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National Society of Newspaper Columnists Gets Earful About Modern Media

Texas played host this week to newspaper columnists from across the country and reports are now starting to show up about what was discussed. Tony Messenger of the Columbia Daily Tribune about how his trip to the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas provided an interesting perspective on how the tools and behaviors of journalists have changed dramatically in the past half century. From a public relations perspective, companies find themselves dealing with these journalistic shift every day so it''s great to be reminded about where we''ve been in order to get a sense of where we are likely going.

GRAPEVINE, Texas - When Pete Hamill was 10, a plane crashed into the 79th floor of the Empire State Building. It was 1945. An Army Air Forces B-25 veered off course in dense fog and smacked into the world’s tallest building, a Manhattan landmark. Hamill and his younger brother heard about it on the radio from their Brooklyn home. They hopped onto a subway and headed to the disaster scene, where they stood arm to arm with reporters recording what was until recently one of New York’s most jarring aviation disasters.

Hamill is 70 now, and he’s become one of the most celebrated columnists and editors in the world. He was here Saturday, telling war stories to columnists half his age as the National Society of Newspaper Columnists honored him with its lifetime achievement award.

The business of gathering news has changed in the decades since Hamill learned the craft from hard-drinking, gruff men who were raised on the streets of New York.

That my business was different had been driven home to me earlier in that day down the interstate in Dallas when I sat in the Sixth Floor Museum and heard Jim Leavelle tell the story he’s told a thousand times.

Leavelle is the former Dallas police detective who was handcuffed to Lee Harvey Oswald as President John F. Kennedy’s killer was shot dead by downtown nightclub owner Jack Ruby. In the famous Pulitzer Prize-winning photo, he’s the man in the white hat who appears to be reeling as Oswald is shot. Actually, Leavelle says, he was trying to pull Oswald to safety. It didn’t work.

What struck me about Leavelle is that I didn’t recognize his face. I wasn’t alive when Kennedy was shot, but I’ve read about it my entire life. I’ve seen the famous photo. I know the players. Most of the folks in the room remembered where they were when they heard the news. Yet, without the hat, Leavelle could walk right up to almost anybody and they wouldn’t know that he had been handcuffed to two of the famous killers in history.

Today’s information age wouldn’t allow Leavelle such privacy. This is the age of Laci Peterson and Jon Benet Ramsey. It’s the age of trials of the century that mean nothing. It’s Michael Jackson and O.J. Simpson. It’s missing Boy Scouts and a pretty blonde girl in Aruba.

It’s the age of instant news and celebrity, even for bit players.

We know Kato Kailin. We recognize the flowing white locks of Thomas Mesereau.

In November 1963, times were different. Reporters didn’t have cell phones. Neither did cops, Leavelle points out.

"If I wanted to call my office, I had to find a pay telephone," he says.

There were not instant photos from the scene. Most folks found out about JFK’s death in broken radio broadcasts or a few sentences from the 10 o’clock news. Many more didn’t know until reading huge double-deck headlines in the next day’s newspaper. Most of those were entirely black and white. The Denver Post ran its "KENNEDY SLAIN" headline in red. The Chicago Tribune had color head shots of Kennedy and his vice president. They were the exceptions.

Reporters fought over pay phones to tell the story, and men such as Leavelle simply went back to doing their jobs. It’s why a day after Oswald was shot, he found himself again handcuffed to a murderer who needed transport to another jail. This time it was Ruby.

"I didn’t alert the media," he says.

Now in his mid-80s, Leavelle has the luxury of a certain amount of anonymity. He still carries in his pocket the key to the handcuffs that connected him and Oswald.

If that fateful day in 1963 happened all over again, the key would be on E-bay and Leavelle would be unable to leave his home. He’d be the nonstop subject of blogs and talking heads on 24-hour television. He’d be the prisoner of a media that has brought new meaning to telling history in a hurry.

We’re fast enough, I thought, as I looked at the museum’s exhibit comparing the tools of our trade with what our cohorts used 40 years ago. Today’s journalistic failings aren’t technology’s fault. Computers and cell phones and digital cameras are all wonderful things. It’s our reliance on them that should concern us.

Earlier in the day, I had used a computer search to get directions to the museum from our hotel.

Some of the details were transposed - a right turn where a left was necessary, a street out of order - and Columbus Dispatch columnist Mike Harden and I drove aimlessly around the one-way streets of Dallas until his wife had the good sense to ask for directions. If Kennedy had used Mapquest, I thought, he’d still be alive.

Newspapers, Hamill would tell us later, are very much alive, but they need a breath of fresh air in these rich storytelling times.

We need thoughtful analysis of our burgeoning government propaganda machine, Hamill told us. We need a frontal assault on religious zealots who substitute ideology for rational thought, he pleaded. We need writers who see the morality in their craft.

We need the spirit of two little boys who caught a subway to the city to see history unfold.

Tony Messenger
(573) 815-1728
Author: Tony Messenger
Phone: (573) 815-1728
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