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Echoes of Nov. 22

Last week while I was talking to CBS' Bob Schieffer for a story on how television covered the assassination of John F. Kennedy 43 years ago today, he made an interesting observation.

Schieffer "I'll tell you something about that day,'' said Schieffer, who was working for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram at the time. "It was the beginning of the end of access, of direct access to people in government and to news events.''

Cops, courts and public officials usually gave journalists a great deal of leeway in covering stories, Schieffer noted. Their pieces wouldn't appear in the paper for hours, at the very least, and often not until the next day, and they concentrated on outcomes -- say, who got arrested for a murder -- rather than process. Reporters had neither the space nor the inclination to dwell on every little misstep or blind alley in an investigation. Television newscasts -- which on many stations were still a bare 15 minutes -- were not a factor at all.

Oswaldjpg The live wall-to-wall television coverage of the Kennedy assassination changed all that. Viewers saw everything, as it happened, including the horrendously inept security at the Dallas police department that led to the on-the-air murder of accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. The national humiliation of the Dallas cops sent shudders through public officials all over the country.

"Back then, most congressmen didn't even have press secretaries,'' recalled Schieffer. "Now they've all got 'media coaches.' Business and sports figures, too. Everybody requires credentials for everything ... But that weekend [in 1963], if you looked like you belonged, you could pretty much get in.''

That enabled Schieffer to score one of the greatest coups of his career. Sitting at the Star-Telegram city desk that afternoon, the phone had rung with what seemed to be a crank call: a woman asking the paper to give her a ride over to the Dallas jail. "This is not a taxi service, madam,'' Schieffer snapped. "and we're busy right now. Maybe you haven't heard, but the president was assassinated today.

"I know,'' the woman replied. "I think they've arrested my son for it.''

Schieffer not only gave Marguerite Oswald a ride, he escorted her into the police department. "I'm the one who brought in Oswald's mother,'' he told one of the cops without identifying himself any further. "Where can I take her to keep her away from all these reporters?'' The police, assuming he was Fort Worth cop, directed them to an empty office.

"Not only was I in there able to talk to her, and maybe Oswald himself if they brought him in to see her, but I had access to a telephone. So I could go out into the halls, collect information from our other reporters, and phone it into the office,'' Schieffer said. "A telephone was golden that day.'' The AP and UPI correspondents traveling with Kennedy had actually gotten into a fistfight over one phone earlier in the day.

Schieffer's coup came to an abrupt end when an FBI agent came in to talk to Oswald's mother and, upon figuring out he was a reporter, gently suggested he depart: "He told me if I didn't leave, he was going to kill me.''

For Schieffer to have been hanging out with the mother of an accused presidential assassin in the hours immediately after the crime seems startling now, but reporters blundered directly into news all that weekend.

NBC's Robert MacNeil, frantically trying to reach his office right after the shots were fired, ran up to the Texas School Book Depository and asked for a phone. The man he spoke to: Oswald. A camera crew from a Dallas TV station wandered into the Book Depository before police sealed it off, filmed investigators clambering around the sixth-floor sniper's next from which the shots were fired, and then tossed the film canister out the window to a reporter waiting below, who hustled it back to the station. And when no one showed up for Oswald's funeral, reporters themselves acted as pallbearers. It's hard to imagine any of those things happening in media-conscious America today.

Schieffer, by the way, thinks a public backlash against the news media that continues to this day began that weekend in Dallas.

"Before that, about all people knew about news was the news product,'' he says. "They saw what was printed in the newspapers, and that was all. That weekend, they also saw how it was gathered. They saw pushing and shoving. It wasn't just a tea party.

"It came as a shock to people ... For the first time, people saw the sausage being made. In some ways it was good for journalism, but in some ways it was bad.''


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Fascinating -- great stuff.

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