'When the News went Live' - The Reporter's story

'When the News went Live' - The Reporter's story

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by BILL MCGINTY / NBC Charlotte

Bio | Email | Follow: @billwcnc

WCNC.com

Posted on November 21, 2013 at 12:27 AM

Updated Thursday, Nov 21 at 11:21 AM

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It was a beautiful day in Dallas on November 22, 1963.

KRLD-TV photojournalist George Phenix, now in his 70s and living in North Carolina, recalls how he felt that day saying, “We didn’t know what to expect.” 

“When it got closer to the visit, we got more nervous,” recalls George’s co-worker and fellow reporter, Bill Mercer, also living here in North Carolina.

George was on the job at Love Field Airport when Air Force One pulled up and says “I was not far from the Kennedys when they were coming down that ramp, and it was breathtaking. She was the most beautiful, poised-- and he wasn’t bad himself.” 

“We were right on top of them there at the rope line, and when they got in the car, we were mere feet from them, but it was a more innocent time” he said.

News crews would swap out and hopscotch events so they could get their film of the president on the air without a lapse in coverage.

From the arrival, George was headed to the trade mart for the president’s speech.

“I was supposed to film him as he arrived and as he left” says Phenix. 

What was feared to be a hostile crowd in Dallas was anything but, as people were crowding the streets to see Kennedy.

KRLD broadcaster Bill Mercer was on the air doing the noon news when shots rang-out from the Texas School Book Depository building.

Mercer recalls, “I ran across the street and walked into the newsroom, and there was just mayhem; people were crying, they were yelling, on the phone-- oh the phones, they were ringing constantly.” 

“I had an open line to Boston to a radio station there, waiting for the news of what happened to Kennedy.”

George Phenix had left Love Field and headed for the Trade Mart, the place the president was heading for a speech. 

“And I hadn’t been there long before I heard all these sirens; [it] seemed like hundreds of them coming down the parkway.” 

“On the outside, a woman had a little transistor radio and she started screaming, ‘he’s been hit, he’s been hit.’  I said, ‘who?’ And she said, ‘the president.’ And I thought ‘rock? Bottle?’ I never thought gun.”

Mercer recalls watching people hear the news and said, “The reaction of people was just, they were devastated.” 

“What was your reaction?” NBC Charlotte asked. 

“I was working; I had no time for reaction. I was working, I thought, ‘Oh, God, he’s been shot,’” says Mercer.

Back at the Trade Mart, Phenix hitched a ride, gear and all, to Parkland Hospital.

“We were going the same way…” Phenix recalled as he got emotional, “… that the motorcade was taking the President.”

During the next few hours, photojournalist Phenix would film what are now iconic images of national tragedy.

“I took film of the presidential limo… I felt terrible, like I was invading their grief, but at the same time, I knew I had to do it,” he remembered.

As confusion got worse, the Secret Service pushed back.

“So I broke from the pack and ran to one of the wings of the hospital, and the whole time I’m running, I’m thinking ‘I hope they don’t shoot me.’ And luckily, the door was open and I ran up a flight of stairs into a room and said ‘I’m press, I need that window,’ and to my amazement, they moved and let me film.”

Back in Dallas, a police officer was killed and a suspect was caught. 

At Dallas Police headquarters, reporters would get their first look at Lee Harvey Oswald.

Mercer remembers seeing Oswald and says, “So, they brought him in and we were just like this, with Lee Harvey Oswald on that third floor, which is about that wide, real narrow, that’s why everyone is so crammed in there. I found myself pushed behind the door, and when the crowd cleared, I came out, that’s how crowded it was.” 

Phenix was up there, too, and says, “I was in the third floor hallway as they paraded him back and forth, and I couldn’t believe a little weasel like this had done what he done; he wasn’t a big guy. At the time, we didn’t know he was an ex-Marine, and to this day I can’t imagine him being a Marine.”

The struggle to cover it involved big studio cameras, and film cameras with a separate guy to record sound, it was all matched-up later in the tedious editing process. 

Mercer remembers, “We had to get that camera, that huge studio camera up to the third floor; we hoisted it up through the window.  We had this big mobile truck, it was actually an old bakery truck, but we had only used it to broadcast television games from the Cotton Bowl.”

And the crowd kept growing.

Phenix says, “It was terrible, and it got worse by the hour and got worse with more national and international press flew in, I mean it was like a soccer scrum, lots of elbows.”

Late Friday night, after parading Oswald back and forth, an impromptu press conference took place, and for the first time, reporters, including Bill Mercer, got to speak with him, and at times, at him.

“We had 150 to 200 people in this little room, and they were all yelling and screaming. It only lasted about a minute and 10 seconds.  They didn’t know how to run something like this, they never had press conferences, the police, they never brought suspects in like this, and nobody could control the media and take questions like they do today. But nobody had press conferences for alleged killers,” Mercer explained.

“And as I started down there, I walked by the detective area, and I don’t remember who told me, but he said, ‘Hey Bill, come here,’ he said, ‘We’re writing up the papers right now to charge Lee Harvey Oswald with the murder of the president.’ I said ‘Really?’ He said, ‘Yeah, you can go ahead and use it if you want to.’ And I said, ‘Fine,’ but I wasn’t sure where I was going to use it.”

But use it he did.  The first opportunity he had, he informed Oswald he had been charged with Kennedy’s murder. 

“Did you kill the president?” Mercer asked.

“No, I have not been charged with that. In fact, no one has said that to me yet,” Oswald replied,

“First thing I heard about that was from newspaper reporters in the hall [who] asked me that question.”

Mercer shoots back, “You have been charged with that.”

“Sir?”

“You have been charged with that,” Mercer stated again.

That long, emotionally-exhausting day was only going to get worse.

It’s now early Sunday morning, not even 48 hours after President Kennedy’s murder. Phenix recalls the assignment he had been given.

“I had been there for hours. Someone had called me at four in the morning and said, ‘Get down here, we need to get you geared-up cause you’re going to film the transfer of Oswald over to county.’”

That event was going to be taking place in the basement of Dallas Police headquarters, and it would be broadcast live on all three networks. 

Phenix recalls “Well, it was tight down there (in the basement) because there were a lot of us, about 50 to 75 of us, and about nine cameras.”  

“So we set up, and waited, smoked, talked, mad small talk. And police said, ‘now we’re not going to rush the guy when he comes out, we’re going to stand back.’ Well, that lasted about this long.  Oswald came down the sidewalk and again it was my Yankee brethren.”

When it was time, cameraman Phenix took-up his position; he was rolling film and with the viewfinder of the left side of his rig, he never noticed the guy on his right, Jack Ruby, the Dallas strip club owner wearing the hat-- the man who was about to dramatically change history.

Phenix recalls “And the camera had those big ‘Mickey Mouse’ ears that hold the film in them, so I never saw him, I didn’t know he was there. Never saw him come down the ramp, don’t know how he got there.” 

NBC Charlotte asked Phenix, “It was fairly common for Ruby to show up at scenes?”

Phenix says, “It was, and I was so new, I didn’t know him. If he had tapped me on the shoulder, I wouldn’t have known who he was.”

“He was next to you?” NBC Charlotte asked.

“Yes, on my immediate right, and he stepped out and shot him,” Phenix recalled.

“When Ruby shot him, I didn’t know what it was-- it was a cement box we were in, and it was loud, that is my film… And that was, I believe, the first murder broadcast on live television.”

Mercer says it was, “One surprise after another, and this was probably the bigger surprise. I mean I was terrified that the president was shot, now we got the guy who is supposed to have shot him, and we’re going to take him and have him charged and find out about it, he’s shot.”

Questions have lingered about Oswald’s murder, as it became the seed of conspiracy theories that exist still today. But as local news people, they knew Jack Ruby, they saw him around, he was the little strip club owner who was known to carry a gun. Was it a cover up? They don’t think so.

Mercer says, “But here is the key factor: I told ya about the dog right? His dog was in the car… He brought the dog with him to the Western Union office in the car. Now if he was going to shoot someone, why was he going to bring the dog? If he was going to be in trouble, the dog was going to be in trouble… So, we figured that he, just at the moment, saw his opportunity and stepped in and didn’t think about the fact that his dog was back at the car.”

Later that day back at the station, the gravity of what Phenix had just filmed, was sinking in to his brain.

Phenix says, “The Secret Service and the FBI were there, and we all saw it at the same time as it came out of the soup. Once I saw it to the end, and knew it was there, I walked out and got kind of weak-kneed, I was just stunned."

The newsman went different directions after the assassination and Ruby’s Dallas trial, but in 2003, he later connected with two other colleagues to co-author their book called When The News Went Live. It wasn’t just a story, it was their story and they needed to tell it.

George Phenix says of his time in Dallas, “It made me awful jaded. Ya know, a man, Ruby, had just shot another man right in front of me, [and] our President was murdered; it was a circus, a zoo, and you didn’t know who was lying and who was telling the truth. Reporters are skeptical anyway.”
Mercer says, “All of us were pretty darn good newsmen, but this is something we never faced before. This is something where people just said ‘Go, get it, do it.’ We didn’t have floor men or directors-- we didn’t have all that, we just did it.”

 “We wrote the book, one, cause we wanted to, two, for history, and three for journalism. We hope that years from now, journalism classes will pull it up and say, ‘It’s the way they used to do it. Sorry” Phenix says, as he fights back 50 years of memory and emotion.

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