Sunday, January 16, 2005

My dad, "filmed one of the iconic images of American history: Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald in the basement of the Dallas police headquarters"

statesman.com | Four journalists recount the dark days in Dallas that changed news

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Austin American Statesman Review

Four journalists recount the dark days in Dallas that changed news


By Felix Gillette

SPECIAL TO THE AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Sunday, January 16, 2005

As a 24-year-old cub reporter, George Phenix filmed one of the iconic images of American history: Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald in the basement of the Dallas police headquarters. At the time, Phenix was working for KRLD, a CBS radio and television affiliate. That afternoon, his film was broadcast nationally. Millions of Americans watched the scene of Oswald crumpling. Behind the camera, Phenix's cub status also was taking a hit.

Along with three of his then-colleagues at KRLD -- Bob Huffaker, Bill Mercer and Wes Wise -- Phenix has recently published a memoir of the Kennedy assassination, "When the News Went Live: Dallas 1963." In it, Phenix recounts how a few weeks after the shooting, he snuck into the station and developed a roll of the film as a souvenir. His two toddlers quickly got their hands on the keepsake. "They imagined it to be some sort of new kind of yo-yo," writes Phenix, "and repeatedly rolled it up and down the hallway -- ruined it."

[He-heh: My sister and I were on the CIA payroll and we were actually born in Cuba. Switched at birth, we were, with George Phenix's REAL KIDS, to complete our mission and destroy all the evidence. Shhh, don't tell anyone else, OK? --El Fenix]


When Phenix sat down 40 years later to set his experiences to paper, he realized that grim memories die harder than old rolls of film. He didn't need any visual cues to recall the details. "I wrote it in one pass," says Phenix during a recent telephone interview. "I was surprised. It had been indelibly burned into me. It's just kind of part of (my) DNA."

During the course of the book, each author recounts his role covering John F. Kennedy's assassination. Wise, who was attending a luncheon in Kennedy's honor in downtown Dallas, remembers the reactions of the people around him when the news first broke. "A young man stood facing a wall, propping his left arm against it and burying his head in his forearm, sobbing uncontrollably," writes Wise. "In bizarre contrast, to my shock and dismay, a man at our table continued to stuff a steak into his mouth."

For the four young reporters, there wasn't much time to eat. Or sleep. Or grieve. Within minutes, they were broadcasting the unfolding events. In the coming weeks and months, Huffaker interviewed Oswald's mother, Mercer covered Oswald's midnight news conference, Phenix filmed Oswald's murder and Wise testified at Ruby's trial. "If we weren't professionals before the assassination," writes Mercer, "we certainly achieved that status in the aftermath."

Each of the authors went on to distinguished careers. Huffaker became an English professor at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos and an editor at Texas Monthly. Mercer broadcast games for the Dallas Cowboys, the Texas Rangers and the Chicago White Sox. Wise wrote for Sports Illustrated and served as mayor of Dallas for five years in the '70s. Phenix, who lives in Austin, co-founded the Texas Weekly and was editor of the Westlake Picayune.

"The interesting thing is that our tools were so primitive in those days," recalls Phenix. "There were no cell phones, no faxes, no e-mail."

And no second gunman lurking on the grassy knoll. From the get-go, the authors declare themselves "weary of conspiracy theories." Throughout, they avoid any rote speculation about Oswald's motivations. There are no flights of fancy buzzing through the murky backrooms of Cuban apparatchiks or Mafia hit men. Instead, the narrative remains grounded in the streets of Dallas. It's a sobering antidote to the staggering paranoia of, say, Oliver Stone's "JFK." In pithy, laconic prose the authors lay out the who, what, when and where of the heart-rending events. The bloody parade. The search for Oswald. Ruby's mental unraveling at the subsequent trials.

To this familiar set of episodes and characters, the four men sprinkle in personal details based on what they reported -- and what they didn't report. Wise recounts how, on the day following Kennedy's assassination, he bumped into a disgruntled Ruby outside the Texas School Book Depository. Like all Dallas broadcasters, Wise knew Ruby, whom he describes as "the ultimate news reporter groupie of his day." After a brief discussion, Wise brushed him off. "Reflecting on that conversation, I have wondered whether Ruby was hoping that I might do a radio interview with him," writes Wise. "Such a thing would have been a historic part of that sad weekend's coverage."

Throughout "When the News Went Live," the authors advance the less-than-radical theory that the assassination was a turning point not only for world history but also for broadcast journalism. They argue that the round-the-clock coverage of the assassination changed television news, paving the way for such future cable-TV obsessions as O.J. Simpson and Scott Peterson.

It's a bittersweet legacy. Phenix says that today's cable news networks have taken something of value and ruined it, like a bunch of youngsters playing yo-yo with a precious roll of film. "For me, the question is: Has TV news helped make America smarter? Or dumber?" writes Phenix. "I vote for the latter."

Austin journalist Felix Gillette writes frequently for slate.com.

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