- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 19, 2007

Reporters’ tricks

You hear about a lot of reporters’ tricks during a 30-year career in journalism. One of my favorites dates from the days before laptops and cell phones, when reporters would rush out of a conference hall where some major event was taking place and race to a bank of phone booths, each seeking to file a breaking story ahead of his competitors.

Back in those days, our younger readers will be interested to hear, the mouthpiece on a telephone could be twisted open to reveal the circular metal device inside that picked up the speaker’s voice and converted it into some kind of electrical signal.

A certain reporter, not to be named here, was known to have gone through the phone booths at the start of one such conference and remove all those metal devices, placing them in his jacket pocket so that he was the only one who could use the phones. Other reporters were known afterward to carry a spare device just in case.

A colleague of mine during Africa days recalls being similarly victimized while covering a conference of the African Union in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. She was filing to her office in Nairobi by telex, which essentially involved typing over an open phone line to a machine that printed out the copy at the other end.

“I was being typically long-winded,” recalls this colleague, while a New York Times reporter was waiting impatiently to file her own story on the same machine. “The Times reporter finally went over and unplugged the telex machine from the wall. I was furious,” the colleague says.

That brings to mind another great story, possibly apocryphal but repeated to me by more than one old-timer, concerning the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963.

In those days, apparently, it was normal practice for the president’s car to be followed in motorcades by another car carrying correspondents from the two great American wire agencies of the day, the Associated Press and United Press International.

The two reporters would ride together in the car, which was equipped with a single radio telephone in case of an emergency.

Phone fight

You know what comes next. The motorcade makes it way past the Texas School Book Depository and through Dealey Plaza. Shots ring out. The president slumps over. Mayhem.

At that moment, so the story goes (at least among UPI veterans), the two reporters both grabbed for the phone. The UPI man — Merriman Smith — got it first and called his office. “Bulletin. Three shots have been fired at President Kennedy,” he dictated. And then, as the AP reporter — Jack Bell — grew increasingly agitated, Smith held onto the phone, dictating whatever else he could think of and refusing to give up the instrument.

It was not until the motorcade pulled up to the hospital emergency entrance that Smith threw the phone at Bell and ran into the hospital behind the dying president.

Stories like these, told and retold at the bars of press clubs from Fleet Street to Hong Kong to Washington, are one of the things that make this profession so much fun. But even after 30 years in the business you can learn new tricks, as I did recently.

I was a guest at a fancy dress dinner with hundreds of people in a large ballroom and a very enterprising reporter seated next to me was poring over the program when she noticed that a well-placed government official to whom she wanted to talk was seated at the next table.

The two of us surveyed the table, trying to make out which one she was. Having worked it out to our satisfaction, we turned our attention back to the dinner.

It was some 45 minutes or an hour later, between the dessert course and the speeches, that the official at the next table got up to make her way to the ladies’ room. The reporter sitting next to me got up and followed.

Within minutes, so I was told, the two were chatting away, gossiping about policy issues while helping each other with the zippers of their dresses.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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