The ignominious end of Helen Thomas’s career is a real shame. She’d become increasingly batty ever since she left her employer of nearly six decades to write opinion columns for Hearst Newspapers. She shouldn’t have said what she did; no journalist should. That kind of propagandizing is strictly for clowns like Glenn Beck. But I can remember a time when her objective, well-regarded writing was one of the crown jewels of her former employer. I remember her copy distinctly, because this company employed me too. It was called United Press International.
It’s hard to imagine today, with Internet access to nearly-instant news, but for most of the last century and a half, almost all breaking news was delivered by one of three major wire services, whichever one got the story first. The Associated Press and Reuters date back to the mid-19th century and the invention of the telegraph. AP was originally a pool among five New York papers to share the cost of field reporting. Reuters, in Britain, did the same for the foreign coverage of European papers (it broke the story of the Lincoln assassination to Europe). UPI came along because of cold, hard business.
AP was, and is, an association of member newspapers. It refused to sell its services to the competition, which included Edward Scripps, founder of the US’s first newspaper chain. So, in 1907, Scripps combined some regional news services into the United Press Association. William Randolph Hearst entered the business by founding the International News Service two years later. In 1958, the two merged: thus, UPI.
UP, later UPI, was a fierce competitor to AP, and built a proud journalistic tradition. The most famous alum is Walter Cronkite, who did all his World War II reporting as a “Unipresser.” (He didn’t join CBS until 1950.) David Brinkley reported for UP. So did Howard K. Smith, Eric Sevareid, William L. Shirer, and many others. The rivalry between the two major American news services throughout most of the 20th century is the stuff of legend. When Cronkite, now on tv, told the country about the JFK shooting in 1963, he was reading a bulletin from UPI; Merriman Smith of the Dallas bureau, who had been in the press car, got to a phone first and hogged it, with the AP reporter pounding on his back. A UPI reporter – a guy I worked with! — was first on the scene at the fatal Jayne Mansfield auto accident in 1967. (By the way, she was not decapitated. That’s an urban legend that just won’t die.) To be way ahead like that was fantastic: every second that ticked by without a response from the other wire service meant your story would be appearing in papers, and on radio and TV stations, exclusively. Your side would be judged the authority: the other guys (in the tradition of so many tv commercials, we used to refer to AP as “Brand X”) were only catching up.
The way the two served their customers contained the seeds for a TKO that would eventually send UPI reeling. To repeat, AP is a group of associated newspapers. UPI was a service that could be retained by anyone. To AP, its papers were and are “members.” To UPI, they were “clients.” AP’s financial model was a cooperative assessment which could be raised at will. UPI’s was a flat fee. Many organizations subscribed to both services, including the dominant paper in Jackson, Mississippi, The Clarion-Ledger/Jackson Daily News. UPI teletypes were there in the newsroom – but AP had its whole bureau there.
I worked a few blocks away, at UPI’s Jackson bureau, as a “vacation and holiday reliefer” while I was in college. It was a five-man bureau, and all five people were needed to tend the print and broadcast output while taking the time to get into the field for original reporting. So while each of the full-timers took their vacations, or celebrated Christmas, Thanksgiving, or other holidays, or even fulfilled National Guard service, I became the fifth man. It was one of my best jobs ever.
Jackson is the state capital, so the legislature provided daily fodder when in session. Mississippi’s legislature wasn’t as dysfunctional as, say, Arizona’s or New York’s are today, but it struggled through the aftermath of the Civil Rights Act in the late Sixties very reluctantly. You could see some progress. You could also see enough dumb, mean Senator Foghorn Leghorn stereotypes to keep things colorful. But that was only my opinion, and it needed to stay in my head, never creep into a UPI story. Every state senator was entitled to the same respect – they all represented somebody. Impartiality wasn’t just sought, it was mandated. That’s one of the reasons I get so offended at the cynical yahoos on the “Fox News Channel.” How dare they misuse the word “news”?
Andy Reese, one of the finest newsmen I’ve ever known, was the bureau manager. Life in Andy’s domain was measured in seconds. A cardinal rule was, the phone must not be allowed to ring twice. Your answer is “UPI, Dupree.” Get to the point. That hair-trigger mentality sometimes bled over: I can’t count how many times I dove for the phone at my apartment and blurted, “UPI, Dupree. I mean, hello.” The rest of the guys in the bureau were just as intense and driven. Friendly enough, but they worked like carpenter ants. The first few days, I thought, I didn’t know there was this caliber of professionalism anywhere in Mississippi. I mean, I’d worked at the local newspaper for years, but these guys were so far beyond, I was amazed that they even let me join them.
On a typical day, the bureau sent out print stories in two versions: for morning papers and for afternoon papers. In Jackson, the two had the same owner and used the same presses, but the AM edition tended to tell you what happened yesterday; the “PMer” told you what happened this morning. This was UPI’s great strength all over the country, feeding afternoon papers, many of which wanted a different perspective than the AMer. Quite a few of our PM clients were in Mississippi, or close enough. Before shutting down for the night at 11:30, we transmitted “oniters” for the next morning’s editions. The broadcast wire chugged along all day, but every hour it would stop for a 20-minute “split,” during which you sent your state and local news in script form for disk jockeys and tv newsreaders. A broadcast script was ALL CAPS, with hyphens for initials (“U-P-I”), ellipses for pauses (“AND NOW…THE NEWS”) and “pronouncers” for tough names (“OH-/BAH/-MA”). A “rip-and-read” broadcaster was learning the news while speaking it, and particular jocks or stations had their preferences. I always thought ours were the tightest and easiest to read. I thought that because I often listened to AP rip-and-read stations to compare.
OK, you’re jumping for the phone, rewriting AMers into PMers and transmitting them, and filling a 20-minute broadcast split every hour. You are doing this by using a keyboard to punch holes in a gigantic roll of paper tape that will feed into the teletype. You can’t read what you’re typing, because it’s just holes. (Well, real vets could, but not me.) I employ my own “advanced hunt & peck” method of typing, using only six of my ten fingers. I almost didn’t get the UPI job because of this: “Wait, you can’t touch-type?” The downside is, I can’t type without looking at the keyboard. But I managed to impress them with the upside: despite my unorthodox method, I am screamin’ fast, and fairly accurate too, as I somewhat nervously demonstrated. Warp speed comes in handy when you’re sitting at the TT console, because you have to go fast enough to keep a loop in the tape, like in a film projector. If the little metal bar rises to parallel because there’s no loop, the machine quits transmitting, and jocks from Southaven to Biloxi clutch their hearts. You can feel when you’ve made a mistake, and go back and fix it – if you have enough time. But more often than not, you’re racing that tape. In extremis, you’re even composing on the fly right into the TT, and you can’t read what you wrote until it’s already been transmitted from here to eternity. Let us say that I came out of my UPI years an even faster and more accurate typist. Let us also say that I laugh at “tough deadlines” these days. Muchacho, you don’t know what pressure is.
Toward the end of the late shift, 2:30 to 11:30, if there was nothing left to transmit, we might chat – more like tweeting, since the chats were very short – with the late-nighters in other Southern bureaus (“buos” to non-civilians, making it easier to type), who were all on the deep-South print feed, for many papers cover neighboring states too. Sometimes we would ask questions. One night the guy in Birmingham intended to inquire, WHEN DOES DUCK SEASON START IN MISS.? But he hit the key to the right by mistake. I was obliged to inform him that IN OUR STATE IT’S PRETTY MUCH ALL YEAR ROUND. Instant virtual howls from the other buos. I had killed, on a teletype.
On July 20, 1969, I watched the moon landing live on a TT, because I was at work. Normally the national broadcast feed looked just like our own during the split: each story was one paragraph long, formatted to rip and read. Now somebody was listening to Mission Control and telling the TT operator in New York what to type. But as Apollo 11’s lunar lander approached the surface, they just handed the operator a headset, feeding directly from the astronauts. It looked something like this, in real time: 100 feet…some dust…50 feet…contact…shutdown…eagle has landed.
There are bells on the TTs. Normally they ring once or twice to let you know the local split is starting. But when something exciting’s happening, there are more, and they attract newsroom bodies like Pavlov’s dogs. You get four bells for a full story, or an important correction, that’s URGENT. Five bells for a short paragraph: that’s a BULLETIN; the full story will come later. The highest level of urgency is something you might see only a few times in your life. The bell goes apeshit, ten rings, and just a few words come out, with Times Square “zipper” precision. One came now:
MEN LAND ON MOON
I saved the transcript, including that FLASH. I still have it somewhere.
That same summer, we had more excitement. A guy had been transferred in because he had been through an unusually stressful recent hitch, and the company was actually concerned for his health. So they traded him to sleepy little Jackson – just in time for Camille, the second Atlantic hurricane in history to make landfall at Category 5. On the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Even after having traveled two hundred miles north over land, to Jackson, Camille was still powerful enough to make trees and cars her bitches. So you can imagine how she pounded the Coast at full strength.
One of our guys got in his car and drove down to the Coast as the storm was approaching. This daredevil was in a hotel, on the phone with us, as it struck. We heard glass smashing and the line went dead. We didn’t hear from him for almost two days. The first thing he said was, “Tell my wife I’m OK,” then he started dictating his story. His byline was on the front page of the New York Times for the next three days – an eyewitness account, from UPfrickinI. In the meantime, the rest of us had fanned out. I got to spend most of that first night in the governor’s office, along with other reporters. The governor had an emergency line that was still open, so we pool reporters could give out bits of info that made it seem like someone was in charge. But most of the time we just sat around waiting for word. The governor was John Bell Williams, a gregarious “good ole boy.” That was the first time I ever saw a politician with his hair down, completely candid, no agenda to pursue except to batten down the hatches as well as he could. Williams would clown with us – in fairness, to try and lighten the mood during the long scary stretches of nothing. For example, every time he felt a fart coming on, the veteran Congressman would say, “Message from the Senate!” and cackle when the deed was done. Hey, I was still in college, so I had every right to dig sophomoric humor. But gosh: that guy lifting his leg was the frickin’ Governor!
A few months later, I was rehearsing a play during the December 2 draft lottery, in which the 366 birthdays were randomly matched to order of conscription. A low number meant the army or Canada. A high number meant you were free and could start planning your life. (I and everyone I knew had “other priorities,” just like that great patriot Dick Cheney, but unlike him, we were plumb out of deferments.) I’d given a UPI colleague the birthdays of all the men in the cast, and as their numbers came up over the TT, he called the theater with the good or bad news. My “number came up” (literally!) toward the end: it turned out to be #47. Everybody stared at me; it was like hearing a death sentence. (P.S. I eventually found a solution: not Canada, not Vietnam.) That was probably the low point of my life with UPI.
Finally, I graduated from college and moved to Georgia to seek a Master’s degree in journalism. Lewis Lord, UPI’s Atlanta-based Southern Division news editor and a hero to us because he worked in Jackson during the heavy civil rights years (AP was too cozy with its Southern “members” to make them mad over genuine hard-hitting reporting), said, “Why? A journalism degree is about as useful as a male teat.” But he wrote me a great recommendation, and Andy Reese was also instrumental in getting me a half-time assistantship that made me able to afford grad school. When my prospective boss, checking my references, phoned “UPI, Reese,” he was simply told, “Hire him.” Get to the point.
Now began the slow dissolution of afternoon newspapers. If you were a “two-paper monopoly,” like Jackson and many, many other places, tv news – which was now more than just rip-and-readers – was eating into your PMer’s circulation. Independents too. When Dad (and Mom) came home from work, at cocktail time they increasingly flipped on the tube instead of reading the PMer. In most cities the first thing the publisher did was kill the afternoon masthead and consolidate the staffs. Now the morning paper was “thrown twice” on an all-day cycle: home delivery customers could still receive it in the afternoon if they wanted, with the front page maybe made over for late-breaking news. But soon even that pretense vanished. No makeover, no afternoon delivery of any kind. UPI lost client after client, its very backbone. The founding Scripps family sold out, and UPI bounced from bankruptcy to bankruptcy in the Nineties. The real end was in 1999, when it sold all its remaining contracts to – wait for it – AP.
In 2000, a media company owned by Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church bought UPI, mainly for the brand name, and the next day, Helen Thomas resigned after 57 years. There still is a UPI news service of sorts, but that’s only a name. The chug-chugging of TTs – the clichéd sound of news in movie after movie, the audio effect that used to introduce the CBS EVENING NEWS, the beating heart of UPI, is gone forever. I’m proud and grateful to have been a small part of it, and I miss those days like crazy.
7/20/13: Today we learned that Helen Thomas has passed away at 92. Despite some unwise outbursts toward the end of her career, she was a real trailblazer, she fought the fights, and today every serious female journalist is in her debt. If they’re White House Correspondents, male ones too.
12/29/17: Relief jobs, like mine at UPI, aren’t all drudgery. Yes, you have to work on holidays, but sometimes stuff still happens. The New York Times’s Mike Schmidt was on the presidential golfing beat when, to his astonishment, he got a major scoop. Congrats are due from vacation reliefers everywhere.