Merriman Smith and “the greatest lead ever written on a breaking story”

By Wesley G. Pippert

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Merriman Smith: UPI’s brightest star.

During its glory days, UPI was fueled by a host of talented but underpaid correspondents, bonded by a sense of esprit de corps. The wire service’s brightest star was Merriman Smith. When Smitty, as he was  known, died, the UPI story identified him as “Merriman Smith, the dean of White House correspondents.” The next day, a UPI staffer said the lead should have identified him as simply “Merriman Smith, the White House reporter.” In other words, “THE White House reporter.”

Although he died 46 years ago, Smitty still dominated a gathering last week of Unipressers at the National Press Club to recall the long-gone glory days. Much of its focused on Smitty’s coverage of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas on November 22, 1963, including an eye-witness account from Sid Davis, then a Westinghouse broadcaster, later NBC Washington bureau chief.

Bill Sanderson read from his new book about the assassination, Bulletins from Dallas, an account of what happened when Smitty, in the front seat in the presidential motorcade’s press pool car, recognized the sound of three loud pops as coming from a gun. Smitty knew guns and he grabbed the car’s mobile phone to call the Dallas bureau to say shots had been fired at the presidential motorcade. Five minutes later, based on Smitty’s reporting, UPI sent a flash that Kennedy was wounded “perhaps seriously perhaps fatally.” He later won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of that day. No one in the pool car is still alive.

Davis said that the press bus was in front of the warehouse from where Lee Harvey Oswald fired the shots and that Robert Pierpoint of CBS shouted, “That’s gunfire.” Later, at the Parkland Hospital, Davis said he overheard priests saying, “He’s dead alright,” but his superiors decided to wait for the official announcement before broadcasting news of the Kennedy’s death.

On a panel was Al Spivak, Smitty’s colleague at the White House, who along with Helen Thomas gave UPI perhaps the most formidable team ever to cover the President. Gwen Gibson, another panelist, recalled that when she was in the UPI Denver bureau she was assigned as a sort of aide-de-camp to Smitty who was covering a visiting Dwight D. Eisenhower. Smitty later arranged for her to be transferred to the Washington bureau.

A self-described “millennial” in the audience asked the panelists what Smith would have to say to today’s journalists. Several responded that Smith loved gadgets and electronics and would have been right at home with today’s technology. Tom Johnson, who worked for several years in the White House before becoming publisher of the Los Angeles Times and head of CNN, summed it up when he said Smitty “would admire reporters of today who had the same values” that he had: Getting it right, fact-checking, treating people with respect.

One of Smith ‘s colleagues in the audience recalled that Smitty was a fine writer and recited what he called “the greatest lead ever written on a breaking story.” In the late 1930s, Smitty was in his 20s in the Atlanta bureau when he wrote:

TUTNALL, Ga. (UP) — Six Negro men in the death house atop Georgia’s Tutnall State Prison started singing early this morning but by lunchtime their song was ended. “Oh, you sinners, better get ready, God is comin,” they chorused loudly, hour after hour, until the electric chair had claimed every one of them in the largest mass execution in state history.
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After his UPI career ended, Wes Pippert spent a year at Harvard and then joined the University of Missouri journalism faculty as director of its Washington program.
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Here is Merriman Smith’s eyewitness account of what happened in Dallas on November 22, 1963.

And here is  how journalists covered the assassination of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963. The story was written by Patrick J. Sloyan for the American Journalism Review.

 

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