Merriman Smith, President Kennedy, and “The Greatest Lead Ever Written on a Breaking Story”

By Wesley G. Pippert


UPI’s Merriman Smith.

During its glory days, United Press International 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.” A UPI staffer said the lead should have identified him as simply “Merriman Smith, the White House reporter.”

Although he died 47 years ago, Smitty still dominated a gathering last year of Unipressers at the National Press Club to recall the glory days. Much of its focused on Smitty’s coverage of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas on November 22, 1963.

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.

Sid Davis of Westinghouse Broadcasting 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.

Someone in the audience asked 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 UPI’s 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.
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.

Speak Your Mind