July 8, 2014

The book on the news: Eddie Barker takes us through the glorious past of TV news

Eddie Barker's Notebook: Stories That Made the News, and Some Better Ones That Didn't!
by Eddie Barker and John Mark Dempsey
(John M. Hardy Publishing, 254 pages, available through used booksellers or at the Sixth Floor Museum)

Before I moved to Dallas, all I knew about Eddie Barker was that he was news director of KRLD, the CBS affiliate in DFW, and that he’d covered the JFK assassination from the Trade Mart, announcing the President’s death based on information from a good source.  Now, that’s quite a lot to be known for right there, and if that was all there was to the Eddie Barker story, he still would have accomplished more than most of us.

Fortunately, there’s a lot more to the story than that, and a few years before his death Barker set it down in the wonderfully anecdotal Eddie Barker’s Notebook.  Its subheading says it all: “Stories that made the news, and some better ones that didn't!”  Staring with the teen-aged Barker’s intro to radio at San Antonio’s KMAC-AM in 1943, and through a career that included broadcasting Southwestern Conference football, being news director (and on-air talent) for both KRLD-AM and TV, and on to the challenges of public relations work and the joys of small-town radio, Barker and co-author John Mark Dempsey give us insight into not only a remarkable broadcasting career, but a look at how the industry and the country itself have changed over the course of the last 60 years or so.

Most of us who are of a certain age will remember Barker’s dramatic reporting from the Trade Mart, including the shocking announcement of Kennedy’s death at a time when much of the country was reeling from continuous bulletins and still trying to grasp the enormity of the shooting.  Though the initial news was very bad, there was enough uncertainty regarding Kennedy’s condition (and enough confusion surrounding the news stories pouring in) that one could still retain a glimmer of hope that JFK would pull through.  That lasted until an acquaintance of Barker’s who also happened to be a staff doctor at Parkland Hospital made a phone call and talked to a fellow doctor at the hospital.  After hanging up he approached Barker and gave him the news: “Eddie, he’s dead.”  Barker was so stunned that he couldn't even remember his friend’s name  - which was fine as it turned out, since the doctor didn't want attribution.

SOURCE: DALLAS MORNING NEWS
While it’s always interesting to read the behind-the-scenes account of a historic moment such as that, Barker offers us much more: the lead-up to the President’s visit, the around-the-clock work (much of it brilliant) done by KRLD following the assassination, the story of how Barker threw Dan Rather and his CBS crew out of KRLD’s newsroom (you’ll have to read the book to find out why), the coverage of Lee Oswald’s murder at the hands of Jack Ruby, and Ruby’s subsequent trial and conviction.  I don't want you to get hung up on the JFK angle, though.  Barker, a true raconteur, does indeed deliver on his promise to share not only those stories that made the news, but the ones that didn't.  Throughout his career he came into contact with people as diverse as Humphrey Bogart, H.R. Hunt, Richard Nixon, Dizzy Dean, Lucille Ball, Joseph McCarthy and Linus Pauling.  As befits a man who seemed to know everyone, colorful stories of colorful characters come alive on almost every page, from the man accused of blowing up an airliner in order to fake his own death to the successful businessman whom Barker accompanied on a private plane to prison, where the businessman was to start serving a sentence for drug smuggling.  It's a fact: everything, including the true stories, is bigger in Texas.

Through it all, one thing stands out: the power of personal contact.  We’ve become used to the impersonal nowadays; we get our internet news from people we never see, we make decisions based on the recommendations of perfect strangers, we live our own lives in a cocoon into which very few people have access.  But Barker became indispensable to CBS throughout the Kennedy story because of his personal connections.  He knew how to open doors.  Many people talked to him simply because they recognized him from television and trusted him, and they wound up telling him things they probably wouldn't have dreamed of sharing with anyone else.*  It seemed many times as if, in Walter Cronkite's words, "he knows every cop, fire fighter, emergency room doctor, and ambulance attendant in Dallas . . . besides the city, county, state, and federal officials whom he taps for information when required," but in the few cases where he didn't, he likely knew the people that did, and again the doors would open.

*An anecdote: at Jack Ruby's trial, Ruby's sister told Barker how much his presence at the trial meant to Jack, since "he's always considered you to be one of his best friends"; Barker had never met him before the trial.

Now, there are many people who know how to open doors, or how to get someone else to open them; it's another thing entirely to know what to do once you've walked through them.  Barker was first and foremost a newsman; he knew the value of speed, the importance of trustworthy sources, when to ask a question and when to remain silent, when to prod and when to sit back.  He delivered more than one "beat" (scoop) for the network, and the number of CBS personnel who recognized him as a friend and colleague (Cronkite, Rather, Eric Sevareid, Harry Reasoner, Don Hewitt and Mike Wallace among them) testifies to the respect in which he was held.

The other thing that struck me, again and again, was how informal the news business was back then, and how well it served us.  Somebody once said that corporate America began its slide when it replaced “Personnel” departments with the more antiseptic “Human Resources,” and Barker’s book goes far to bear this out.  Barker himself was hired as a teenager because he walked into a radio station and asked for a job.  He had no experience, had none of the qualifications that HR departments would look for today – but he’d listened to the radio, he’d practiced reading wire copy, he knew how names were pronounced and what inflections to use, and he wasn’t afraid of hard work.  He read some sample copy for the program director, who told him, “I think we can find a place for you.”  Just like that, his career had started.

Barker didn't forget that, and once he became news director at KRLD he demonstrated the same willingness to take a chance, to use his newsman’s gut instinct to make a call.  When asked by Bob Phillips, who as an junior college student heard Barker speak and then worked up the nerve to ask him for a job, why Barker had hired him, an 18-year-old kid, Eddie's reply was succinct: he figured if Phillips "had the guts to ask for a job, [he] just might have enough guts to do that job."  Just like that, another career was started.  When he made Judy Jordan the first female news anchor in Dallas-Fort Worth, he didn’t even tell his superiors about it – he “snuck her on” the air so nobody could object to her without having first seen her talent.  She, like so many of Barker’s associates, went on to become a local legend.

It was easier to do things like that back then, I suppose.  It was a time, as Barker writes, when television was brand new, without a playbook for success.  There were no focus groups to provide feedback, no consultants to offer insight; in other words, no clich├ęs to fall back on.  People made things up as they went along, keeping what worked and getting rid of what didn't.  Everybody did everything; on-air reporters were expected to know how to shoot news film, and KRLD’s weatherman and sportscaster were both news reporters who covered breaking stories when bodies were needed in the field.*  News is more corporate now, more homogenized, more specialized.  But is it any better?

*Another anecdote: in the fall of 1963, shortly before JFK’s visit, UN ambassador Adlai Stevenson was attacked by a woman with a picket sign after making a speech in Dallas.  It was one of the events that caused many to suggest that Kennedy forego the Dallas part of the trip.  Anyway, the reason KRLD had the film of Stevenson being wacked with the sign was because Wes Wise, the station's weatherman (and future mayor of Dallas), and Jim Underwood, the sportscaster, were there covering the speech.  As the time for the 10:00 news approached, they had to decide: get back to the studio for the newscast, or remain at the speech in case something happened.  Wise said he'd head back for his weathercast, and if Underwood wasn't back in time Wise would cover the sports as well. When the attack happened, Underwood caught it all on film, and KRLD had another story.

There are plenty of stories to go around in Eddie Barker's Notebook, and for me to share any more would be a disservice; you need to read the book.  But just when you think you've read it all, don't miss out on the final chapter, in which Barker recounts his post-retirement days as host of a local call-in show in his hometown of Paris, Texas.  If you're of the impression that you have to work for a big organization in a big market in order to make a difference, think again.  And if the internet and its "online community" ultimately fails in its goal of uniting people, this closing story - of the power that the human voice has to bring people together and change lives - will stand as Exhibit A.  For while technology is a great thing, it will never replace the common humanity that links us all together, for better or worse.  In Eddie Barker's hands, it was usually the former.

4 comments:

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  2. What a great blog post about Eddie Barker. Thank you, Mitchell, for the insight into Mr. Barker's "Notebook".

    Barker has been a favorite of mine since I saw his coverage of the JFK assassination. Sitting right next to Dan Rather the day after the tragedy, Eddie provided a lot of interesting information, told from the perspective of someone who knew Dallas (and Texas) inside-out. He sure gives you that impression during his November '63 KRLD & CBS coverage at any rate. And this blog post by Mitchell Hadley would certainly tend to back up that fact.

    Eddie Barker passed away almost exactly two years ago (on July 23, 2012). You can watch his complete coverage from the Trade Mart on 11/22/63 at the link below. (Well, it's the most "complete" version I have ever found, taken from the KRLD-TV raw tapes.)

    KRLD-TV COVERAGE ON NOVEMBER 22, 1963

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    1. Thanks, David! It's been a regret of mine that Eddie died before we moved to Dallas; my copy of his book, which I picked up at a used book store, happens to be autographed; I would have loved to have gotten it from him personally and listened to some more of those great stories.

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  3. Wasn't Eddie Barker a "pool" reporter at the Dallas Trade Mart on November 22nd, 1963, with his reports also airing on ABC-TV, NBC Radio, and Mutual Radio?

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