I recently read Bulletins from Dallas, a book by Bill Sanderson about UPI White House reporter Merriman (“Smitty”) Smith, and how he broke one of the biggest stories of the twentieth century: shots being fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade in Dallas on November 22, 1963. (Many people think it was Walter Cronkite, as he broke the news on TV, but he was actually reading from one of Smith’s dispatches.) Bill was kind enough to speak on the phone with me recently and answer my questions about his impressive book, and here is what he had to say:
The NewsWhistle Q&A with Author Bill Sanderson
Date: August 15, 2017
Occupation: Reporter and editor
Hometown: Jaffrey, NH
Current town: Manhattan, New York
Good to talk to you today! Thank you for taking the time to discuss your book, which I really do appreciate. For people unfamiliar with your book, how would you describe it to them briefly and why should people read it?
I’m not sure if it’s a history or a biography. It’s about the reporter who broke the news of JFK’s assassination. There’s a lot going on with the White House and the news media today…reading the book will give people a perspective on what’s happening now. The world in which Merriman Smith lived, and the White House then, is so much different than the current world and the current White House. The media has changed a lot, and knowing about this can give you a valuable perspective. And it’s a ripping good story: his life, how he pulled off this scoop, and won a Pulitzer Prize in the process.
What initially drew you to this story, the JFK assassination and the work done by Merriman Smith reporting the story?
I’ve been interested in it for a long time. A magazine article back in the late 90s told me the basics of the story: how he got into a fistfight in the press pool car with a reporter for the Associated Press, and how he got the story onto the UPI wire five minutes ahead of the Associated Press. The story of that scoop is journalism lore. In 2013, around the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination, I got a phone call from an editor at the New York Observer, asking if I could I write a fiftieth anniversary story about the assassination. It got me thinking about Smith and his scoop and how he pulled it off, and led me to be interested in him, his personal life, his family life, and some of the history of the scoop itself, which I don’t think anyone knew much about. I found his personal papers in an archive in Wisconsin, so I went and found out about his moods, his attitudes, and his interactions with presidents FDR through Nixon. Which is a pretty interesting stretch of American history. He had a lot of interesting observations and interactions.
How has the critical response been to your book? Do people seem to be appreciating your ideas?
I think it’s done well critically; we’ve had some laudatory mainstream newspaper reviews. It was in the Dallas Morning News, and it did well in Dallas, and in other papers around the country. I’d say it is a critical success.
That’s great. I enjoyed reading it, there was a lot in there that I didn’t know about. One of the things I liked most in your book was learning about the technology and how it’s changed over time, and how that has changed reporting. We’ve gained some things and we’ve lost some things…can you speak to that issue a little bit?
The technology of newsgathering…I’m old enough to remember having to run for a payphone, and how important communication was. Now you pull the phone out of your pocket and it’s simple. But back then, you’d have to make arrangements out in the field to use phones, sometimes it would be coming into someone’s house to make the call. A breaking story…in my book I wrote about the wire car and the fistfight to use that phone. There would be no need for it today. They’d just tweet or email their editor right from the scene. The technology is instantaneous. It’s very easy to do. The problem with that is that anyone can be a publisher now–anyone can put things out there, and anyone does. The real “fake news” is people tweeting things that they don’t know about, or that are just plain wrong and unchecked.
Maybe it’s just nostalgia for someone who tried to make a career in the newspaper business, but the new technology and the economics behind it have really killed journalism. Not the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. They’re doing well right now. But if you look elsewhere in the country, Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, Kansas City, where we have big cities, but not coastal cities, the journalism is hurting, it’s really getting killed by the internet.
The day of the Kennedy assassination, there were reporters there from St. Louis, from the LA Times, Detroit, the Philadelphia Bulletin, the Baltimore Sun: all these papers in these second-tier cities, cities outside New York and Washington, sent reporters on a presidential trip, and that was common. It doesn’t happen anymore. National journalism is pretty much gone in the middle of the country. And even worse is the economics of the business; it’s been devastating to local journalism, things like coverage of city halls, police stations, school boards.
All of those middle-tier papers in middle-tier cities–they used to be able to afford to be big players, they had decent Washington bureaus, reporters overseas, Presidential trips. They can’t afford that anymore, and it doesn’t happen. I think that’s the sad thing. It doesn’t have too much to do with Smitty and his scoop, but the way he got his scoop, and the story about what kind of journalism took place in Dallas that day is an interesting reflection of 2017. It would be covered differently now for lots of different reasons.
That was one of my favorite parts of your book, the epilogue, in which you wrote about how technology and journalism have changed over the decades. (I actually think that essay would actually largely work well as a very interesting stand-alone op/ed piece.) So, in doing your research on this book, what did you learn that most surprised you?
I spent some time in Texas. I did some digging into Smitty’s relationship with Lyndon Johnson. Everyone knows about Woodward and Bernstein, and their investigative stories, and standing up to the establishment, but Smitty (I call him Smitty now!), he was an establishment figure, and perhaps that’s why he’s a bit forgotten. But I think he’s still an interesting journalist, and worth knowing about. That story he wrote, his narrative of what happened in Dallas, is remarkable. Anyone who wants to know about the assassination ought to read it. He was there. I was proud to be able to resurrect his memory. A lot of well-known journalists were in Dallas that day — Dan Rather, Bob Schieffer, Robert MacNeil, some others, but Smitty was the man that day. He died in 1970, so he wasn’t around to brag about his achievements. He was proud of his Pulitzer Prize, but he told someone he’d wished he’d won it for something else. So I am glad to bring him back in the picture, as someone whose journalism needs to be remembered.
How long did you spend doing the research and working on this book?
I really started with the Observer story and in the course of that, I got in touch with some journalists who were there. From start to finish, it was about three years, but not three years of full time work.
Why is it, do you think, that the JFK assassination is still so much in the public consciousness? There are still books, like yours, being written about it. And just the other day there was a story on NPR about documents relating to the assassination that are still not being released. It still comes up in the news pretty frequently.
I don’t think we have really sorted out what it means to us culturally, yet. I think people are fascinated by the conspiracy theories, they don’t trust government, and don’t believe what they see and read about things. A culture of “did this really happen?” has grown up around the assassination still fascinates people.
Conspiracy theories started right away. The term “grassy knoll” came up in Smitty’s copy. He’s the first person who used it. It became this thing, this place known as someplace where something happened. Conspiracy theories grew up around it. It’s interesting to me how the source of the conspiracy theories has changed over the years. In the 1960s the theories came from the left…people didn’t trust the government’s account, didn’t believe the Warren Commission. Nowadays, they come from the right, Roger Stone’s LBJ theory, and some others. Conspiracy theories themselves reflect our politics; they say something about our politics. I have a hard time with the conspiracy theories. I read about them. None of them ever close the loop. There’s no “Aha” moment. There are interesting things with the National Archives and papers still stored away. Mostly they relate to what did the FBI and the CIA know about what happened, and I think they’re interesting. I’m not enough of an expert to speak about this much, though. There are papers on being kept back still about Lee Harvey Oswald and his possible links with foreign governments, his trip to Mexico some weeks before the assassination. He’d lived in the Soviet Union, he came back with disillusions. He never found his place in life. He went to Mexico, planned to go to Cuba, and then to go back to Eastern Europe. I don’t think any of this will change the basic idea that he was a troubled loner who did this on his own. But we should push to have the records released and learn more about it.
I can’t think of any good reason to keep things hidden now.
No. There are still things out there that haven’t come out. I don’t think they will change our understanding, but there’s interesting stuff still hidden away.
Do you have another book in mind? What’s next?
I’m working on something else; I’m just getting started with it. It’s about a New York political scandal: Sheldon Silver. It’s all still unfolding in court with his appeals. That story has been undertold, and it’s pretty interesting.
I’ve worked in New York City and New York State government and as I recall, it was widely believed that he was extremely corrupt for many years and there was a bit of a sense of surprise when the law finally caught up to him.
I don’t think it was a shock at all, the corruption accusations. I don’t know how much to say about it, because I’m still researching and learning about it. The corruption in the New York State legislature has been doing on for decades, and nothing seems to thwart it, it’s very interesting stuff…
What are the best books you know of about reporters and reporting?
That’s an interesting question. I don’t know what I’d read nowadays. I’m still stuck on a book I read years and years ago, it’s obscure. It’s called Reporting: An Inside View and it’s by a reporter named Lou Cannon. He followed Reagan and did a lot of reporting about the Reagan administration. I read it 30 years ago. I also read All the President’s Men, like everybody else my age.
What reporters from the past (or the present) do you most admire?
That’s interesting, too…I almost would rather talk about papers I admire, though. The Philadelphia Inquirer in the 1980s. I wish I’d had a chance to work there. Another interesting paper is the St. Petersburg Times, now called the Tampa Bay Times. It is a really outstanding newspaper. Anyone who worked there learned a lot about reporting. The Philadelphia Inquirer had reporters all over the world, good reporters, too. They did really long form stories, things that could take up full broadsheet pages. The Inquirer and the Tampa Bay papers are still good papers, but they’re not what they were a couple of decades ago. When I was growing up, I was a reader of the Boston Globe (which is still a good paper today). The newspaper economy could support papers like that once. The Boston Globe at its peak had half a dozen foreign correspondents. Those things don’t happen any longer. The internet has changed the economy and papers just can’t afford this.
If you could wave your magic wand, what would you change about the press today?
I’d give it more money. I’d give it more money. That’s really what I’d do. There is good stuff being done, at the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal. Those papers are doing interesting stuff these days. In Smith’s time, there were more papers doing interesting stuff. I read an obituary recently for a reporter for the St. Louis Post Dispatch. He was a Washington Bureau Chief and traveled all over the world. He went to Vietnam, he interviewed Pol Pot, the Cambodian dictator. They don’t have anybody like that today. They couldn’t possibly afford to have a globetrotting Washington correspondent. That’s nostalgia on my part. We miss that kind of thing. It was fun to read. And it was a different point of view about the world than the view you get from New York and Washington. I wish the papers had more money to do interesting stories and cover interesting subjects…
Besides yours, do you have a book you recommend, one that everyone should read? (Not necessarily about reporters or reporting!)
I really don’t. I have some authors I’m liking right now. I’ll say one thing, for my book about New York politics, I dug up this thing about political corruption, it’s like 90 pages. It’s called Plunkitt of Tammany Hall by William Riordon. You can find it on Amazon. There’s a new edition recently, but it was published at the turn of the twentieth century. Plunkitt was corrupt, he was a crook, and he talks about it. The book is a transcription of his speaking about what he did and how he made money. He’s quite open about it, and it’s fascinating. I think it still applies to New York these days. The things he did openly, you can’t do anymore, but his attitude about building political support and corruption, and what he called “honest graft” are interesting things nowadays.
Do you have a movie you’d like to recommend?
You’re a reader, not a watcher.
Yes. There are a lot of authors I like, such as Sarah Vowell. She wrote Assassination Vacation. Her new one I haven’t read yet, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States. I like her take on things a lot.
What is the best advice that you have been given?
I think as a reporter I’m stuck on something I heard in a lecture by Lyle Denniston. He just retired, he was a reporter who spent decades covering the U.S. Supreme Court, from the late 1950s until just a few months ago. He said that if you’re a reporter you can find out pretty much anything you want to if you put your mind to it.
I’d add that you might not find it out today. But you’ll get to it, eventually.
Last but not least, is there anything you would like to pitch, promote, or discuss?
No, I really can’t think of anything.. I hope the book speaks for itself, I think that’s what I’d promote, if anything. I’m proud of it, and I think it resonates with readers. News people particularly, but people find it an interesting yarn and a good story. I wanted to write a story about a man, a guy, not about the assassination and I think, I hope, the book succeeded at that.
I think it did. Smith definitely came across as three–dimensional in your writing. And you’re right, it’s a good story. Best of luck with the next one…I will look forward to learning more about Sheldon Silver down the line.
ABOUT LAURA LaVELLE
Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.
Laura can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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