Here’s a Calbuzz Classic, from the 2013 memory file, to commemorate once again the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the most tragic and consequential political event of our lifetimes. For those of a certain age. the live coverage of that wretched weekend began a string of televised cultural horror shows that, for now, ends with the election of Donald Trump. As the saying goes, he’s no Jack Kennedy.
It’s often said that the hardest thing to do in sports is to hit a major league fastball, an act that provides a batter about six-tenths of a second to see the ball, decide whether it’s a strike and then to swing at it.
That conclusion emerges from recalling how two local news photographers performed in the white-hot spotlight of history 50 years ago, when strip club owner Jack Ruby gunned down alleged presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald in the underground parking garage of the Dallas Police Department.
Six-tenths of a second, in fact, is precisely the difference in the timing of two great photographs taken of the event, one by Dallas Times Herald photographer Robert H. “Bob” Jackson (above), and the other by the late Ira Jefferson “Jack” Beers of the Dallas Morning News (left). Beers’ image captured the instant before Ruby fired, Jackson’s the impact; Beers’ photo for the morning paper went around the world first, distributed by the Associated Press, Jackson’s was published a few hours later, and won the Pulitzer Prize.
In baseball terms, Beers had hit a double, while Jackson launched a grand slam deep into the upper deck.
The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat
The bittersweet tale of the two photographers, two cameras and two images made on Nov. 24, 1963 was told splendidly a few years ago by Michael Granberry of the Morning News, a lovely story that became an instant classic amid the canon of assassination journalism.
From that moment on, Mr. Beers “never had as much confidence in himself,” says his daughter, who describes him as “feeling let down. Not by anybody in particular. More by fate, I guess. He always felt like, ‘Why have I had to struggle so hard to finally get the picture and then not get it?’ “
Scott Sommerdorf, a major league photographer and Chief Calbuzz Photo Editing Consultant, explains some of the technical differences between the two photos this way:
“Timing, and composition come into play in assessing these two photos,” he said. “An old phrase; ‘If it’s not good enough, you’re not close enough” is applicable here.
“We could improve Beers’ photo with a crop to make it tighter, but Jackson’s is still superior because of his slightly better timing,” he added. “Of course neither photographer could have planned for this, but Jackson’s timing was much better. Jackson’s is one of just a handful of classic photos we can all easily recall, and the timing is the key to its power.”
What the news business is really like: It’s a plain fact that reporters are different than normal human beings, due to their lack of what we might call the Basic Human Decency and Sensitivity Gene.
So behind the scenes, the events of November 1963 — as horrible and tragic as they were for President Kennedy’s family, the nation and the cause of world peace — were for Beers, Jackson and the staffs of both Dallas papers one helluva’ hometown story, an occasion for their day-to-day caustic and aggressive competition against each other to be elevated to an unprecedented level of ferocity.
A rare glimpse of that hard-core newsroom perspective may be found in “JFK 50,” a one-hour, online documentary prepared by the Morning News, the only surviving paper in Dallas, as part of its weeks-long spectacular coverage of the anniversary.
“And then we were getting the reports that we’ve got a helluva’ photograph,” recalls Jim Ewell, a reporter for the morning paper, “That Jack Beers had got the world breaking photograph of Ruby shooting Oswald.”
Jackson remembers feeling deeply anxious upon his return to the Times Herald newsroom, unsure of what he captured in his camera of the Oswald shooting: “Jack Beers’ picture was already on the wire,” he says in the documentary, “and there was a little group of people out at the wire machine looking at it and they called me over and said ‘Do you have anything as good as this?’ And I said, ‘I’ll let you know after I run my film.’” (Photo above © Allison V. Smith)
(Memo to the pre-septuagenarian crowd: once upon a time, long before pixels were invented, photos were taken with something called “film” that was “developed” in a “darkroom” using baths of chemicals and water. But we digress).
Take that, you bastards: Jackson again: “So it was a pretty tense moment. So I went in, ran my film and (the photo editor) was standing right outside the door. I remember holding up the wet negative, you know and looking at it, and it looked sharp, that was the first thing, it looked sharp.”
Reporter Darwin Payne was one of those hanging around the newsroom, desperately hoping that Jackson had something better than Beers: “There it was, in the water, I guess that’s what it was, cleaning off some of the chemicals, and I said ‘there’s the Pulitzer Prize winner.’”
Vivian Castleberry, one of the few women writers on the paper and the story, recalls the moment she saw the photo this way: “All of Dallas could have heard the screaming from that room when he developed that picture and the image came out of what he had.”
Jackson: “And I remember lettin’ out a yell of some kind and so we made a wet print…and carried it out to the newsroom and then we realized we beat the Dallas News.”
A footnote to the story: Bob Schieffer, now a CBS-News honcho, but then a grunt reporter for the Forth Worth Star-Telegram, remembers that his editors grabbed the Beers photo off the AP wire and quickly slapped it on the front page of his paper:
“And I grabbed a bundle of those papers myself and took it down to Dealey Plaza and sold them, started selling them, like a paperboy down there ‘cuz this was such a huge scoop,” says Schieffer, “and what made it such a sweet scoop, there was such competition between the Dallas News and the Star Telegram in those days, we were on the streets of Dallas with the Dallas News picture on our front page, on the streets of Dallas, before the Dallas News got their first edition out.”
God we love the news business.
P.S. Another good yarn about a great journalistic performance on 11/22/1963, h/t Rob Gunnison.