Half a century ago, Sid Davis was the first journalist to learn John Kennedy had died. Instead of breaking the biggest news story in the world, he waited because he wanted to make sure he was right. It is hard to image a journalist making the same choice nowadays amid our modern cacophony of inaccurate reporting, but perhaps Davis has something to teach us.
On Nov. 22, 1963, Davis, then the White House reporter for Westinghouse Radio, was traveling with the presidential motorcade in Dallas. Through the kind of luck that happens to good reporters, Davis was the first to learn the news no one wanted to hear.
“We first heard the President died from a priest. At Westinghouse Broadcasting Company, we did not put that on the air. I heard a priest say it. I talked to Washington, and I said, ‘Don’t put me on the air. The priest here says the President’s dead. I don’t think we ought to use it.’ My boss agreed with me, so we waited for the announcement to be made. Now for a reporter, you know how difficult it is to hold back on a story, especially if you’ve got the biggest scoop of the century. Seemed like an eternity waiting for the official word, but it wasn’t. Took a couple minutes.”
The 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination will provide an excuse for too much overblown rhetoric about America losing its innocence, as if the Civil War, slavery and the genocide of Native Americans never happened. Searching for lessons, we will sagely agree that we’re more cynical, but wiser now.
Are we really? The decision of Davis and his boss provides a concise demonstration of archaic notions of character in a business that has long since mislaid its greatest priority of simply getting it right. Regardless of what came later with the Warren Commission and the grassy knoll, the press did not make any big mistakes on the first televised national crisis.
Now the media is taking “breaking the news” literally. CNN (“the most trusted name in news”) messed up the Supreme Court’s Obamacare ruling, and that was written down and handed to them. A year later, the same network reported the fiction that “a dark-skinned male” had been arrested in connection with the Boston bombing. Recently, NBC and ABC misidentified the Navy Yard shooter.
None of these stories approaches the fever pitch of Nov. 22, 1963, but Davis knew enough back then to slow down and make sure he got it right.
“Thank God that I had the training that said, ‘Wait a minute Sid.’ What you do in a case like that, the adrenaline is flowing. ‘My God,’ you say to yourself, ‘the President of the United States is dead. Let’s go with it. Let’s take the bows.’ But there’s a greater need to be accurate and a greater purpose for the business,” said Davis at a recent visit to the LBJ Presidential Library.
Years later when Davis was the Washington bureau chief for NBC News, he held off on breaking the story that Ronald Reagan had been shot because he only had the word of an orderly. On the other hand, he also held off on reporting the death of James Brady even though the other two networks were going with the story. As easy as it would be for Davis to think he’s different, he instead credits mentors who learned the craft as war correspondents.
“A lot of the reporters that I worked with at the White House were World War II war correspondents. They were seasoned. They were great mentors. They were kind and helpful to young fellows to learn. And today there are no more of these guys around. There’s no one to learn from,” said Davis.
Davis is wrong. We’ve got him. Let’s take a lesson. Next time news breaks, let’s all take a breath before we put it back together. Maybe then we will have something more to offer people than an apology.
Jason Stanford is a Democratic consultant who writes columns for the Austin American-Statesman and MSNBC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @JasStanford.