Getting the Scoop on TV News’ Seminal Moment

FF/RWD: Camelot's End Still Casts Long Shadow on TV

Face the Nation
anchor Bob Schieffer, then a newspaper reporter with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, slept through the assassination, but luck, a snap-brim hat and moxie got him his first big scoop and set him on the path toward TV journalism. Fifty years later, Schieffer is central to CBS' commemoration of the event, and he talks to Washington bureau chief John Eggerton about those extraordinary days.

You were working for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on Nov. 22, 1963.
I was the night police reporter at the paper and I had been up late the night before and I had kept the press club open for all the visiting White House press corp. so I didn't get off work until about 2 a.m. and so I was sound asleep the next morning. I hadn't been assigned to covering [the President's visit] and I was pretty upset about it ‘cause they were letting the political reporters do all of that. I wasn't a part of the story at all. About midday, my brother came in and woke me up and said you better get up and get to work, the President's been shot.

So, I was totally in a fog. I get to the office and I was just trying to answer phones on the city desk and I picked up the phone and a woman called in and said, is there anyone there who can give me a ride to Dallas. I said, ‘Well lady, we don't run a taxi service here. Besides, the President has been shot.' She said, ‘Yes, I heard on the radio. I think my son is the one they have arrested.'

It was Lee Harvey Oswald's mother, Marguerite. So, the city editor sent another reporter, Bill Foster, and I out to pick her up. He drove and I sat in the back with her and interviewed her on the way over and it would turn out to be my first big scoop. Newsweek and Time both paid me for the quotes.

How much?
One paid me $50 and the other paid me $60. I don't remember who paid me what, but that was the first time that had ever happened.

Did you just drop her off?
We got to Dallas, and we never told people who we were in those days so when I got to the police station the first uniformed cop I saw I said, ‘I brought Oswald's mother over here. Where can we put her where she won't be bothered?' They found me a little office in the burglary squad and nobody asked me who I was.

So, you didn't impersonate an officer, but you didn't dissuade them from that conclusion?
That's the way we operated in those days. We never lied to people about who we were, but if they wanted to think we were cops, [fine], which is why I always wore a snap-brim hat.

So, we were there for a while and I would go out in the hallway, gather information from our reporters who were there and call that in to the paper on the phone because, in those days, if you didn't have a phone you didn't have a story. Nobody had cellphones, of course. So [access to that phone] was a great advantage to us, so we were putting out these extras.

Did they eventually figure out who you were?

We'd been there 4 or 5 hours and [Oswald's mother] asked whether they would let her see her son, so I went and asked the chief of detectives and he said they probably should do that. They were very informal. There was no Miranda law and all that kind of thing.

So, low and behold, we were herded into this holding room off the jail and I'm thinking they are going to bring him in and hear what he says to his mother and maybe I'll even get a chance to interview him.

But a guy standing in the corner asked who I was and whether I was a reporter. I said yep and he said, ‘You get out of here.' He looked like he could have killed me and probably could have. But, you know, he was an FBI agent doing what somebody should have done.

But in those days, if you kind of looked like you belonged someplace you generally got in, which is why it was so easy for [Oswald's killer Jack] Ruby to go into the police station and be there when they brought Oswald out.

It was probably the greatest adventure of my life. Sometimes as I look back on it I ask, could this possibly have happened. But it did. I wrote a story about it.

You were a print reporter, but this became a seminal moment for television.
In those days the big bylines [came from] the newspaper reporters and the wire service reporters. Television was not nearly the force that it would be. That weekend, one of the things that changed in America with everybody focused on the live coverage, from that weekend on, television would be the place that most people would get their news. Up until that point they got it from print. We had kept the press club open late so we could all go over and see those print reporters.

So many things changed that weekend. The country was never quite the same after that, and one of the things that changed was the shift from print to television because people were just glued to their television sets for that entire weekend and on into Monday, when the funeral was held.

For the first time people were seeing this national tragedy as it happened.

Did your scoop also help you make the transition from print to television?
The reason I got into television was that next year I went to Vietnam for the newspaper and I was the first reporter from a Texas newspaper to go. But the work I did over that weekend was one of the reasons I was chosen for the Vietnam assignment. There is no question it was a turning point in my career.

How do you think the coverage would have been different if they had had all the instant access communications of today?
I don't think it would have been much different than it was. There hadn't been a lot of coverage of live events, but the network affiliates moved right into the Dallas police station where Oswald was. They moved in those big studio cameras in the hallways and you can still see pictures of them there. They went on the air almost immediately after the President was shot. They stayed on the air and never went off the air and it went that way all through the weekend. This was really the first [of these types of events].

Another thing I think was very significant was that ... up until that point [Americans] had seen [only the] finished product. You would see the edited piece in the newspaper or the edited piece on television. CBS had become the first network to go to a half-hour evening news only a couple of months before [it had previously been 15 minutes]. Instead of seeing the finished news product, they saw it being gathered for the first time. People [on the news] pushed, shoved, shouted, and I think it gave a lot of people the wrong impression of the media and one that stuck with them a long time.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.