Getting It Right

To excited rescuers, the scratchy radio transmission just before midnight seemed to unfold a miracle – 12 trapped miners in a West Virginia coal mine had been found alive. “You might as well just stand still right where you’re at, Gary,” the halting voice was saying, according to the later transcript. “They did find them, and they’re all OK, I guess, so I think we might be transporting them. I’m not exactly sure, but we’re stuck right here.” Despite its tentative tone, the apparent good news was quickly passed on. Soon there were church bells and wide jubilation among waiting families. The wires quoted Gov. Joe Manchin as saying all were alive.

Most major newspapers east of the Mississippi River went to press with huge headlines proclaiming the mining miracle. But their readers woke up to grim television reports that all but one of the 12 trapped miners had died. (A 13 th miner was killed outright in the underground explosion.) The correct story did not move until the middle of the night – three hours after the mistaken good-news bulletin. How could the media get it so wrong?

“The question a lot of journalists probably wish had been asked of the governor is, ‘How do you know that?’” said Butch Ward, a senior fellow at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in St. Petersburg, Florida. Ward was quoted in The Philadelphia Inquirer’s own mea culpa a day later that all its editors had gone home before the correct Associated Press bulletin moved at 2:50 a.m.

As a veteran AP writer and editor who covered the 1968 murder of Sen. Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles and the 1972 attempted assassination of former Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace in Maryland, I read Ward’s comment with interest because it was exactly the question I asked my reporter when he called the Baltimore bureau to report Wallace had been shot.

On the campaign trail, Wallace was a magnet for trouble. In his last two presidential bids in 1968 and 1972, he had more Secret Service agents protecting him than any other candidate. Four years earlier in Los Angeles, I helped cover the murder of Sen. Robert Kennedy, who was gunned down just after he won the California primary. Memories of that numbing tragedy were still strong. Now it was May 15, 1972, the day before the Maryland presidential primary, and as the Maryland AP news chief, I had Wallace and the two other Democratic frontrunners to worry about. For a while that year, Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine was the odds-on favorite. But by mid-May, Wallace and Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota were battling for the lead with Sen. Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota.

On May 15, the three frontrunners would be in Maryland – McGovern in Cumberland, Humphrey in Baltimore and Wallace at a small shopping center in Laurel, Md. I brought AP staffer Tom Stuckey down from our Annapolis office to handle Wallace, whose late-afternoon stump was drawing little interest. Neither The Evening Sun nor the News-American in Baltimore would staff it, figuring it was too late for their last editions. Most of the nation’s top political reporters snubbed the Maryland primary. They were with Muskie in Michigan, which also had its Democratic primary on May 16. Pundits figured Michigan was more important – no Democrat ever won the party’s presidential nod without winning the Michigan primary.

In the small crowd gathered for Wallace’s final campaign stop, grinning behind sunglasses, was a young Milwaukee man named Arthur Bremer.

Just after 4 p.m. , an AP staffer taking Stuckey’s dictation yelled at me from across the newsroom: “Hey – Stuckey says Wallace has been shot!”

I grabbed the telephone.

“Wallace has been shot!” Stuckey repeated. My mind raced back to the night of June 4, 1968, when AP reporter Bob Thomas phoned the Los Angeles bureau with the stunning report that Robert Kennedy had been shot. Thomas was standing near Kennedy in the Ambassador Hotel when the senator from New York was fatally wounded by Sirhan Sirhan.

Before moving the bulletin, the bureau chief queried Thomas to make sure there was no mistake. Now it was my turn to ask the questions.

Stuckey was calling from a shoe store. He had not seen Wallace shot. Someone ran up to him and told him that. I told Stuckey to put the store manager on the telephone, then go back outside and confirm what had happened. The manager agreed to keep the line open and I called AP’s national news desk in New York to stand by for a bulletin.

Our Baltimore bureau had just made the switch from typewriters to computers and we were still learning how to use them. It would be faster to dictate. In New York, the late Nate Polowetzky, who would go on to become AP’s longtime foreign editor, stood by for my dictation. The bulletin and urgent material to follow would be edited and filed by Managing Editor Lou Boccardi, destined to ascend to president of the worldwide agency.

Stuckey was back on the phone in my right hand. “George Wallace has been shot!” he said again.

“How do you know?” I asked. Before you tell the world something, you want to get it right. “I saw him on the ground!” Stuckey said. “There’s blood and they’ve called an ambulance!” I dictated the bulletin. Three minutes had passed since the first gunshot. Baltimore’s two evening newspapers stopped their presses. Both replated page 1 to banner the AP story.

Our coverage had begun at a huge disadvantage – the competing UPI reporter actually saw Wallace shot. We didn’t. I sent our news editor, Dick Shafer, to the shopping center to help Stuckey. Others worked the phones in the bureau and handed me notes, which I wove into my dictation to Nate Polowetzky in New York, all the time worrying that UPI’s eyeball account would win the day and we would be playing catch-up.

Incredibly, UPI’s bulletin trailed ours by 5 minutes. Although UPI saw Wallace shot, their bulletin said only that “shots were fired at George Wallace.” Ours said: “Wallace was felled by gunfire.” But what really buried UPI was the lack of details after their first vague bulletin. In the next 66 minutes, as AP reported the nature of the governor’s wounds, the tackling and disarming of Arthur Bremer, quotes from eyewitnesses, and a vivid description of Cornelia Wallace cradling her unconscious husband in her arms, the UPI wire was strangely silent. After filing his bulletin, UPI’s only reporter there ran to his car and drove off behind the departing ambulance. No one knew which D.C. hospital the ambulance was going to, so we asked the Washington bureau to staff the two likely choices.

UPI’s reporter who abandoned the news scene was Dean Reynolds, the young son of the late ABC-TV anchorman Frank Reynolds, then at the peak of his long career. Young Reynolds was hired the year before as a copyboy in UPI’s Washington bureau and was newly transferred to Baltimore as a rookie reporter. I attributed the miscue to inexperience, but was told months later by Rob Dalton, the UPI bureau manager in Baltimore, that he had ordered Reynolds to follow the ambulance. “If Wallace died on the way to the hospital we would have been the first to know,” Dalton said. (Not true – AP already had reporters at the hospital.)

An important lesson for journalists in the West Virginia travesty is not just to report what people say, but to know how they know what they’re telling you is true. It’s easy to misunderstand what you hear on the telephone, or amid the static of a balky radio transmission. This was indelibly etched into AP annals in 1966 when the AP wrongly reported that civil rights activist James Meredith had been fatally shot on his 220-mile “March Against Fear” from Memphis , Tenn. , to the capitol in Jackson, Miss. An editor at the Memphis Commercial-Appeal alerted the lone AP staffer on duty and told him to pick up the telephone – “This is something you should hear!”

Listening in, he heard the newspaper reporter covering the march tell the rewrite desk that Meredith had been shot. The AP man thought he heard “shot dead” and without asking any questions, immediately went to the Teletype to file a bulletin that Meredith had been slain. The bulletin broke just before the Huntley-Brinkley Report went on the air and the widely watched TV newscast led with it. But Meredith, 33, had not been killed. The shotgun blast had only wounded him. The reporter phoning in the story had said Meredith had been “shot in the head,” not “shot dead.”

The mistake stood for 22 minutes before it was corrected – in time for Huntley and Brinkley to get it right.

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12.9.2010 | Annb

Interesting article and incorrect in a critical way. Since I was the UPI reporter on the scene, you might have asked me instead of Rob Dalton what had happened. Here's what did.
I did not abandon the scene, but filed my report from a pay phone at the Wheaton, Md. shopping center seconds after Wallace was hit. Where the AP was I did not care.
I too described Mrs. Wallace cradling her husband, his wounds, and the general mayhem that followed. UPI's report was slow that day because I followed protocol and filed my story over the phone to the Pittsburgh office (which oversaw Baltimore) instead of directly to Washington where everybody knew me as a copy boy. The dumb asses in Pittsburgh held my story for verification. Precious minutes were lost.
Also, my father was not at the peak of his career in May of 1972. In fact he was between jobs as anchor. Little details, but facts are facts.
I'm surprised that a reporter from the well-respected Associated Press would have made such a mistake.

03.16.2011 | dean reynolds

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