Reporting has evolved since JFK's assassination, but one thing remains the same.
Dick Stolley only had one chance left. Facing Abraham Zapruder late in the 8 a.m. hour the day after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, the Life magazine journalist presented his last offer, $50,000 for a copy of the only known film of the assassination.
"I told him that was as far as I was authorized to go," Stolley recounted this week. "By this point, the other journalists outside the office were misbehaving, shouting things and slipping notes under the door. He just looked at me and said 'Let's do this.'"
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The deal triggered one of the great scoops in journalism history. On par with the Pentagon Papers, Watergate and the end of World War II, broken by an Associated Press reporter who chose to ignore a ridiculous embargo. Life published the 26-second home movie frame by frame. Except for the horrific frame 313, which showed the bullet hitting Kennedy's head. Life held it out of respect for the Kennedy family.
Stolley, who was a 35-year-old Los Angeles bureau chief for Life in 1963, went on to become managing editor, then on to sister publication Time, then became the founding editor of People magazine. He has written an essay that's included in a new book about the assassination,The Day Kennedy Died. I've known him for some time and asked him about the scoop.
Stolley and fellow Life correspondent Tommy Thompson, who would become a celebrated author, were in Life's Beverly Hills office when Thompson wandered over to the AP teletype machine. This was the period equivalent of checking your iPhone for news, and Thompson checked it regularly. He was standing over it when the news hit that Kennedy had been shot. He shouted to Stolley, who called New York. "How soon can you be on a plane?" his editors asked. They were on their way to Dallas within the hour.
When phone books mattered
Arriving late afternoon, they split up. Stolley soon heard from a Life stringer at Dallas police headquarters that there was talk of a film taken by a local businessman. He didn't have the name but it sounded like Zapruder. Stolley grabbed a phone book and looked it up. "The phone book was a very important thing for reporters back then," he laughed.
Stolley said he called the number all night, but Zapruder was out getting the film developed into three copies. He returned at 11 p.m. and told Stolley by phone to meet him the next day at his office at 9 a.m. Stolley showed up at 8, rightly concerned that other journalists had gotten the same message. Zapruder was there with two Secret Service agents, and together they watched the chilling film.
His New York editors had authorized Stolley to spend up to $50,000 to get the film. "We would pay for pictures," he said. "We wouldn't pay for access, but we'd pay for exclusive photos." Later that Saturday morning, the film was on its way to Chicago to be processed, then New York. Once Life founder Henry Luce viewed it, he instructed Stolley to return to Zapruder and buy all the rights to the film for an additional $100,000. Stolley said that was the last time he saw Zapruder.
'Had to have it'
Stolley said he winces at suggestions the scoop was one of the great feats in 20th century journalism, saying that at the time, he was just urgently chasing news like all Life correspondents, and reporters in general do. "We suspected it would be a great film, and we just had to have it," he said. It wasn't until years later that he understood the enormity of what they accomplished that day.
"Ironically, the Zapruder film is the best argument possible for the single-shooter theory (of the assassination) and the best argument possible for the conspiracy theory," said Stolley, who said he's firmly in the single-shooter camp. What if, as has been discussed in another USA TODAY column, the assassination happened and everybody had smartphones? Stolley estimated there were 400 or 500 people in Dealey Plaza, so there could have been as many as 500 videos and photos. "There would be multiple versions, but I think we would be no closer to the truth than we were with the single Zapruder."
Fifty years later, journalists work differently. Phone books are out and Google is in. Teletypes are out and Twitter feeds are in. A social feed #Dallas would have carried the news around the world. Smartphones would have created reams of video react, as well as spawned an even bigger cottage industry in conspiracy, based on manipulated videos.
But one thing remains the same: Our news industry's ravenous desire for scoops. Indeed, even as Stolley recalled his famous contribution to U.S. history, he couldn't help point out another scoop — by Tommy Thompson.
While Stolley was chasing Zapruder, Thompson found Lee Harvey Oswald's wife — the first reporter to do so, and a second scoop for Life on the same day. "Not bad for a weekly magazine," Stolley said.
David Callaway is editor in chief of USA TODAY. His opinions are his own and do not reflect the views of the editorial page of USA TODAY.
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