When Journalists Phoned in Big Stories

  • Dictation is an art, and working with those who mastered it was always a learning experience and a pleasure. The late Paul LeBar, a longtime AP St. Louis sportswriter, was great at dictation—despite his overuse of the word “notwithstanding” to transition in his stories. I learned how to do it, but never as smoothly as the generation before me.

    Back in 1986, a killer from Indiana named Michael Wayne Jackson shot his parole officer and stole a car that got ditched outside St. Louis. He was on the run for almost a week until we got word that police had cornered him in a barn. I got called at home to rush out to rural Washington, Missouri, and found myself in a gaggle of reporters in front of a makeshift FBI lectern for the announcement of what happened.

    There was one phone booth, about a block away, and I debated whether to secure it or stay with the group to get the news first and be able to ask questions. I chose to stay (and ended up asking a question), but when I broke away to file, I found that UPI had two reporters there—one holding the phone booth while the other covered the announcement.

    For a long moment, I contemplated grabbing the jerk in the phone booth and throwing him out, but I decided that a potential struggle would only keep me from filing. So I ran another two blocks to the local bar, a country and western place, where the jeans-clad hostess looked at me funny when I told her why I needed to use the phone right away.

     From George Krimsky:

    Until I read Mike Feinsilber’s excellent piece on the good old days of dictation, I never made the link in my head between “dictator” and “dictation.” Another reason why the English language can be so confounding!

    I am from the wire-service dictation generation (meaning I’m old, born during WWII) and remember (fondly) taking stories over the phone from the likes of Linda Deutsch and Bob Thomas after I joined AP in LA. My gawd, they were good, especially the way they could “top” a set piece and give you the pick-up line.

    Let me now jump ahead 15 years or so when I was running a journalism training center near Washington, D.C. (I left the AP in 1985). One day, I had been attending an otherwise routine meeting about training “impacts” at some foundation when the speaker dropped a bombshell that could mean a lot of funding for what we were doing. I wanted my partners to know about it right away. (In that world, anything to do with free money was important.)

    So, I phoned my center in Reston, Virginia, and got a new intern on the other end who was highly educated but had never been in journalism. I hired him because he was very conversant in non-profit work.

    “I have some dictation for you,” I said.

    “I beg your pardon?” he replied.

    “I want to send an urgent message to Tom in Boston (in other words to my chairman, Tom Winship, the retired editor of The Boston Globe).

    “I’m sorry but I don’t take dictation,” he said somewhat haughtily.

    I suddenly realized two things: (1) This fellow had degrees from Harvard AND Yale but no practical skills, such as typing. (2) “Dictation” was something secretaries did but not “professionals.” This guy was especially clueless. I didn’t blame him.

    The problem was that I had very little time to enlighten him.

    “Look, pal, I’m not talking about the Hollywood version of some black-and-white big shot with a cigar ordering his leggy blond secretary to take down his precious words in a notebook. I’m talking about the best pros in the news business who help each other out over the phone when they’re on deadline.”

    That got his attention. Dutifully—and slowly—he took down the words I wanted to convey.

    So, I made a new convert to an old art form. Unfortunately, it disappeared forever soon after.

    From Bill Mead:

    These days court rulings are immediately posted on the internet. But during the Virginia school desegregation clashes of the late 1950s, judges on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Richmond, Virginia,would write their opinions and mail them to colleagues, who would in turn mail theirs, until a ruling was agreed upon.

    The judges lived in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and the Carolinas, so often a ruling would bounce around for weeks before it was settled. It then would be mailed to the Court’s office in Richmond. So a reporter’s regular morning circuit sometimes included a stop at the court’s office to see if anything important had arrived.

    On May 1, 1959, I stopped at the court. “Anything interesting?” I asked the two friendly women who took care of the office. Often rulings were of little or no news interest, but the women knew what reporters were interested in. “Well,” she said. “Here’s Prince Edward County.”

    Prince Edward County was one of the defendants in the original Brown case on which the Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation in the public schools. Prince Edward, in line with Virginia’s “Massive Resistance” to school integration, had resisted, even after the “Massive Resistance” laws had been killed by both the U..S and Virginia supreme courts.

    Prince Edward argued that this rural Southside county needed several years to gradually prepare for integration; meantime the county’s public schools would remain closed. The NAACP argued otherwise, and the controversy had reached a three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit Court. (The panel included Clement Haynesworth, later nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Nixon. His nomination was rejected by the U.S. Senate, partly on grounds that he was hostile to school integration. Well, not this day.)

    I was the first reporter to see the ruling. Blind luck. Big national news. I called Steve at the UPI bureau. The hourly 7551–broadcast wire–split had just a minute remaining. Steve (H.L. Stevenson, the UPI bureau manager) was at the keyboard.


    Then Steve moved to the 7562 news wire, right next to the broadcast wire, and I kept dictating.



    I dictated bulletins on school desegregation rulings from federal courts in Norfolk, Harrisonburg, and Richmond. If you worked under H.L. Stevenson, you learned to dictate clear copy.

    From Jack Limpert:

    Here’s what happened on November 22, 1963, when Merriman Smith of UPI and Jack Bell of the AP were covering President John F. Kennedy visit to Dallas. The Clark in the story is Bob Clark of ABC News, who was riding in the press car with Smith and Bell. It’s excerpted from Patrick Sloyan’s 1998 story in AJR on how the press covered what happened that day.
    But when the wire car pulled into Dealey Plaza, Smith was the first to recognize the sounds. “We heard the first shot and somebody said, ‘My god, that must be a police backfire,’ ” Clark recalls. Then two more bangs came. It was Smith who concluded they were gunshots. “I was certain it was gunfire,” Smith said that night. He had a collection of rifles and a .357 magnum revolver. To show a newsman could shoot, too, he would sometimes visit the pistol range used by Secret Service agents.

    “Smitty was a gun fancier,” Clark says. “We knew he was an expert. He said, ‘Those were shots!’ ” Time lapsed into slow motion. Clark instantly understood the dilemma facing Smith and Bell. “It was a very difficult moment: All we knew was that those were shots. But what the hell do you file?” They were too far back. Clark estimated the presidential limousine was 80 yards away.

    Two minutes went by before Smith picked up the radio-telephone. The motorcade picked up speed then raced away. Smith told the operator to connect him with the Dallas bureau of UPI. “He was dictating to his office in Dallas,” says Clark. “He was having trouble. Those radio-telephones were often staticky. Smitty was repeating. He was trying to get one sentence off. I can still remember what he said.” Around the world, editors heard five bells and a bulletin on the UPI machine: ” UPI A7N DA PRECEDE KENNEDY DALLAS, NOV. 22 (UPI) – Three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade in downtown Dallas. JT1234PCS.” Chicago’s UPI bureau had been filing a murder trial report when Dallas grabbed the A-wire and sent Smith’s bulletin. Chicago tried to resume sending, but UPI New York interceded with a terse order in wire-ese: “BUOS -UPHOLD-DA IT YRS.” Translation: All bureaus stay off the A-wire. Dallas, it is yours. In every newsroom, editors looked at the AP A-wire teletype that always sat next to the UPI machine. There was no hint of what was unfolding in Dallas.

    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



  1. Wes Pippert says

    During the Watergate conspiracy trial, complicated of course, I was covering and one afternoon I took with me a good friend who was visiting. Don Jones, ex-football player who then was a faculty member at the Methodists’ Drew University (and not relevant to my story but was famed in his own right for being Hillary’s youth pastor in Park Ridge, Illinois, who took her to hear MLK).

    At a break in the trial, I dashed to the lobby and grabbed a pay phone to dictate a new lead to the desk. I gave the usual — the new lead with the new material, a few quotes, a graf on the background of the trial. Probably 300 words. I hung up. Don Jones stood there agape —“It would have taken me a week to compose what you dictated practically from the seat of your pants,” Jones, who had written academic books himself, said. It was one of the best professional compliments I’ve ever received.

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