March 14, 2018

The Pressure of the Press: Media Coverage of the Jack Ruby Trial

by Stephen Fagin, Curator

In the days following the Kennedy assassination, more than 300 members of the world press crowded the corridors of Dallas police headquarters, shouting questions at suspect Lee Harvey Oswald and pressing law enforcement for opinions on the case. The Warren Commission in 1964 criticized the media for their part in a frenzied, largely unchecked situation that climaxed with Jack Ruby’s shooting of Oswald. City leaders, fully aware of Dallas’s tainted reputation following the events of that fateful weekend in November 1963, hoped that Ruby’s 1964 murder trial would be handled with far more decorum and security.

Recognizing that hundreds of journalists would cover the trial, Sam Bloom, president of a prominent Dallas advertising agency, offered his services to Judge Joe B. Brown of Criminal District Court No. 3. It was unprecedented for a PR firm to represent a judge, and Bloom faced direct criticism when he testified at a change-of-venue hearing prior to the trial. With more than 300 requests for only forty-eight seats reserved for media, Defense attorney Joe Tonahill accused Bloom of favoring reporters “sympathetic to Dallas.” Bloom denied this, noting that his firm merely handled logistics and credentials, though Bloom employee Helen Holmes did advise Judge Brown and draft his public statements. Media pressure ultimately led Brown to use a larger courtroom for the trial where at least 150 reporters could be seated.

This photograph, taken through the window of the courtroom door, shows defense attorney
Melvin Belli questioning PR executive Sam Bloom on the witness stand.

This photograph, taken through the window of the courtroom door, shows defense attorney Melvin Belli questioning PR executive Sam Bloom on the witness stand. The Dallas Morning News Collection/The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza Donated by The Dallas Morning News in the interest of preserving history
The Dallas Morning News Collection/The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza Donated by The Dallas Morning News in the interest of preserving history

The day press credentials were issued, Helen Holmes recalled, “there was a stampede.” For added security, journalists were required to wear photographic identification badges, though only the largest news organizations could quickly produce small ID photos for their reporters. The courthouse arranged a checkpoint where everyone, including press, was searched before entry. Though commonplace today, this type of security was new in 1964; some, including syndicated columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, found the whole process comical. Early in the trial, deputy sheriffs confiscated a pocketknife from KRLD-TV sketch artist Ken Hansen, which he needed to sharpen his art pencils. He began pre-sharpening both ends of every pencil to avoid future problems.

Columnist Dorothy Kilgallen smiles as she is searched prior to entering the courtroom.

Columnist Dorothy Kilgallen smiles as she is searched prior to entering the courtroom. Bill Winfrey Collection, The Dallas Morning News/The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza
Bill Winfrey Collection, The Dallas Morning News/The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza

A probate courtroom was transformed into an international press room with typewriters, twenty Western Union teletype machines and thirty telephones, some with new direct-dialing (non-operator) service. Experienced teletype operators were always on hand, promising an average of sixty words per minute, though few were prepared for the numerous foreign language requests. One operator grew familiar with the word “geschworenenkandidat,” which is “prospective juror” in German.

Some of the thirty telephones installed in the Ruby trial press room.

Some of the thirty telephones installed in the Ruby trial press room. The Dallas Morning News Collection/The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza Donated by The Dallas Morning News in the interest of preserving history
The Dallas Morning News Collection/The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza Donated by The Dallas Morning News in the interest of preserving history

The Dallas Morning News reported that the courthouse had “an international flavor,” with Swiss, French, Swedish, British, Polish, German, Australian, Bulgarian, Mexican and Canadian press mingling with local and national journalists in the press room. CBS commentator Eric Sevareid noted at the time that the “camaraderie [of local reporters] both beguiles and astounds the European journalists covering the trial.”  There was a definite distinction between the relaxed informality of Dallas reporters accustomed to covering the courthouse and those who flew in specifically to cover the Ruby trial, sometimes arriving with negative preconceived notions about the city. Helen Holmes remembered having a reporter from French weekly magazine L’Express physically removed from her PR office. “He was screaming at me,” she recalled in an oral history. “He was yelling at me that he was going to ruin me in Europe because I wasn’t being cooperative enough.”

Some national and international reporters pushed the boundaries of professionalism during the trial. Defense attorney Phil Burleson often received phone calls in the middle of the night from reporters needing to confirm information for pressing deadlines. Defense investigator Bob Denson abandoned his Dallas office to work out of his home because reporters consistently stopped by with questions. Assistant District Attorney Bill Alexander was vocally critical of what he considered “unfair, sloppy” news stories. In a talk given two weeks after the verdict, he lamented, “they reported what they wanted to see and what they wanted to hear rather than the events that happened.”  Echoing some of the sentiments expressed by Dallas D.A. Henry Wade, Alexander went on to say that the press “came late, left early and wrote their reports from what they heard at the Press Club.”

Always jockeying for position, there was occasional friction between print, radio and television journalists. Carrying only a portable tape recorder, Gary DeLaune, police reporter for Dallas radio station KLIF, grew frustrated by television technicians wielding large boom microphones. He used the wooden slats of an orange crate to rig a homemade boom mic. “Every day when the network guys would gather around,” he recalled, “I got a chair and I’d start putting that slat over so I could get the audio, and these guys would swear at me.”  News photographers also got creative since no cameras were allowed in the courtroom. To get good overhead shots without reporters in the way, a few cameramen taped flashes and remote-operated cameras to hallway walls. In a rare moment of solidarity, network television crews worked together to properly light the main hallway for their bulky cameras. “We had one master switch,” recalled ABC broadcaster Murphy Martin. “Didn’t have to wait for proper lighting or worry about anything like that, and that was the first time that I had been in a situation like that.”

Cameramen gather in the courthouse hallway. Note the lights and camera taped to the wall.

Cameramen gather in the courthouse hallway. Note the lights and camera taped to the wall. Bill Winfrey Collection, The Dallas Morning News/The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza
Bill Winfrey Collection, The Dallas Morning News/The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza

The one occasion when cameras were permitted inside the courtroom was on March 14, 1964, for the trial verdict. Martin, a longtime friend of the judge, was the one who finally convinced Brown to televise that significant moment. Martin and Brown established “some ground rules as to how [the press] would conduct themselves.”  Unfortunately, before an audience of millions, all decorum broke down as soon as the guilty verdict was read. Martin recalled that cameramen “just jumped up on the furniture.”  PR advisor Helen Holmes had recommended that the verdict not be televised, fearing that the jurors would be overwhelmed by reporters. Instead, she was shocked when live cameras caught lead defense attorney Melvin Belli deliver an impromptu and unhinged rant against Dallas, which he declared “a city of shame forevermore.”  Holmes remembered, “He had all these bright lights on him, and his face was just sweating. You could practically see the spittle.”

Analysis of the trial’s unprecedented media coverage was swift in the aftermath. Journalism professor J. Edward Gerald at the University of Minnesota suggested that such “publicity [was] altering the jury system, making it unnecessarily expensive, cumbersome to administer and less trustworthy than justice requires.”  The American Bar Association suggested “an urgent need for voluntary restraints” without advocating press censorship or restrictions. The American Civil Liberties Union simply stated “that court proceedings should not be broadcast, televised or photographed.”

Just as the Kennedy assassination altered the way in which breaking news stories are covered, the Jack Ruby trial impacted the way in which the media reports on high-profile court cases, right up to the present day. For those who lived through that hectic, historic experience fifty-four years ago, it was, if nothing else, unforgettable. Helen Holmes concluded, “I think almost everybody connected with the Ruby trial, at one time or another, felt the pressure of the press.”

Note: This blog quotes interviews from the Oral History Project at The Sixth Floor Museum as well as contemporary newspaper accounts. Access to these and other Museum collections is available by scheduling a research appointment in our Reading Room.

November 2, 2017

The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza Announces Special Exhibit on Kennedy Funeral

DALLAS, TX – November 2, 2017: On Friday, November 17, 2017, The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza will open a special temporary exhibit, Mourning a President. The exhibition will close on Presidents Day, February 19, 2018.

Mourning a President presents a compelling chronology of the funeral of President John F. Kennedy and his burial in Arlington National Cemetery on Monday, November 25, 1963, in Washington, D.C.

The funeral of President Kennedy was our nation’s most elaborate presidential funeral since the burial of Abraham Lincoln almost a century earlier in April 1865. Over the course of eighteen hours on November 24 and November 25, 1963, approximately 250,000 mourners honored President Kennedy, who lay in state inside the Capitol Rotunda. Foreign leaders came from around the globe to pay their respects and to participate in the funeral procession.

This exhibit will feature many significant historical objects from the Museum’s collections that include hand-written notes from Mrs. Kennedy addressing the intricate planning for the funeral, a funeral program from St. Matthew’s Cathedral, mass cards, eulogies and special editions of newspapers and magazines.

“It is staggering to imagine the meticulous planning and intricate coordination required to ensure all aspects of the funeral came together in less than three days, especially in the midst of such overwhelming national shock and grief,” said Nicola Longford, executive director of The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza.

As a featured highlight of the exhibit, the Museum will display for the first time fully unfurled, the 15-foot-long flag that flew at half-staff above the Senate Wing of the U.S. Capitol during the 30-day national mourning period.

A powerful video that incorporates moving personal accounts from the Museum’s oral history collection, news footage and never-before-seen home movies will provide an intimate and emotionally powerful retrospective of the president’s funeral.

In conjunction with Mourning a President, on Wednesday, November 29, 2017, at 11 a.m., the Museum will offer a special public program featuring Major William F. Lee. As a lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1963, Major Lee commanded the Silent Drill Platoon at the historic 8th & I Marine Barracks in Washington, D.C. Lee served sentry duty around President John F. Kennedy’s casket in the East Room of the White House and in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. Author of The Boys in Blue White Dress, Lee will sign copies following the program. The program is free with Museum admission or $10 for program-only admission.

Mourning a President is presented with support from the Dallas Tourism Public Improvement District.

 

Contact Information
Laurie Ivy
Marketing and Communications Manager
The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza
lauriei@jfk.org
Direct: 214.389.3046

 

About the Museum
The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza chronicles the assassination and legacy of President John F. Kennedy; interprets the Dealey Plaza National Historic Landmark District and the John F. Kennedy Memorial Plaza; and presents contemporary culture within the context of presidential history.

Located at 411 Elm Street in downtown Dallas, the Museum is open Monday 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. and Tuesday – Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Audio guides for the permanent exhibit are included with admission and available in eight languages, including ASL. For more information, visit jfk.org or call 214.747.6660.

Admission: $16 Adult, $14 Senior, $13 Youth (children aged 5 and under are free). Entrance to Mourning a President is included with Museum admission.

[Download a print-friendly version of this press release]

October 25, 2017

The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza Announces Special Program on JFK Records Release

DALLAS, TX – October 25, 2017: The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza is presenting a special program on Saturday, November 18, 2017 focused on the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992. What Has the Government Been Hiding? 54 Years of Secrets & the Release of the JFK Records will feature a conversation with best-selling authors Larry Sabato and Philip Shenon, moderated by NPR’s Dave Davies.

The JFK Records Collection Act mandated that by October 26, 2017, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) must release all withheld government files pertaining to the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Sabato, founder and director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, and Shenon, a former New York Times investigative reporter, will discuss the ramifications and revelations of the final release of the JFK records.

“The Museum’s mission is to help place into context the assassination of President Kennedy, and the additional information contained in these remaining documents could have potential value to researchers and historians,” said Nicola Longford, executive director of The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza. “Larry and Phil have a unique depth of knowledge and are highly regarded by assassination scholars, so we look forward to hearing their perspective on this timely topic.”

The program will be held at 2 p.m. on Saturday, November 18 on the Museum’s seventh floor. Program tickets are $15, and advance purchase is recommended at jfk.org.

Entrance to the permanent exhibition, John F. Kennedy and the Memory of a Nation, is not included with the purchase of a program-only ticket and requires a separate general admission ticket.

About Larry Sabato
Dr. Larry J. Sabato is a New York Times best-selling author, has won two Emmys, and is recognized as one of the nation’s most respected political analysts. He appears multiple times a week on national and international TV, including FOX, CNN, MSNBC, and CNN International. A Rhodes Scholar, Dr. Sabato is the founder and director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics and the award-winning Sabato’s Crystal Ball. He is the author of The Kennedy Half-Century, which examines the life, assassination and lasting legacy of President John F. Kennedy.

About Philip Shenon
Philip Shenon was an investigative journalist for The New York Times for more than twenty years. As a Washington correspondent for the Times, he covered the Pentagon, the Justice Department and the State Department. As a foreign correspondent for the paper, he reported from more than sixty countries and several war zones. His book, A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination, was named the best American history book of 2014 by the Society of American Historians, based at Columbia University. The book’s title refers to the first sentence of the Warren Commission’s report: “The assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy on November 22, 1963, was a cruel and shocking act of violence directed against a man, a family, a nation, and against all mankind.” Shenon also authored The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation. Both books were New York Times bestsellers. Shenon is a frequent contributor to NPR, Politico, The Washington Post, Newsweek and the Guardian.

About Dave Davies
Dave Davies has covered local politics and government in Philadelphia for more than thirty years. A senior reporter for WHYY-FM, a public radio station in Philadelphia, he is also a contributor and fill-in host for Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Before that he was reporter and columnist for The Philadelphia Daily News, where he worked from 1990 to 2010. Before joining the Daily News, Davies was city hall bureau chief for KYW News Radio, and city hall correspondent for WHYY. A native Texan, Davis graduated from the University of Texas in 1975.

Contact Information
Laurie Ivy
Marketing and Communications Manager
The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza
lauriei@jfk.org
Direct: 214.389.3046

About the Museum
The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza chronicles the assassination and legacy of President John F. Kennedy; interprets the Dealey Plaza National Historic Landmark District and the John F. Kennedy Memorial Plaza; and presents contemporary culture within the context of presidential history.

Located at 411 Elm Street in downtown Dallas, the Museum is open Monday 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. and Tuesday – Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Audio guides for the permanent exhibit are included with admission and available in eight languages, including ASL. For more information, visit jfk.org or call 214.747.6660.

Admission: $16 Adult, $14 Senior, $13 Youth (children aged 5 and under are free). Tickets to What Has the Government Been Hiding? 54 Years of Secrets & the Release of the JFK Records are $15. Admission tickets and program tickets sold separately.

[Download a print-friendly version of this press release]

October 20, 2017

Statement on The President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992

In July 2017, the National Archives began to release a portion of formerly withheld records related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy as part of the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992. Additional records are expected for release by October 26, 2017. The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza has no specific insight into these particular documents. We acknowledge that this additional information may have potential value to researchers and historians. The Museum’s mission is to help place into context the assassination of President Kennedy, and we anticipate the records release could lead to a broader understanding of the assassination and the time period.

On November 18, the Museum is hosting a public program, What Has the Government Been Hiding? 54 Years of Secrets & the Release of the JFK Records. Moderated by Dave Davies and featuring noted authors Larry Sabato and Philip Shenon, the timely topic of the JFK Records Collection Act and pending records release will be discussed.

For more information about the program, please visit https://www.jfk.org/event/jfk-records-release. For more information about the JFK Assassination Records Collection Act and The President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection at the National Archives, see https://www.archives.gov/research/jfk.

Contact Information

Laurie Ivy
Marketing and Communications Manager
The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza
lauriei@jfk.org
Direct: 214.389.3046

About the Museum

The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza chronicles the assassination and legacy of President John F. Kennedy; interprets the Dealey Plaza National Historic Landmark District and the John F. Kennedy Memorial Plaza; and presents contemporary culture within the context of presidential history.

Located at 411 Elm Street in downtown Dallas, the Museum is open Monday 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. and Tuesday – Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Audio guides for the permanent exhibit are included with admission and available in eight languages, including ASL. For more information, visit jfk.org or call 214.747.6660.

[Download a print-friendly version of this press release]

Next Page »