Flashes! Bulletins! When Bells in the Newsroom Really Meant Something

By Mike Feinsilber

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President Johnson about to deliver news that deserved a flash.

Cable television swoons “breaking news” onto the screen whenever anything happens—a candidate sneezes. Or a candidate stops sneezing. The news alert lingers on the screen until another news burp comes along. On cable, life is one excitement after another. That’s not the way it was in the grand old days of the Associated Press and United Press International.

In those times, important news—Congress declares war or Hoover Dam springs a leak that threatens to wash away Arizona—was brought to the attention of newspapers and broadcasters by a BULLETIN, a one-paragraph version of the story that could be slapped on the front page of a newspaper just before the presses were to roll. Or used to interrupt radio or television programming.

On a typical news day, the wires might cough out one or two bulletins, or none. To alert editors sitting close to the teletype machine, five bells rang—ding, ding, ding, ding, ding—when a bulletin moved.

News that was noteworthy, but not all that big, was called an URGENT and rang no bells. An urgent was transmitted in takes—two or three paragraph chunks. Often the writer was writing the second take while the first was moving on the wire. At the other end of the wire, editors were editing the first take while awaiting the second and third and more.

The discovery of a fixable crack on the surface of Hoover Dam would warrant an urgent. Or a revolution in a country you rarely heard of. Or a skyjacking.

An ordinary news day could generate five or 10 or two dozen urgents.

Then there were flashes. Or rather rarely were there flashes. The AP style book says a FLASH represents “a transcendent development—one likely to be a top story of the year.” The death of a pope would warrant a flash but the spotting of white smoke from the Vatican chimney, signifying the election of his successor, would only call for a bulletin. When the wires declare the election of a president, a flash is in order. Years could pass without the generation of a single flash.

Flashes were written short, like a headline, more an advisory to editors that big news—stop-the-presses news was on hand. A flash was followed immediately by a publishable bulletin.

During my half-century wire service career—half with UPI, half with the AP—I wrote only one flash. It was based on a hunch.

In the spring of 1968, I sensed that Lyndon Johnson was going to foreswear another run for the White House. I can’t remember everything that went into that notion. One factor was Johnson’s selection of Democratic party eminence Clark Clifford on January 19 to succeed the troubled Robert S. McNamara as secretary of defense. Clifford, a prominent lawyer, had served Democratic presidents since Harry Truman; the appointment had a feel of expediency to me. I told my boss, UPI Washington bureau chief Grant Dillman, of my intuitive feeling. “Hmm. Interesting,” said Grant.

My hunch was strengthened by the outcome of the New Hampshire primary on March 12. The only Democratic candidate was Eugene McCarthy, the anti-war senator from Minnesota. But LBJ’s minions encouraged a write-in for Johnson. Johnson beat McCarthy, 49 to 42 percent, but the President’s victory seemed humiliatingly small. Seeing Johnson’s vulnerability, Bobby Kennedy, brother of the assassinated JFK, jumped into the race. Johnson knew he’d have to fight for it if he wanted to hang on to his presidency.

On a Sunday evening 30 days after Clifford took office, Johnson addressed the nation from the Oval Office to announce a peace gesture toward North Vietnam—a halt of bombing raids over most of North Vietnam. Big news.

I was on the UPI desk on that March 31, 1968, editing the speech story. The White House press office whispered to reporters that Johnson would have something to add that wasn’t in his prepared text. UPI’s White House crew passed the word on to the DC bureau.

And on half a sheet of paper, I typed out a flash and put it in a desk drawer:

FLASH
WASHINGTON—JOHNSON WON’T SEEK RE-ELECTION.
(Or words to that effect; I can’t be sure…)

At the end of his speech, President Johnson looked into the camera and soberly said:

“With America’s sons in the fields far away, with America’s future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world’s hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office–the Presidency of your country.

And then this famous line:

“Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.”

I pulled the flash from the drawer and handed it to the teletype operator: “Break the wire. Send this.”

(“Break the wire” means using a break key to stop whatever story was moving and transmit this. Now.)
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Clarification: Ron Cohen worked for UPI for 25 years as Washington bureau chief and then managing editor. He points out that an URGENT on the wire got three bells, a BULLETIN five bells, and a FLASH ten bells.

 

Comments

  1. Bill Michael says

    I remember this from when I worked in radio as a newsreader. The old mechanical teletype machine would fire up and crunch away at whatever story would come across. I was working the overnight shift when this came across the wire. I was in the hallway walking past the machines for news and weather when a BULLETIN came over, “JOHN LENNON SHOT DEAD” it repeated four times. then it was silent for a moment then started back again and ran almost non-stop throughout the wee hours of the morning.

  2. Dick Ginkowski says

    Four bells for urgent. Flash got ten. I think four also for bulletins.

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