preceded by “Bulletin,” got five bells and contained a single paragraph of what was certainly an important story. “Urgents,” with a two or three paragraph top of a good story, also got five bells. Like anything, the flash was sometimes overused.

  2. Mike Feinsilber says

    Here’s the Kennedy flash, reproduced in “Four Days,” published by UPI & American Heritage:

    UPI A8N DA
    FLASH
    KENNEDY SERIOUSLY WOUNDED
    PERHAPS SERIOUSLY
    PERHAPS FATALLY BY ASSASSINS BULLET
    JT1239PCS

    The imperfections capture the excitement and nervousness in the bureau at the moment.

  3. Here’s how a flash was supposed to work: Dateline, no more than three words, no UPI designation except in the sign off with the teletype operator’s initials and time (after computers, done automatically).

    Like this:

    Flash

    WASHINGTON — Carter wins presidency.

    UPI 258am 11/2

    In the frenzy of filing a flash, the three-word limit might be breached. That limit is a throwback to the days of multiple newspapers, afternoon newspapers, multiple editions and “extras”—the idea being that the three-word flash could be published as the banner headline in an extra edition. The flash HAD TO BE FOLLOWED IMMEDIATELY by a publishable bulletin. No other traffic could be transmitted between the flash and the bulletin, and other bureaus also knew they had to stay off the wire between the bulletin and the urgent that followed, even if it meant the wire fell silent while the urgent was being prepared.

    urgents and bulletins carried both the dateline and the UPI designation. Like this:

    BULLETIN

    By DEAN REYNOLDS
    UPI White House Reporter
    WASHINGTON (UPI) — A gunman fired multiple shots at the presidential limousine outside a downtown hotel Monday, wounding President Reagan, his press secretary and at least one Secret Service gent. The president was rushed to George Washington Hospital, his condition not immediately known.
    UPI 240p 3/23

  4. Vinny Del Giudice says

    Belated comment. As I recall, it was 3-4-5-10 bells on the UPI wire. 3 bells to alert editors to an important advisory (not all advisories carried bells), 4 bells for urgent, 5 bells for bulletin, 10 bells for flash. The codes over the UPI wire via computer were mb for advisory, u. for urgent, b. for bulletin. f. for flash. When on the old MAD desk, I may well have sent a test flash in the middle of a quiet overnight shift on XWA (an internal wire) to rattle the WA slot. I apologize to whoever it was.

  5. My recollection of the bells system at UPI was that three bells alerted bureaus to an internal urgent message that also carried the numeric 95 or -95- flag. These moved on message wires or on so-called backbone splits on secondary wires like the B-wire and, in some areas, a C-wire. Four bells was for an urgent story or add to a previous bulletin. Five bells accompanied bulletins and 10 bells was a flash. But I believe the broadcast wire (UPR) had a somewhat different array of bells owing to National Weather Service bulletins and urgents that were relayed to the wires. Someone else will have to confirm and clarify the UPR system and, if different, whether that carried over to the state/regional broadcast splits.

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