Down to the Wires  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   August/September 2003

Down to the Wires   

Unipress: United Press International Covering the 20th Century

By Richard M. Harnett and Billy G. Ferguson
Fulcrum Publishing
368 pages; $50

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     


Many journalists know the legendary tale of how UPI's Merriman Smith flashed word of the John F. Kennedy assassination by commandeering a car phone even as his Associated Press competitor fought him for it (see "Total Domination," May 1998). What most don't know is what was going on at UPI's New York headquarters at the time.

Within minutes, according to this new wire service history, UPI Managing Editor Fran Leary was instructing AT&T to set up a special teletype circuit between Dallas and New York. He then ordered extra equipment rushed through Manhattan traffic to the UPI bureau.

By the time doctors pronounced Kennedy dead, Leary's new transmission system was installed and operational--a key part of the all-out scramble to beat AP on the story of a lifetime.

"The shots from Oswald's mail-order rifle had set off the most intensive battle ever between Associated Press and United Press International," Richard Harnett and Billy Ferguson write in "Unipress." "UPI had clearly won."

Probably so; Smith earned a Pulitzer for his coverage. But whatever the outcome, the tale, and the brio with which Harnett and Ferguson tell it, grandly captures the rambunctious underdog bravado of the try-harder wire service.

Their entire book is an affectionate tribute to a simpler era, pre-CNN and pre-Internet, when ringing bells on wire- service teletypes announced most breaking news. Heavyweight AP and its younger welterweight rival scratched and clawed every minute of every hour, hoping for a few seconds' head start on the day's bulletins.

So, "Unipress" can brag that UPI was seven minutes ahead of AP on the Charles Lindbergh landing in Europe or a stunning two hours and 40 minutes ahead on North Korea's 1950 invasion of the South. And it can gallantly defend what may be UPI's most famous misstep ever--a two-days-premature report that World War I had ended.

UPI's "irresistible lure" for reporters, Harnett and Ferguson write, was "to be the first to know and able to tell it to the world." Their book salutes "the achievement of people not famous, on stories long forgotten, against huge odds and their strange addiction to working endless hours for little money, even less fame, with flimsy resources and always against the clock."

As that last sentence shows, the book is sometimes ragged, choppy and repetitive. For instance, the same anecdote appears on pages 41 and 154, with a direct quote rendered differently each time. But, like a good UPI dispatch, the book brims with vigor and an unabashed delight in big stories vividly told.

Both authors were insiders. Harnett, who spent 36 years with UPI, died just after completing the manuscript. Ferguson served 40 years at the wire service, including a stint as its managing editor.

Their book jauntily conveys the flavor of wire-service life, while also serving up informative and efficient history.

Publisher E.W. Scripps launched the United Press Associations in 1907 (it became UPI in a 1959 merger with Hearst's International News Service) to compete with AP and its restrictive membership policies. Begun with half a dozen bureaus, about 20 employees and a stringer network, UP quickly attracted afternoon papers looking for second-day angles.

Roy Howard, who became UP president in 1913, masterminded its enduring formula that combined lively writing and human-interest features with aggressive hard-news coverage.

Outgunned and out-financed by AP, UP from the beginning stressed hustle and thrift. The word Unipress itself was born of its "never-ending quest to save pennies" at a time when cable companies charged by the word. A similarly coined word, downhold, "was derived from messages sent to all bureaus periodically to hold down expenses."

Harnett and Ferguson take the wire service through its biggest moments--reporting the world wars and Vietnam, excelling at foreign coverage especially in Latin America and pioneering in news for radio and television. UPI President Hugh Baillie set an example by covering World War II from the front lines, once almost dying when he was thrown through a Jeep windshield. Exhorting his reporters, he wrote, "Tell those guys out there to get the smell of warm blood into their copy. Tell them to quit writing like retired generals and military analysts, and to write about people killing each other."

Big names from Walter Cronkite (who actually fired a machine gun at a German target during World War II) to Helen Thomas worked for UPI. It also contracted with a roster of celebrities that included Benito Mussolini, writing two articles a week for a time, and Babe Ruth, paid $100 for a first-person account of every home run he hit.

Eventually, of course, financial crises engulfed UPI, as fewer clients were willing to buy both it and the more comprehensive AP. In 1982 Scripps Howard sold it, and the next 17 years saw a parade of owners and rescue plans. But in 1999 its days as a traditional wire service ended. A thinned-down UPI survives today, supplying specialized features and analysis via the Internet and other means.

While "Unipress" briskly chronicles UPI's run, the book's best parts are its tales and stories. Oddly, "Unipress" doesn't quote enough from classic UPI dispatches, but it does offer a few prizes.

"Thud-dead! Thud-dead! Thud-Dead!" were the first words, for example, of a UPI story about 62 people leaping to their deaths from a burning garment factory. A newly hired reporter had just arrived in New York when he saw smoke pouring from the factory and called in the story. On another occasion, UPI erroneously reported the death of Marshal Petain, a controversial French military figure. Quick thinking led to a follow-up lead that said Petain had "rallied miraculously" after a near-death experience.

UPI, too, lay on its deathbed more than once, rallying and ebbing with changing fortunes. "Unipress" tells its story with gusto, pride and, finally, regret. Journalism was better when UPI reporters were there fighting over the phones.

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