The Dallas media fit in well with the Big Boys in covering the JFK assassination.
The Dallas media fit in well with the Big Boys in covering the JFK assassination.
Photo by the Dallas Times Herald

Defining Moment

It has been 40 years since these journalists played their various roles in the most dramatic and devastating event in Dallas' history. It was a different media era, when cops and reporters were routinely best of friends; when local TV stations didn't even argue over the idea of pooling cameras to cover a big event. Yet the horrific story they covered that November weekend in 1963, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, is still seen as the finest hour for many of the city's journalists. It was a time when the "local yokels"--young men like Hugh Aynesworth, Darwin Payne, Bert Shipp, Eddie Barker and dozens of others--shined through the longest days they can remember, covering the tragedy and its aftermath in a textbook, if somber, fashion. Because of this, they remain, in a sense, a band of brothers.

Now, their recollections of the biggest story they ever covered are being heard. KERA-TV has produced a documentary titled JFK: Breaking the News, and Aynesworth has written a companion book that will bear the same title. A new book titled President Kennedy Has Been Shot provides, in the words of the reporters, "a moment-by-moment account of the four days that changed America." CNN is planning to air a special on the historic tragedy and how it was reported to the nation. Former Channel 8 and network anchor Murphy Martin's soon-to-be-released autobiography, Front Row Seat, will also add new insight to the event. All proof that there remains an insatiable fascination with the stories from the School Book Depository, Parkland hospital, Trade Mart, Texas Theater, the basement of the Dallas police station, even the lonesome burial site of the man accused of killing the president where it was reporters, not family members, who served as pallbearers.

It was Eddie Barker, working for what was then KRLD television and radio, who was, in fact, the first newsman to announce the death of the president. "I was still at the Trade Mart [where a luncheon/presidential speech had been scheduled] when a doctor I knew came up and whispered in my ear that the president was dead," Barker remembers. "He had called the Parkland emergency room and was told the president was DOA."

Barker, now living in East Texas, made a spur-of-the-moment "gut decision" that would ensure his place in history. "I just decided to go on the air with it. I said an unimpeachable source had told me President Kennedy was already dead when he reached the hospital." It would be another 20 minutes before CBS' Walter Cronkite broadcast the tragic news to the nation.

Aynesworth, then an aviation writer for The Dallas Morning News, is now viewed by many as the ultimate authority on the case, remembered as the only reporter who was in Dealey Plaza when the shots were fired; at the Texas Theater when accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested; in the police department basement when nightclub owner Jack Ruby shot and killed Oswald; and who covered the Ruby trial.

And he began that infamous day without so much as a pencil. "I remember being disappointed that I hadn't been assigned to any of the coverage of the president's visit," he says, "so I had walked over to Dealey Plaza simply to watch the motorcade and see the president." When the three shots rang out from the School Book Depository, Aynesworth, now a Washington Times reporter stationed in Dallas, immediately assigned himself to the biggest story of his award-winning career. He offered two quarters to a nearby youngster for an oversized pencil he was holding and began taking notes on the backs of two envelopes--his utility bills he'd planned to mail later.

Remember the famous Zapruder film? The first reporter to learn of its existence was rookie Dallas Times Herald police reporter Darwin Payne. "I spoke with a couple of women who said their boss, Abraham Zapruder, had been filming the president's passing when a bullet blew much of his head away." Payne, who would go on to become a professor at SMU, author and publisher, rushed to the clothing manufacturer/amateur cameraman's nearby office and got his firsthand description of the gruesome scene he'd watched through his viewfinder.

That photograph of Ruby firing the fatal shot into the stomach of Oswald? It was taken by Times Herald photographer Bob Jackson and, by only a split second's edge, earned him a Pulitzer Prize over the News' late Jack Beers, who had snapped his camera before the shot was actually fired. "It was two hours before I knew what I had," Jackson recalled last week to a turn-away crowd that attended a panel discussion on the assassination at the Sixth Floor Museum. Now living in Colorado, Jackson was also a member of the press corps that had been riding in the historic presidential motorcade. He clearly remembers that just moments after hearing the shots he looked up to the sixth-floor window of the School Book Depository and actually saw the barrel of Oswald's rifle. His camera, however, was empty of film.

For many, it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time. CBS' Bob Schieffer, honored by the Press Club of Dallas last week with its Lifetime Achievement Award, was a lowly night reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in those days. As he told the authors of President Kennedy Has Been Shot, "I had just walked into the city room that [Friday] night and every phone was ringing. I answered one and this woman said, 'Is there anyone there who can give me a ride to Dallas?' I told her, 'Madam, this is not a taxi service and besides, the president has been shot.' She told me she knew, then added that she thought it was her son who had been arrested for the crime." Thus, Schieffer would taxi Margaret Oswald, the accused assassin's mother, to the Dallas police station, getting an exclusive interview en route.

Those who chronicled the event are not among the many who subscribe to the voluminous conspiracy theories that have become a cottage industry. "I found it interesting," says Krys Boyd Villasenor, the writer/producer of KERA's documentary, which will air nationally on November 19, "that during my seven months of interviews, none of them had any doubt that Oswald acted alone in the assassination of President Kennedy." Only one--Wes Wise, former KRLD reporter and later mayor of Dallas--admitted even the slightest concern that the entire story has not yet been told.

What impressed Villasenor, 32, were the anecdotes--the ironies, the examples of instinct and inventiveness, the earnest approach of men just beginning their journalism careers. It was a time, she points out, when the world of journalism was primarily populated by white males. If you were a female newspaper reporter, you did puff pieces for the "women's section" and left the real fact-finding to the guys. "Still," Villasenor says, "I detected a remarkable amount of chivalry in the men I met. And they were guys who lived and died for the stories they worked on."

For example, radio station WBAP discovered on that weekend that the truck it routinely used for doing live reports in the field was broken down. What to do? They simply hooked it up to a wrecker and hauled it wherever it was needed. "What everyone was doing," recalls former Channel 8 news director Bert Shipp, father of current WFAA reporter Brett Shipp, "was figuring out ways to make things work and get the story told."

Like he did when contacted by a cameraman, Tom Alyea, who had managed to get inside the School Book Depository where police were searching for the assassin and his weapon. "He called and told me where he was and that he had shot some really great stuff but didn't know how he was going to get it to the station. The police had locked the building down and weren't allowing anyone out." The solution? In less than 15 minutes, a station employee was standing beneath a window from which Alyea dropped canisters of film to him.

Despite the tension, there were light moments. The photo of Oswald and Ruby taken by Beers of the Morning News quickly went out on The Associated Press photo wire. In Tarrant County, Star-Telegram editors were busily putting out an "extra" edition. Bottom line: The Fort Worth paper beat the Morning News into print with its own picture. Villasenor smiles as she passes along a story Schieffer told her. "When the Star-Telegram delivery truck arrived in Dallas," she says, "he quickly got a bundle of the papers and stood in front of the Morning News building, passing them out."

Looking back, all agree they were part of something that bonded them, a tragedy, and test, they weathered.

"I was blessed to have been able to test my abilities on that story," Shipp says. "Still, I'd rather it have been another one, at another time, another place. It kinda broke everyone's heart."


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