Philip Chalk: Dan Rather Got It Wrong ... Students in Dallas Didn't Cheer When JFK Was Killed
[Philip Chalk, member of the University Park Elementary class of 1974, is production director at The Weekly Standard.]
WHEN CBS ANNOUNCED THAT IT will smile through the pain of Dan Rather's dying credibility with an hour-long retirement tribute in early March, the network released an image of a young Rather posing in front of the Texas School Book Depository, looking gravely into the distance. While a little nostalgia was understandable--what, no photo of Rather huddled over a fax machine last October?--CBS still managed to remind those who knew the anchor during his salad days in Texas how tendentious and unprincipled he was even then.
Eddie Barker, for one, remembers. The news director for CBS's radio and TV affiliates in Dallas at the time of President Kennedy's November 22, 1963, assassination, Barker is widely credited with first reporting on the air that the president was dead, having received word through a doctor acquaintance directly from the hospital ER. Rather, then based in Dallas as a reporter for CBS's national news broadcast and working out of Barker's newsroom, later took credit for the scoop, Barker says. The error is repeated in historical accounts often enough to annoy the now-retired Barker, though he says the falsehood was later acknowledged by Rather.
It was a different lie--one delivered on national news, and at the expense of children--that caused Rather trouble at the time. As reporters from around the world descended on the Texas city, Rather went on the air with a local Methodist minister who made a stunning claim: Children at Dallas's University Park Elementary School had cheered when told of the president's death.
The tale was perfect for the moment, reinforcing the notion among distant media elites that Dallas was a reactionary "City of Hate." It slyly played to a local audience, too: The school named was in upper-income University Park, one of two adjacent municipal enclaves that shared a school district and a reputation for fiercely protected, lily-white privilege. Finally, for the ambitious Rather--a native Texan and then a Dallas resident--the account represented the very sort of revealing, local dirt that the throngs of out-of-town competitors would have to work far harder to get.
Except that it wasn't true, and Rather knew it, Barker says.
Approached earlier by the same minister with what was a second-hand account, Barker himself had run the story by the school's principal and some teachers, all of whom denied it outright. Because of the shooting, which took place at 12:30 p.m., the principal had decided to close the school early, though without telling the students why. The children at the school--including three of Barker's own--were merely happy to be going home early, he was told. There couldn't have been any spontaneous cheering at the news of Kennedy's murder, because no such news had been announced.
Undaunted, the dogged minister--"a very, very strong liberal and a very, very strong Kennedy supporter," Barker says--moved on to Rather.
"Rather came to me, and I said, 'My kids are in school there, and I checked it out, and there's not a darn thing to it,'" says Barker. "He said, 'Well, great--I'll just forget it.' But instead of forgetting it, he went out and did this gut job on Dallas and its conservatism," with the preacher's story at the center of his report.
With the discredited account likely to be challenged by the local affiliate's editors before being fed to New York, Rather sidestepped a customary film-editing session with Barker and arranged to file the report live instead, Barker says. "And so here's Dan with the preacher, telling this story about kids at UP cheering when told the president was dead."
Livid at being lied to, Barker laid into Rather as soon as he returned to the newsroom, expelling the reporter and all his national-news colleagues from the building on the spot. "I said 'Get the hell out of here--you and this whole damn bunch!'" he says.
Barker's local TV and radio crews scrambled to arrange on-air interviews with teachers to rebut the story, but the lie had already traveled halfway around the world and would become an enduring part of JFK assassination lore. In the meantime, CBS was threatening to pull its affiliation with the two local stations for having given Rather and his colleagues the boot.
"The next day I let him back in," Barker says. "But I wanted to make darn sure that he knew he couldn't pull that kind of crap with me."
While well-known in broadcast-news circles, the incident did nothing to slow Rather's rise; his Kennedy coverage was decisive in his eventual move up to CBS's New York headquarters. "You have to give him credit," says Barker. "He's a very aggressive guy."
Aggressive to a fault, as the ignominious end of his four-plus decades at CBS makes plain. As Barker himself--a CBS newsman for most of his career--says, "Anybody who followed CBS's coverage last year knows that they were doing a gut job on the president."
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