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Saturday, 29 April 2006

Grub Street

Spot Reporting, Spot On
By Richard Carreño

I'm posting the following (from a letter) at Junto. But thought you might want an advance look. Wicker, incidentally -- in his own quiet, controlled way -- was quite critical of today's national press. He's lost weight. He's no longer Johnny Apple's twin. He was wearing a grey suit with Gucci-like black loafers. (I say 'like' because they had soles that looked like the treads on a back-hoe).

Philadelphia: After I spoke to you Thursday [27 April], I headed over to the National Constitutional Center to hear Tom Wicker, the famed, retired Washington/national correspondent of The New York Times. Not surprisingly, it also involved a book-signing for Wicker's new book re the renagade Joseph McCarthy, R-Wisc. (A screening of Good Night and Good Luck preceeded).

I've always been interested in Wicker, a thoughful voice in his 'In the Nation' column and always a journeyman reporter. When teaching at Johnson & Wales, I used Wicker's spot-news story re the assassination of JFK, out of Dallas, as a classic piece of daily news reporting.

The story put all the pieces together -- an amazing high-wire act of 4,000 words that seemed to have the omniscient Wicker everywhere at once -- at the hospital, at PD HQ, where Oswald was killed by Ruby, to the swearing-in of LBJ on Air Force I, and with reaction from the widow Kennedy.

How did he do it?, I asked. Well in those days, NYT only used single bylines. Turns out that Gladwin Hill of LA, an ex WW II combat reporter from the LA bureau, flew in to assist. 'I was never so happy to see someone,' Wicker said. 'As the first reporter on the scene, I was defacto ''bureau chief,'' and I asked Glad to cover the police angle. This was great load off my mind.'

Still, only a two-man job? Still, and extraordinary feat.

Wicker explained that the actual composition of the story was done in New York. Of course, everyone -- in the biz and out -- knows that stories are edited, rewritten, recomposed. But to what degree?

Wicker said that in fact he was just sending 'takes,' one after the other, from a telephone at Love Field. (He had hired a boy to keep the line open). In those days (before portable computers, but after Western Union), reporters filed by calling the office 'blower,' a telephone recording device. From these transcribed tapes, stories were assembled. How much 'assembly' depended on individual circumstances.

All newspaper stories are a product of teamwork. But Wicker's assassination story was more of this than I was aware. How about the now-famous lead -- 'DALLAS, Nov. 22 -- President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was shot and killed by an assassin today.'? Spare, lean, classic. (For years, I wondered why JFK's age -- a must in most obit 'ledes' was missing. Of course, not having it intensified the murder, loss angle. The age was dropped to a following graph).

I asked Wicker about the lead. 'Actually, I didn't write it. Harrison Salisbury in New York did.'

Wicker added that, a while later, he listened to the tapes that he sent to The Times's
newsroom, and he had learned then that he had been sobbing during most of the time that was dictating.

Wicker, now 80, lives in Vermont.

I'm looking forward to another talk upcoming at the center. This by D. Remick, editor of The New Yorker. After the disaster of Tina Brown, Remick has evolved the mag into the 21st century -- with a firm eye cocked to it formidable traditions.

(Richard Carreño is Junto's editor. The above is an on-line special).