President Kennedy was assassinated in a media age so different from our own that Peggy Simpson, who worked in the Associated Press’s Dallas bureau, began the day he died by getting her hair done. That’s because “at my bureau chief’s insistence, I’d gotten a date with a state legislator so I could get in a closed-to-the-press dinner [Gov. John] Connally was putting on that night. That was the way he planned to cover it.’’
It was so different that Bob Schieffer, then the night cops reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, wound up giving Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother a ride to Dallas, where her son was being held. Schieffer was alone in the newsroom when he fielded her cold call looking for a lift.
They made the trip in style, too, in a Cadillac on loan from a local car dealer; each week, Schieffer says, his buddy who was the paper’s car reporter had a new loaner he would test-drive until it was time to trade it in for the next one. Then he’d kiss his car of the week goodbye and send it off with a glowing review in the Sunday paper. “The mores,” the longtime CBS newsman says dryly, “were a little different in those days.”
So different that after Oswald was himself shot two days later, Hugh Aynesworth of the Dallas Morning News slipped into the empty police office next to the one where suspect Jack Ruby’s sister was huddling with a local lawyer. Hiding under a desk at one point to keep from being seen, Aynesworth eased the phone off its hook and listened in as the lawyer consulted with big-shot attorney Percy Foreman. (In the end, of course, Ruby hired defense attorney Melvin Belli, whom Dallas district attorney Henry Wade delighted in calling “Mr. Belly.”)
Aynesworth never second-guessed his decision to listen in: “I had to,” he explained, “because I had to know what they were doing, and no one was going to tell me.” In fact, he said that in all these years, no one had ever suggested he’d breached any journalistic code in the process: “I was always worried” and always hungry to get the story “by the boot or by the heel,” he said, to compensate for the fact that “I don’t have one year of college. You did what you had to do.” The results were impressive; Aynesworth was everywhere he needed to be that weekend. He saw Oswald arrested and two days later, shot.
Reporters in the Kennedy era probably did live more dangerously; Merriman Smith, the UPI reporter who won the Pulitzer Prize for his assassination coverage, showed off some bruises the night JFK was shot — from the pummeling he’d gotten from AP’s Jack Bell while Smith was hogging the one radiophone in their press car in the presidential parade.
And they all became cowboys after shots were fired, brawling over pay phones and driving like maniacs. A melee almost broke out right in the Morning News city room, Aynesworth wrote in his book “November 22, 1963: Witness to History,” as national reporters repaid the local paper’s hospitality by pocketing files from its library: “Al Altwegg, business editor at the News, nearly started a fistfight with a White House correspondent from The New York Times who commandeered Al’s desk and wouldn’t give it up.” Okay, some things are eternal.
There were no PR guys or spokesfolk in between reporters and their subjects in those days, but also no Miranda warnings to protect suspects. There were no tiny little screens to keep people from actually living in what turned out to be a historic moment but also no iPhones to record the assassination from thousands of angles.
Before Vietnam and Watergate, both reporters and their readers had far more respect for authority. As a result, they were able to get closer to sources who had reason to trust them. In fact, they got closer to the news itself, in ways that both enriched and compromised coverage.
Schieffer says that whenever the Fort Worth cops had what they called a “good murder” — one that might make the papers, in other words — “they’d come and get me, and I’d ride out with them” to the scene. “I always wore a snap-brim hat” that suggested he might be a detective, too, “and we never told people who we were” unless they asked, which is how he was able to walk into the Dallas Police Department with Oswald’s mom and hole up with her in a private office.
As a police reporter, Schieffer says he often took confessions from criminals himself, “because I could type better” than the detectives. Then he’d sign those confessions, as a witness, and later would testify for the prosecution in court. “That’s how things were; they were very, very informal.”
Jim Ewell, a longtime Morning News police reporter who covered the assassination, said that in the Kennedy era, “We’d call [crime victims] and say we were calling from the police press room,” — technically true — “and if the person said, ‘We’ve already told the police everything,’ we’d say, ‘We’re just verifying what we’ve got here.’ A lot of that old trickery we used down there, as long as the front office wasn’t too aware of it.” Another veteran reporter for the paper had a thriving sideline selling knives to the cops he covered.
In 1963 as now, reporters made plenty of mistakes in the chaos of a major breaking-news story; even Smith’s prize-winning original story about the assassination got major details wrong, including the type of weapon found in the book depository, on which floor it had been found, and where both Kennedy and Connally had been hit.
Jim Lehrer, who covered the assassination for the Dallas Times Herald, suggests that he became the Jim Lehrer we know today in part as the result of a mistake he made that day: After an FBI source told him that a Secret Service agent had also been fatally shot, he called that information into the paper, where one of the rewrite guys, acting on a hunch, checked it out and quietly spiked the story. “Thank God,” Lehrer says. “Today that story would have gone everywhere” before it had been properly vetted, “and that’s scary.”
In some important ways, the news business has evolved: Women are no longer sent out on dates to cover news events, and even the most partisan of columnists can no longer be relied upon to look the other way to protect those officials with whom they happen to agree.
But as the media have become more educated and elite, journalists have lost something, too: “The quotes were better’’ before we lost so much access, Schieffer says, and even with all of today’s technological advances and 24/7 deadlines, he’s convinced that “we got the news out a lot faster” without all the layers of lawyers and image-makers in between them and the facts.
Without question, the Kennedy-era cowboys had more fun, even on the most somber day of their careers. When Schieffer was finally asked, “Son, are you a reporter?” on the day of the assassination, he pleaded guilty, “blamed it on the city editor and got my young a-- out of there. It was a wonderful time; I’ve never had a bigger adventure.”
Sid Davis, who covered the assassination for Westinghouse Radio and later worked for NBC, worries that reporters have become too cavalier about the reputations of those they cover.
Take, he says, the 2010 Rolling Stone article that cost Gen. Stanley McChrystal his career: McChrystal “bares his soul, and this guy goes and reports the story. Most of the guys I know would call the next day and say, ‘Was this on or off the record?’ Instead, this guy made himself a hero, McChrystal lost his job, and he was a good general.’ ”
Lehrer agrees the media should never lose sight of their power to build up or ruin public figures, but he also sees more information as better for democracy. “Everybody has their own rules,” and he’ll stipulate that he’d never use something he heard in a social situation. Even then, though, “there are exceptions; if somebody told me, ‘I was Oswald’s driver, and was in on a conspiracy but you can’t say that,’ I’d use that story and wouldn’t care” about anything but making sure it was true.
And when a clearly ruinous interview was on the record, do we really need to check for second thoughts? “The other rule is to know when to call back,” Lehrer says, laughing. “After the presses are already running.”