Reporters from the nation's top two news organizations got into a raucous fistfight as they battled for control of a phone to report on the shooting of President John F. Kennedy, an explosive new book on the 1963 assassination reveals.
And the brawl occurred just 50 feet from the limousine where first lady Jackie Kennedy cradled the body of her husband whose head had exploded seconds earlier, according to Bill Sanderson, author of "Bulletins from Dallas: Reporting the JFK Assassination," published by Skyhorse.
"It's a pretty wild story, the way it got reported," Sanderson, a veteran journalist and newspaper editor, said in an interview on Newsmax TV's "The Steve Malzberg Show."
"Merriman Smith was a reporter for United Press International, which at the time competed story for story with the Associated Press. They're the two biggest American wire services of the day. So they're driving through Dealey Plaza in the fourth car behind President Kennedy's limousine.
"They hear the gunshots go off. Smith knew right away. He was a gun guy. He liked shooting, he liked hunting. He recognized the sound right away. He picked up the radio telephone that was sitting right in front of him in the car."
Incredibly, it was the only mobile phone for some 58 Washington reporters at the scene — in an era where wireless phones did not exist, except for world dignitaries.
"Smith put a call through to the Dallas UPI Bureau and yelled, 'three shots fired at President Kennedy's motorcade today in downtown Dallas.' It went to the editor, the editor handed it to a teletype operator . . . and it went out on UPI's A-wire at 12:34 p.m., four minutes after the shooting," Sanderson said.
"Smitty stays on the phone with his editor and in the backseat of the car behind him was a reporter for the Associated Press, a guy named Jack Bell. He's apoplectic. He wants to call the story into the Associated Press. That's his job. So he starts yelling at Smitty, 'Give me the phone! Give me the phone!'
"And Smitty is scrunched down under the dashboard and held on and kept talking to his boss. So Jack Bell began punching him. They had a fight in the wire car over who was going to hold on to the phone. Smitty held on longer —all the way to Parkland hospital – fighting off the AP guy the whole time."
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Bell was not only scooped on the story of the century, but he was in for another jolt when he finally did get to use the phone.
"They get to the hospital at 12:36 p.m., six minutes after the shooting, and finally Smitty just throws the phone at the guy, 'Here, it's yours,'" Sanderson said. "The AP reporter calls the Dallas Bureau and says, 'this is Jack Bell' — and the line goes dead.
"He couldn't do anything. It stopped, it was dead."
As the AP and UPI warred to scoop each other, reporters from ABC and the Dallas Morning News jumped from their vehicle and raced up to President Kennedy's limo.
"This was before anyone from the hospital was even aware that the president was in the ambulance bay needing care, and it was an open car. So they looked inside the car and saw this scene of horror, which Smith described in detail," Sanderson said.
"The president was still in the car, and Jackie was cradling him in her arms. She was weeping, and it was a horrible bloody scene. And Merriman Smith turned to a Secret Service agent he knew, a guy named Clint Hill.
"He asked Clint Hill, 'How is he?' and Clint Hill turned to him, and he said 'He's dead, Smitty.' Because the agents knew right away there was no hope."
Merriman tore into the hospital's emergency room, grabbed the phone and a few minutes later, he quoted Clint Hill by name on the wire saying "He's dead" — scooping the AP’s Bell once again.
"They put that on the wire right away. One of my questions about this was did Clint Hill get into any trouble for this? I asked Clint Hill that, and he said 'No. Nobody ever said a word.'"
Smith would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize for the vivid story he wrote for the next day's morning newspapers.
As for his extraordinary world exclusive, filed minutes after the shooting — it was the first dispatch read to stunned TV viewers by CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, who famously paused and removed his black-framed glasses to blink back tears.
"That dispatch is pretty much what Walter Cronkite read," Sanderson said. "He learned about it from the UPI dispatch. It rolled off the A-wire in the CBS newsroom."
While a 10-month investigation by the Warren Commission concluded Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone when he fired three shots at Kenney's motorcade from the Texas School Book Depository, many conspiracy theories linger — among them: the killing was a Mafia hit, or had been ordered by Cuba.
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