Merriman Smith’s Reporting Made Him a Legend But Some Journalists Now Question His Attitudes Toward Women and Blacks

From a Washington Post story by media writer Paul Farhi headlined “His reporting on the Kennedy assassination made him a legend. Then a press group looked into his past.”:

Merriman Smith was a distinguished White House correspondent for decades, but he cemented his place in journalism history on a bright afternoon in 1963.

Traveling in the press-pool car as President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade wound through Dallas that day, Smith heard the crackle of gunfire. He reacted instinctively, grabbing the car’s “radiotelephone” before other reporters to file a brief but world-shaking scoop to his editors: “Three shots fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade today in downtown Dallas.”…”

Smith’s final dispatch from the day of Kennedy’s assassination was a masterpiece of deadline writing, earning him a Pulitzer Prize in 1964. He went on to win a Presidential Medal of Freedom several years later. And for the past 50 years, the White House Correspondents’ Association has honored print and broadcast reporters with an award that bears his name. Until now.

The WHCA’s board voted unanimously to strip Smith’s name from its signature prize in January after research revealed a more troubling side to the reporter once known to colleagues and presidents as “Smitty.”

After a review of its archives and other research, the organization’s board concluded that Smith — who was twice president of the WHCA — upheld restrictions on Black and female journalists, excluding them from membership in the National Press Club, and from attending the correspondents’ annual dinner.

The group has now renamed its Merriman Smith Award as the WHCA Award for Excellence in Presidential News Coverage Under Deadline Pressure.

The decision is a small but symbolic reassessment of a legendary journalist and is in keeping with recent reappraisals of other notable historical figures.

Smith reported on every president from 1941 to early 1970 — from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Richard M. Nixon — for the United Press wire service and its successor, United Press International. As the senior White House reporter in the 1960s, Smith usually ended presidential news conferences by saying, “Thank you. Mr. President.”

He wrote five books on the presidency (including one titled “Thank You, Mr. President”), and was a noted raconteur, appearing frequently as a guest not only on news programs but on entertainment shows such as “The Merv Griffin Show.”

Responding to an inquiry, the WHCA’s president, Steven Portnoy, acknowledged that the board had removed Smith’s name.

“After 50 years of recognizing Merriman Smith’s contribution to journalism, the board felt the time was right to retire his name on our deadline reporting award,” Portnoy, a White House reporter for CBS News Radio, said. “Smith’s record of distinguished reporting under deadline pressure continues to serve as a template for us all. But some elements of his legacy do not reflect the current values of the association nor its dedication to a diverse and inclusive press corps.”

Portnoy said questions about Smith’s past first arose inside the WHCA in 2019, but no action was taken at that time. In the fall, a board member Portnoy declined to identify raised the issue again, prompting the association to research Smith’s history. “It’s fair to say institutions across our society have taken this moment to do some self-reflection,” he said.

The organization’s board voted 9-0 to remove Smith’s name. It based its decision on Smith’s involvement in several episodes over the course of his long career, said Portnoy.

During his leadership of the WHCA, Smith actively opposed admitting female reporters to the organization’s annual White House correspondents’ dinner, according to former Senate historian Donald Ritchie, who recounted Smith’s role in a 2008 speech to the National Press Club. Smith argued that the all-male affairs “were too dirty … and that the men liked it bawdy and they weren’t about to change it,” Ritchie said at the time.

Women were finally admitted in 1962 over Smith’s objection, according to the historian. The late, legendary White House reporter Helen Thomas, among others, had advocated that President Kennedy boycott the dinner if it remained all male, and Kennedy agreed, leading to the change.

Smith also opposed admitting women as members of the National Press Club, despite Kennedy’s advocacy, Ritchie said….

Smith also pushed backed in 1955, when the press club on the verge of admitting its first Black journalist, Louis Lautier, according to “The Eisenhower Years,” a book by Michael S. Mayer. Smith reportedly advised James Hagerty — President Eisenhower’s press secretary and a club member — to “stay out” of the issue. Lautier, a reporter for the Baltimore Afro-American, was ultimately admitted with support from Hagerty and Eisenhower.

The removal of Smith’s name from the WHCA award drew expressions of disappointment from his two surviving children (a third, U.S. Army Captain Albert Merriman Smith Jr., died in combat in Vietnam in 1966)….

“It makes me sad,” said Gillean Smith, his daughter. She said she was skeptical of the WHCA’s research. “Hopefully, I’ve learned in all my years as a human being not to jump to conclusions just because someone says something is true. Have I read or seen this evidence? No. So I’ll take it with a grain of salt and wait. I have not seen proof that all these things took place.”

Tim Smith, who helped create the award after his father’s death, also said he was saddened by the organization’s decision. But he added: “I don’t want to second-guess the [WHCA’s] current leadership.”

“I understand the rationale and I think [Merriman Smith] might as well,” he said. “I don’t begrudge the current leadership’s right to make a statement.”

Smith said his father grew up in Georgia and reported on the segregated south of the 1930s, covering lynchings and Ku Klux Klan rallies among other stories. “I never detected any racism on his part growing up,” said the younger Smith, who was born in 1948 and served in President Jimmy Carter’s administration as a Justice Department lawyer. Although his father tended to keep his political views to himself, he said, “I don’t think he had much use for ultraconservatives or bigots.”

Smith recalled that his father used his show-business connections to help arrange entertainment for the 1970 correspondents’ dinner. Among those he signed up was singer Dionne Warwick.

The event was held a few days after Smith died by suicide in his home in Alexandria, Va.

Warwick sang “Bridge Over Troubled Water” at the dinner, dedicating it to his memory.

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post’s media reporter. He started at The Post in 1988 and has been a financial reporter, a political reporter and a Style reporter

Speak Your Mind