Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Get It First, But Get It Right

George McGovern's death this week brought to mind an unlikely incident from election night in 1972, one that would tell me that I might be getting through to at least some students. At the same time, it would offer me a teaching opportunity that I missed that night but made good use of in the future.

I was an assistant professor in the Marquette University College of Journalism in those days, and I moonlighted as a reporter and news announcer for WISN. Too junior to teach summer school courses, I had jumped at the chance to be a summer replacement at the station when the news director, Don Froehlich, offered me the opportunity a year or so earlier. That turned into weekend work, as well, and stints covering special events like election nights
On election night in 1972, Don gave me the keys to the news department car and sent me downtown to report on the doings at the election night headquarters of the Democrats and their presidential candidate, George McGovern. McGovern had long trailed in the polls and was given no chance of winning, but how low he had sunk I did not know until then. Headquarters was in the Wisconsin Hotel, on Third Street, just north of Wisconsin Avenue.

Major candidates for statewide office and for the presidency, or their representatives, normally had suites in upscale hotels like the Schroeder Hotel, on the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Fifth Street and the elegant old Pfister, on the East Side at Wisconsin and Jefferson Street.  Their supporters ate and drank and danced to live orchestras in the ballrooms. It was my observation (“Lorenz’s Law, I was bold enough to call it) that those candidates destined to win took up election night residence in the Pfister, and that held through the years that I was reporting.

I had never known a candidate’s headquarters to be at the Wisconsin. The hotel seemed to me to be about half a star above those establishments that rented rooms by the hour. Sailors going through boot camp at the Naval Station Great Lakes stayed there when on liberty in Milwaukee. But that’s where the McGovern operatives had settled. 

When I walked in, I spotted a telephone sign over an alcove off the lobby and I went over to it. On a bench seat in the alcove were two of my students, also reporting for radio stations that night. I greeted them and looked over at the pay telephones. Both had “Out of Order” signs on them.

I asked the boys if they knew where another telephone was. 

 “You can use one of these," one said softly. "We put those signs on them to make sure we had a phone when we needed one.”

The two of them had taken my history of journalism course the year before, and they had heard me lecture on the importance that reporters, over the years, had placed on establishing communications.

 I usually told the story of the excellent 19th century reporter Henry Grady, who was in Tallahassee to report on the award of the state’s disputed electoral votes in 1876. Before the decision was released, Grady checked on telegraph service and found that the  lines out of the city had been cut. He hired a buckboard and driver and they drove until he found a telegraph office with communication to the outside world. They returned to Tallahassee. When the decision was handed down—Hayes would get the votes—Grady jumped into the buckboard, and  while the driver lashed his horses to get full speed out of them, Grady sat alongside writing his story. When they reached the telegraph office, his story was not quite ready, so he gave the telegrapher a speller to send, thereby establishing his claim on the line until he finished the story. (There was a side lesson there, of course, on the reporter’s concern that he spell correctly

Later in the course, I told my students stories about Merriman Smith, the Pulitzer Prize-winning White House correspondent for United Press and its successor, United Press International. In April, 1945, he was at President Franklin Roosevelt’s Little White House at Warm Springs, Ga., when reporters were called to the President’s cabin. Smith spotted a telephone next to a chair when he entered the living room, and sensing something important was up—an end to the war in Europe or, possibly, an announcement about the president’s health—he hid the telephone behind the chair. When the press secretary announced FDR’s death, the other reporters ran out to find telephones. Smith waited until they were gone, retrieved the hidden phone and then called in his bulletin.

I also recounted the story of Smith’s work on the day President Kennedy was assassinated. He was riding the front seat of the wire service car in the presidential motorcade in Dallas and just happened to be talking on the car’s radiotelephone to someone in UPI’s Dallas bureau when he heard shots fired. He dictated the first bulletin, that three shots had been fired at the motorcade, and gave what other details he could as the cars sped to Parkland hospital. Jack Bell, the Associated Press correspondent, was sitting in the back seat, and began to beat on Smith and demand his turn with the phone. He raised welts on Smith's back, but the UPI man would not let go.  When the press car wheeled into the hospital’s emergency room entrance, Smith tossed the phone at Bell, jumped out of the car and sprinted past the president’s limousine. He saw Mrs. Kennedy’s roses lying in the president’s blood in the back seat and asked Secret Service agent Clint Hill, who was standing near the car, the president’s condition. “He’s dead,” Hill said. Smith sprinted into the hospital, found a telephone at a nurse’s station and began dictating those details. Smith scored a clear beat for UPI that day, partly out of luck, I said, but also because he knew that it wasn't enough to get the story, it was crucial to get it out and on the wire.  
The students sitting by those telephones had taken to heart the lesson of those stories, and I was proud of them. Years later, however, I also regularly taught a mass communication ethics course, and I used them as an example of going over the line in controlling communications. Grady using a speller to “own” the telegraph line was one thing;  their putting a bogus “Out of Order" sign on a telephone was another. And my comment to those ethics students was that while I would have given those two fellows an A for mastering the history lesson, had I had them in ethics, I would have had to give them an F. 

Did I use one of those pay phones, you might ask. You bet.

1 comment:

beatstalkingtomyself said...

Wonderfully entertaining essay triggered by the passing of one of the old-school "good guy" politicians NOT beholden to lobbyists. I'm not glad that McGovern died, but I am glad you took the time to share your firsthand experience with his campaign in such a delightful way.