Chap 5: “Pressing News”

 This is the first of three narratives covering the time, 1967 to 1977, I spent at the Pontiac Press, which was renamed Oakland Press during that period.

The largest riot in American history was raging on Detroit’s west side, less than 20 miles south of Pontiac, and here I was in the Pontiac Press news room at my first day on a new job.

It was Monday, June 24, 1967. The rioting had begun late the night before and its momentum caused the muster of National Guard units, not only to quell the spreading Detroit uprising, but for standby duty in Pontiac, a nervous city of 80,000 cringing in the shadow cast by the continuing violence.

Coverage by the Press appeared nowhere on Page One. Incredulous, I asked my new colleagues why this was. “It’s Old Weird Harold,” They explained, referring to the Press publisher’s decision to relegate it to Page 2.

It would be among a number of strange news decisions by Harold Fitzgerald during my time at the Press. When the Pope came out with his Encyclical of 1968, Fitzgerald’s instructions were to bury the story deep in the paper. It ended up on the same page as the comics.

Pope Paul VI
Pope Paul VI

There was the requirement that I become a member of the Detroit local of the American Newspaper Guild, the most militant and strike-prone ANG local in the country.

All this brought me to the conclusion that this chapter in my newspapering would perhaps be “an ‘orse of a different color.”

The Press operated out of a two-story venerable  brick building on the north side of West Huron Street, about 100 yards east of Wide Track Drive, which circled, at least four lanes wide,  the entire Pontiac downtown area.

That Wide Track label derived from Pontiac Motor Division boasting that its cars sat upon a wider chassis and thus the wheel track was wider than others. The boast fit in nicely among the various high-profile schemes of the colorful John Delorean, who as head of Pontiac Motor Division, seemed always busy buckling his swashes.

Pontiac was the seat of Oakland County, at that time the most affluent county in Michigan and among the most affluent in the nation.

This was not to say that the populous of Pontiac was by any means close to being rich, but the city was home to the main Pontiac plant as well as General Motors’ GM Truck and Coach, and Fisher Body plants.

And the United Auto Workers ruled the labor roost.

The Press news room was on the second floor of the building, with a wire room close by, and the sports department and the society department toward the rear. Farther back was the back shop.

Jack Sroud, a friendly fellow in his thirties who carried noticeably extra weight on a medium-height frame, was the wire editor. In his absence, that was to be my job. Also, I would work on the copy desk, either on the rim or in the slot.

If incoming news over the wire was significant enough to merit what was called a bulletin, a series of five bells would sound. Much less often, if news arrived of upmost national or world impact, there would clang out a dozen bells in rapid-fire order.

This boisterous clamor was intended to bring editors abruptly out of their chairs in a rush to the wire room.  Such tintinnabulation bore no resemblance to what Edgar Allen Poe tried to describe in his famous poem.

Bill Monahan, a chunky loquacious curly haired Irishman who was responsible for keeping an eye – and an ear – on the Press wire room now and again, recalled being on wire duty the day, November 22, 1965, when  President John F. Kennedy was shot.

The Associated Press and United Press International teletype machines crouched alongside each other nearest the news room.  The fact that Fitzgerald, the Press publisher, was a member of the AP board of directors, was to have a stifling and frustrating impact on how the Press handled the story that day.

Suddenly, near mid-afternoon, the clang of a series of 12 bells burst from the from the wire room, and Monahan was there immediately. The UPI teletype machine had hammered out FLASH…PRESIDENT KENNEDY SHOT.

The AP machine, alongside, sat silent.

In Dallas, UPI’s Merriman Smith had been riding in the front of the press pool car behind Kennedy’s limousine, and as a front-seat passenger, had access to the only radiotelephone in the car. AP’s Jack Bell was in the back seat and was intensely frustrated that his competitor had the phone – even to the point, reportedly – to pummeling Smith about the head.  Not until the press pool car had screeched to a halt behind the Kennedy limousine at Dallas’ Parkland Hospital and Smith threw the radiophone at Bell did AP have a chance to begin to phone the news to its Dallas office.

UPI’s considerable lead on the story posed a problem for Monahan. Fitzgerald, as an AP board member, had ruled that the Press rely on AP, not UPI, particularly on a story of this import.

Monahan, figuring: How was Fitzgerald to know? Went ahead with UPI copy anyway, finally using one late-arriving paragraph of AP.

As he worked to put the story together, he said, staffers crowded into the wire room, tearing off strips of teletype paper. Finally, Editor Harry Reed cleared them out so Monahan could do his job.

Meanwhile in Dallas, Smith’s coverage of the tragedy was swift and outstanding and later won him the Pulitzer Prize.

 

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