It Was War—and All Those AP Guys Were the Enemy

By Jack Limpert

imagesIt’s been 50 years since I worked for UPI and I often have lunch with two wire service veterans who also started with UPI but stayed there longer. Bill Mead worked in the Richmond, Chicago, Detroit, and Washington bureaus before going on to magazine and book writing, and Mike Feinsilber worked 25 years for UPI and 25 years for the AP, with stops in the Columbus, Harrisburg, Newark, New York, Saigon, and Washington bureaus.

I think we Downholders (what UPI alums sometimes call ourselves—it comes from the nagging messages we got from New York telling us “downhold expenses”) feel that going to work for UPI in the old days was kind of like joining the Marines. UPI was smaller than the AP and we felt we had to fight harder and smarter to compete with all those armored divisions the AP threw at us.

So last week when Richard Oppel, an AP alum, posted a picture on Facebook of the Michigan AP staff in 1974, my first reaction was that UPI’s Michigan staff (I had worked for UPI in Minneapolis, St. Louis, and Detroit) had been much smaller than the AP staff and we still had won a lot of the journalistic battles. I sent the Facebook picture to Mead and Feinsilber with the subject line “Talk about overstaffed. UPI could beat them with a third that number.” I copied Owen Ullman, a writer friend and AP alum who was in the Michigan AP picture—he now is world news editor at USA Today.

Owen’s response to my needling that UPI often had beat the AP: “Hah, dream on. We constantly beat UPI in Detroit on every big story: Hoffa disappearance, Big Three strikes, politics….UPI reporters use to lament that they couldn’t keep up with us!”

Bill Mead then chimed in: “As UPI’s Detroit bureau manager from 1965 to 1967, we beat the AP so regularly that their news manager, a friend, used to practically tear out his hair. We beat them on the Ford strike and the sinking of an ore boat in Lake Huron, and we humiliated them on the Michigan UFO scare that made front pages everywhere.”

Mike Feinsilber, who had worked for both wires, then tried to bring some perspective to the who-was-the-best conversation:

OK, Gang: I spent 25 years at UPI and 25 years at AP (followed by 10 years as a part-time writing coach at AP) and these are my conclusions:

1. AP paid better.

2. The two were far more alike—in the journalism they do, the people they employ, their espirit de corps and their product—than they were different. The similarities were uncanny; sometimes I forgot which one I was working for.

3. But UPI, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, had an underdog attitude. AP thought of itself as Superwire.

4. AP, at least in Washington, had more people to throw on a story—even a routine story—than UPI. The results often a better story.

5. UPI often stayed in the game by sharper editing and writing. The UPI desk looked at incoming copy as raw material; the AP desk generally looked at incoming copy as finished product to be sent on its way unless holes were glaring.

6. UPI depended more on its generalists because that’s what it had; AP had more beat reporters who had the advantages that come with knowing their sources.

7. UPI, by virtue of its afternoon paper heritage, paid far more attention to overnight do-overs; AP was willing to let a story stand until new news came along.

8. Back when AP had a bureau morgue with a full-time librarian, AP stories were richer in background and context.

9. AP, to my great surprise, was often more open to the off-beat approach than UPI, which tended to write a more conventional wire service story.

10. AP was wordier and more tolerant of stories longer than they had to be, but that may be the result of advanced technology by time I reached AP in 1980: the wire could absorb whatever was thrown at it.

11. At both, a meal consumed in mid-shift was “lunch,” no matter what time it was consumed. A calling spouse at 3 a.m. or 8 a.m. could easily be told, “Oh, he’s out to lunch.”

12. Both were under-appreciated by the outside world of journalism.

13. Both were great fun to work for. Almost always.
———
I sent Mike’s UPI-AP assessment to Paul Stevens, who writes and edits Connecting, an email newsletter for AP alums (he allows some Downholders to see it), and he posted Mike’s list of similarities and differences. That inspired these posts from readers of the Connecting blog:

Jay Perkins – Mike Feinsilber’s article on similarities and differences between AP and UPI brought back the memory of a legendary UPI reporter named Pye Chamberlayne.

I was newly minted in DC and my job for the day was to arrive at the District Court at 6 a.m. when the building opened, grab one of the three phones outside Judge Sirica’s courtroom and hang on for dear life.

One of the networks had the second phone and the third phone didn’t work. Oh, it would take your money and place your call but nobody could hear you.

Anyway, the Watergate burglars copped a plea, as expected, and all hell broke loose. The AP reporter, Harry Rosenthal, grabs my phone and starts dictating. Some guy sprinted down the hall, grabbed the bad phone, cursed when the call went through but no one could hear him, and raced on out of the courthouse.

So here comes Pye, leisurely walking down the now empty hall. He goes to the bad phone. I tell him it doesn’t work. He says “Yes, I know.” And with that, he unscrews the bottom of the phone, reaches in his pocket and pulls out the microphone, and inserts it. And then he turns to me and says, “You know, Jay. I work for UPI. We can’t afford to waste a reporter’s time holding a phone line open. We have to use our heads.”

Mike Sniffen – Reading Jay Perkins and Carl Leubsdorf on taking out pay phone microphones, I recalled discovering that for myself as a summer intern at AP’s Newark bureau covering the racial rioting of 1967. (I looked at a small line of pay phones outside the north side Armory before a news conference at which the governor was to announce he’d called out the national guard (which I’d already reported based on City Hall sources). There clearly weren’t going to be enough phones, so I went over to see if I could figure how to hold one while I was inside. To my amazement, I realized you could just unscrew the mouthpiece cover and the microphone would drop out. It wasn’t wired in. I dropped it in my pocket, went in and could safely stay to ask an important follow up question that gave us a little edge –without fear of not getting a phone.) And all this time I thought I had invented that trick!

Gene Herrick – When I first landed in Pusan, Korea, aboard an Air Force plane, in early August of 1950, at the start of the war, I was met by AP’s famous Max Desfor, and two other correspondents. They were Charlie Rozenkrantz, then United Press, and Ken Inouye, with a newsreel outfit.

Rosenkrantz was the only UP photographer, or newsman, I met in Korea.

On this occasion, we “liberated” a tire for a jeep they were using; spent the night at a Replacement Depot, and the next morning they took me to the Mason front, left me in the middle of a battle, waved goodbye, and headed back to the airport, and a flight to Tokyo for some much needed R&R. That was the last time I saw them, or any other United Press newsman or photographer.

During my tour as an Associated Press correspondent, August – December, 1950 – I spent two nights with a group of other correspondents, once in Pusan, and once in Taegu.

During my tour, I met AP correspondents Stan Swinton, Bem Price, Bill Jordan, and Tom Stone, all writers. I spent part of one evening with AP photographer Jim Pringle. Jordan and I were together about three days on a trip in North Korea trying to reach the South Korean troops on the East Coast. Stone and I were together for maybe two weeks, which included our going with the 17th regiment of the 7th Division to the Yalu River.

Stone and I covered the first U.S. troops to reach the Yalu River, right across from Manchuria/China. After that historic event, Tom and I, separately, left. I was able to catch an air-evac plane to Japan that night—the last one. I couldn’t trust the courier pouches with that very important film.

The next night, I met the only other wire-service newsman—Irvin Tress, with International News Service. He had sat back at the rear in Wonsan, and then when he knew we were to reach the Yalu, he scrounged his way up there. However, I already had my pictures and was heading back to Wonsan. I got back to Tokyo the next evening after giving my film to a fighter pilot at a field in Japan.

That evening, I was having a libation in the Tokyo Press Club when in walks Tress. He called me some disrespectful names. You son of a B****, you got the last flight out of Korea last night. “Why, Mr. Tress, did you just get in?” I asked. He replied yes. I beat him by over eight hours!

In my autobiography, I say that “Correspondents were completely on their own.” I virtually never saw another correspondent, nor did I hear from headquarters. I went every day to where the war was taking place.

Bob Haring – Item on staffing recalls saying from my early days: AP sends 10 men, UP sends five and INS sends Considine— and he beats the others. That was when Bob Considine was almost a one-man wire service. He was better reporter, better (and faster) writer than anybody else. I never worked directly against him but admired his work from afar.

And I recall dictating from a phone booth—or other improvised locations. During the Little Rock integration fuss, I dictated a lot from a beauty shop across from Central High School. And I’ve used phones in bars, gas stations and a variety of other spots. During a flood emergency in north Arkansas, all phones in communities were knocked out but I finally stopped at some roadside place which had an old crank phone (if anybody else remembers those). I couldn’t call the Little Rock bureau from there but an operator said she could connect me to New York, so I called the general desk and passed along my information.

That same flood I had some exclusive film of the damage, but no way to send it to Little Rock. However, Ozark Airlines served Harrison so I put the film on a plane to St. Louis—I had to buy a seat for it—where it eventually produced at least one wirephoto.

Comments

  1. Wes Pippert says

    Sunday’s Washington Post had a review of a book by John Feinstein on the friendship of three great college basketball coaches — Dean Smith, Mike Kry-etc, and Jim Valvano. It reminded me that John’s father, the late Martin Feinstein, was a major figure in the arts world as director of the Kennedy Center’s Washington Opera.

    Martin Feinstein once told me, with some pride and amusement, that he had worked for UP in Hawaii at the time of Pearl Harbor. I didn’t check this out for a long time, but when I did, his bio indeed showed that he had been a college correspondent for the Herald Tribune and then, during his time in the Army at the start of WWII, he worked on Stars and Stripes and “and moonlighted for United Press.” He told me about some of the details of UP’s coverage of December 7, 1941.

    John, of course, is one of the best sportswriters in the business. And the best thing in today’s Sunday papers was the last graf of the review of John’s book. He quoted Valvano, who died at 47, as saying there were three things a person ought it do every day:

    Laugh, Think, Cry

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