Three Bangs: A Classic Story of Journalists at Work

One of the great stories of journalists at work came out of Dallas fifty years ago. Merriman Smith of UPI and Jack Bell of the AP were riding in the wire car (a black sedan provided by AT&T as a favor to the media) as President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade drove through Dealey Plaza. Smith and Bell heard a bang, followed by two more bangs, that some people thought was a car backfiring. Smith, a gun enthusiast, knew what it was.

The Smith-Bell story was written by Patrick J. Sloyan, a UPI reporter in the 1960s, and published in the American Journalism Review in May 1998. Here are two grafs from Sloyan’s story to give you a flavor but the entire piece is well worth reading.
The wire car began to pick up speed as Kennedy’s motorcade headed onto the freeway for the nearest hospital, Parkland. No one in the car knew where they were going, but Smith was still on the radio-telephone. “Bell is beginning to realize that Smith is driving an ax through his skull by getting anything off from the wire car,” Clark says. “Jack got pretty upset.” Bell demanded the phone as the motorcade hit 60 miles an hour. Smith bent over in the front seat with the phone. “I told Bell they couldn’t hear me clearly,” Smith said that night, beaming at his own duplicity. “They can’t hear me,” Smith told Bell, according to Clark. “I’m asking them to read it back.”

“Give me the goddamn phone,” Bell yelled. Bell leaned over the seat and took a swipe at the phone, according to Clark, who doesn’t recall a rougher exchange between the two wire service reporters. Smith recounted how Bell began pounding his head and back. Smith, doubling his body over the handset, kept the phone from Bell until the car pulled up at the hospital emergency entrance. When the sedan stopped, Smith said he flung the phone at Bell and jumped out. As Smith headed for the emergency entrance, he said he heard Bell on the radio-telephone, saying, “No one knows if there was any gunfire.” In the AP Dallas bureau, staffers remember only a cryptic call – “This is Jack Bell..” – before the line went dead.
Merriman Smith won the 1964 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for his UPI coverage of that day in Dallas. Patrick Sloyan, after his years with UPI, went on to report for Newsday and he won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting for his coverage of the Persian Gulf War.

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