TOPICS > Politics

Eddie Barker on the Kennedy Assassination

November 20, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT

EDDIE BARKER: At the time of the assassination, I was the news director for KRLD radio and KRLD television, the CBS affiliates in Dallas, and we were part of the day of the assassination, a consortium of, of our station and two other stations in the market, WBAP and WFAA, in how we were going to cover the visit of the president.

INTERVIEWER: What about that pool arrangement– how did that work, all the cameras from different stations?

EDDIE BARKER: We had a pool arrangement in those days, because nobody had more — we couldn’t do more than one thing at a time, and there were, we considered three big events on the presidential visit. One was his arrival at Love Field. One was the big event over in Fort Worth, and the other was the luncheon at the Trade Mart in Dallas.

And so, of course, WBAP being in Fort Worth did the Fort Worth pick-up, and they did the breakfast that morning, and then WFAA did the arrival at Love Field, and KRLD, our assignment was to do the luncheon at the Trade Mart. And so that’s where I happened to be at the Trade Mart.

INTERVIEWER: A lot of people today think why couldn’t somebody just immediately send a live unit over to Dealey Plaza. What technologically was available to you in 1963?

EDDIE BARKER: What did we have to work with in 1963? We had black-and-white cameras. We had one remote unit. It was a big old truck. We had no handheld cameras. They were just not available at the time. And anything that we did, as far as a remote was concerned, we had to send our big remote unit out, and we had to, you know, go through the telephone company to get lines, and all that sort of thing. And we always had the problem of whether or not we could get a signal back from where, you know, the event was occurring.

And on the day of the assassination, or the trip of the president, as I say, we did the Trade Mart, WFAA did the airport, and WBAP did the events in Fort Worth. And our set-up at the Trade Mart was pretty simple. We had, oh, I guess we had two cameras there, and we — I remember I was up on the balcony, and we had a camera up there shooting down, and then we had one down in the middle of the luncheon crowd to do the head-on shots and all. And it was a big event for us, and we pulled out both cameras.

And of course, today, you know, I look at a local station that will have a pick-up from, oh, four or five different places at one time, and in those days, it was a very, well, it just wasn’t like it is today. About the only way to describe it, we were working with the equipment at hand, and the equipment at hand was not what it is today.

INTERVIEWER: Was there an amount of time that cameras actually had to warm up, an hour or two?

EDDIE BARKER: Oh, yes, cameras had to warm up, and but of course, on an event like, like that, we had plenty of time to warm up the cameras. But that’s right. I’d frankly forgotten the fact that we had to warm up cameras, but we did, yes.

INTERVIEWER: At the time there wasn’t a lot of live, breaking coverage, correct? Somebody would go shoot footage and bring it back to the station, but nobody was out at a breaking news event necessarily.

EDDIE BARKER: If there was a breaking news event, the only thing that you could say would just be go on the air with a, with a voice report because we had black-and-white cameras — old Bell & Howell three-turret cameras — and we would shoot black-and-white film. Du Pont was the big film supplier in those days, and we shot a 930 or a 931 film. One was an outdoor, one was the indoor film, and you would have to bring the film back to the station and “soup” it. That was the big term then. We would soup the film, and then have to edit it and then put it on the air. So nothing was instantaneous, no.

INTERVIEWER: What kind of coverage were you expecting to deliver at the Trade Mart?

EDDIE BARKER: Yes, of just a very simple welcome of the president. The, you know, the citizens of Dallas, and in this sense, I think that we ought to recall that most of the people, I would say, who were in that audience were people who had not voted for the president. He did not represent (chuckles) the views of an awful lot of “Dallasites” at that time, and very frankly, the people who were in the position to go to that lunch were and all, I would say, by and large were probably 90% Republicans. And it was going to be a very nice affair, and you know, the mayor and everybody else was on hand, of course, for it, and it was going to be just a nice luncheon and a nice speech, and, and that was it. We didn’t expect anything at all to be out, you know, out of hand out there.

INTERVIEWER: At what point did you realize something had gone wrong?

EDDIE BARKER: Our truck — and back to our truck, our big old mobile unit — was parked outside, and one of the engineers down in the truck, called me on the headset and said, “Something has gone wrong. They’re headed for the airport. They didn’t stop.” And you know, because that was the way they would go back to the airport. And I, you know, said, “Well, what else? What else?” He said, “Well, just the whole thing, the police cars and everything else are going by.”

And so then I got a call from the newsroom, and they told me that there had been shots fired down there, and that was what was my first inkling that anything like a shooting had taken place. And so we just immediately took air, because we were the only setup that, you know, that we had, and so I just started ad-libbing, you know, what little I knew and tried to make what little I knew into sounding like a heck of lot more than I knew. (Chuckles)

I had nobody to interview because I was up on the balcony and all of the dignitaries and luncheon guests and all were downstairs. And so we just, you know, filled air, and just with things that from my knowledge of, you know, why he was in Texas, what you know, what had gone on before all of these things. And then as we got a little more involved was when this doctor that I knew came up to me and whispered in my ear and told me that he was dead. And that — you know, I did a double-take, and I, we were using a big, old long mike. Remember that big, old long one? And I held that mike under my arm and said, “What?” He said, “He’s dead.” I said, “How do you know?” He said, “I just called the emergency room, and he’s DOA.”

Well, I knew this doctor, and he was big out at Parkland, and so what he had done, he just went to a phone and called the Emergency Room, and they said, “Yeah, he’s dead.” And so he told me, and then I went on the air and said that I’d just been told by a source that I would trust implicitly that the president was dead. And so that started causing a little furor at CBS, because, I did not know it, but CBS had picked up our, our broadcast, and we were, I was doing this, Cronkite was doing his thing in New York, and so I remember they gave me a lot of credit for being the local guy saying that he’s dead. It’s not official.

But that was but that, it turned out, of course, it was true, and I knew that, you know, these, these medical people, they talk to each other, and it was just a very matter-of-fact thing that they said, “Yeah, he was dead when they brought him in.”

INTERVIEWER: Was there a subtext in your head as you were about to announce that the president has died? An inner dialogue?

EDDIE BARKER: Sure, I know what you’re saying. I guess that no, I, I had no doubt that as a reporter that I had, I had to go on with the story, and it was then that I started thinking, “What do I say now?” you know? And then I started to, you know, trying to recall a little bit about Kennedy and about the trip and why he was on the trip, and all of these things. And I just kept going as, you know — but, to say ahead of time, after I say this, what am I going to say? I said it and then thought what am I going to say, if that makes sense.

So what do you say after you have said something that it turns out it’s the first time anybody, anyone had said it? That I had just, you know, said, “The president is dead, because I’ve just been told by a source who just talked to the Emergency Room.” And so, it later became, you know, quite a, quite a thing that I had, I had done this. And then, of course, you know, today we hear these stories about you’re supposed to have two sources for every story, or three sources or whatever. And I don’t know.

I, through the years this always comes up, and people have said, “Well, did you have any, you know, any reservation at all about making the, about saying it?” And no, I did not, because, first and foremost, I was a reporter, and first and foremost a reporter is supposed to report the news, and this without a doubt was news. This was news that the president of the United States was dead. So I said it.

INTERVIEWER: You trusted your source and your judgment has been praised for four decades. Has it occurred to you subsequent to this, “What if I had been wrong?” What would have happened?

EDDIE BARKER: It would have been forgotten. Nobody ever would have remembered, because history would not have said there was a guy that went on the television and said the president was dead, and he really wasn’t dead. I mean, that would have been lost, and so had I been wrong, my name would never have been heard of again because that was such a small thing had somebody said he’s dead, and he hadn’t — he was not dead. So I don’t think that, it would have — any impact at all would have been made by that. It would have just been lost to somewhere in the old tape, if anybody ever wanted to go back and look at it again.

INTERVIEWER: Can you feel the emotions there was at that time? How does it come back to you?

EDDIE BARKER: Well, things happened so fast that day, and you know, the — while all of this was going on, we were having the killing of Officer Tippit out in Oak Cliff, and you know, we knew that there was an officer shot because it was on the radio, you know. But, you know, any other time we would have had a crew out there to cover that, but at that point it was, “Gee, I’m — it’s tough that he got shot today instead of yesterday,” or whatever, because we were not interested in it at all. And that really didn’t begin to develop into the story until much later that day. And then, of course, when Lee Harvey Oswald, when they realized, when they finally got him there in the Texas Theater and realized that he was the one who had done the shooting over there, well, then all of a sudden, it, that becomes a bigger part of the story than it certainly was when we heard that a policeman had, had been shot.

INTERVIEWER: When you go back evaluate the performance of Dallas journalists in general and KRLD in particular, what do you think are the most impressive achievements of the weekend?

EDDIE BARKER: Well, let’s see. How would I say this…I think, probably as much as anything else in trying to get the story straight because we had an awful of, quote, “journalists,” unquote, who started moving in here like you wouldn’t believe, and, and you know, you’ve heard this before, I’m sure, but it was so true. So many of these people came into town, and the only thing they had on their mind was that Dallas killed the president, and this is a city of hate, and by damn, we are gonna, we’re going to get it straight and we’re going to tell the world what this place is really like. And there was so much of that, and I think that the job of the local journalists — sure, we had a bunch of nuts here. No, no one would ever argue that, but to kill, kill a president? You just don’t do that.

And so I would say that local journalists, I think did a darn good job of trying to really set the record straight in that as much as anything else. And of course, we all had our little exclusives in one way or another of who, you know — oh, I remember — well, this would have moved on over to, to Sunday, when Jack Ruby killed [Lee Harvey] Oswald.

And I remember that Jack Ruby’s sister, Eva Grant — and how in the world we got onto Eva Grant, I don’t even remember — but she thought that our weatherman, Jim Underwood was the greatest thing in the world, and he called her on the phone and went out to see her. And by that time, the police, of course, wanted to see her, too. And so she let’s Jim take her downtown rather than the police.

And I should point out in those days, all of us who were on camera also carried cameras and recorders, and we did not have a camera crew as such. I think in our newsroom, oh, maybe we had two people that at some time didn’t get on the air. It was just a different world then. And oh, I think about, I think I counted one time the most we ever had to do both radio and television was about 45 people. Today that’s a different story.

INTERVIEWER: Do you think it helped that everybody was able to do everything and had all those skills, or is it easier now for a reporter to get a story when they’re not having to shoot?

EDDIE BARKER: Oh, sure. It’s nice to be able to, if, if the need arises, to grab a camera and run. But by the same token, it’s awfully nice to be able to concentrate on your segment of the story. And so, yeah, I think it’s, it’s nice that everybody pretty much has their role to fill.

INTERVIEWER: Was this the biggest story of your career?

EDDIE BARKER: Well, I guess that it would be the biggest story of any reporter’s career. I had, as all reporters have, some pretty good stories, and I had a story back in 1960 that I ended up being the, the press section of Time Magazine. And that at the time was a big story. No, it was 1950, in the 1950s, late ’50s. And that was a big story. But no, to cover an assassination like that and to be a part of it and all, you would — I think it would be wrong to say that it was not the biggest story that I ever was involved in.

Now, if we had an assassination today it would not be the same. I — it, it would — I don’t think the country would be as traumatized with, with a assassination now as it was then, because we are toughened. That’s terrible to say that, but we have been toughened by the Kennedy assassination, by the Bobby Kennedy assassination, the Martin Luther King assassination and all these. And so now we, we look at, I think, a tragedy like that a lot differently than we did then. That was the first time anything like that had happened, and today well, all kinds of strange and horrible things happen, and we have, I think, gotten a, a bit tougher than we would have been then, than we were then.

INTERVIEWER: You were sort of learning as you went how to cover a breaking news story.

EDDIE BARKER: Well, of course, we had covered a — well, let’s see. That’s kind of hard to — how would I answer that? We, yeah, we were learning as we moved along.

INTERVIEWER: It’s amazing that within about an hour and a half the story was pretty much straight, and this was without two-way radios and cells phones that reporters have today. Everybody sort of raised the bar on this day.

EDDIE BARKER: Well, I just think that we had some pretty good local reporters, and I think that we just rose to the task. And you know, just because we are in Dallas, Texas, and the next echelon up is New York City or whatever, a good reporter is a good reporter is a good reporter, wherever they happen to be. And I think we were very fortunate that we had some very good people in this market.

And I think we just kind of intuitively knew what to do, that we you know, you rise to the occasion. You know, you hear stories of people who have an automobile turn over on somebody or whatever, and they’ll go and by super strength lift it up, and they’ll say, “My gosh, I couldn’t do that again if I tried.” Well, I just think that was the way with us, that we, we knew we had a big story, and so how do you, you handle it? You say, “Well, by golly, I’m going to do my best at this,” and I think that is, would have to be the answer.

INTERVIEWER: If you could go back in time and change your performance or some decision that you made or some action that you took, would you?

EDDIE BARKER: How we would have changed things? That’s a hard question to answer. I look back and I don’t see any big mistakes we made. I mean, we were, you know, we were down at the police station that night. We had people down there. I was not down there. I was back in the newsroom. We, I don’t know, we, I felt covered the story well. I don’t know how to answer that.

Looking back, and you know, would you say part of that be would I have held up on saying the president was dead? I don’t think I would. Again, I just felt that I had been told something that was news, and that’s what everybody wanted to hear. You know, is the man dead? Is he hurt? You know, the whole thing. And so, no, I would feel comfortable, I think, with how we performed that day. We, meaning the news, newsroom.

INTERVIEWER: What norms of news coverage today do you think were born that weekend in 1963?

EDDIE BARKER: Be ready for the unexpected. Look at the 9/11 thing, you know? And I thought that the networks did a, an excellent job on that. I mean, that was something that was thrown at them, and who in the world would ever expect that you would have two airliners loaded with passengers crashed into two skyscrapers? And they — I thought they reacted very, very professionally at least all of the coverage that I saw. And oh, I don’t know.

I guess that another thing would be that if you’re going to, to cover a president or something like that just to prepare or brief yourself with a lot of information about him, about you know, the reason he’s where he is or whatever. That sort of thing would I’m just trying to think beyond that. But just be prepared for, you know, for the bottom falling out, because it’s liable to fall out.

INTERVIEWER: Did you consider it your job to keep the viewers calm?

EDDIE BARKER: Oh, sure, yeah. I would say that the — and in today’s television sometimes I see what the weathermen do, and I think they ought to be taken back behind the barn and (laughs) calmed down a little bit, because it’s a, you know, unfortunately weather is a big story. Of course it’s a big story. But I think that you ought to handle weather so that you don’t panic the people that are watching. And very frankly, some of the weathermen do. And there’ll be a cloud show up a couple of hundred miles from here, and they’ll say, “Oh, my God, there’s a cloud, and it’s coming this way,” (chuckles) you know? And I think that’s bad.

As far as anchors are concerned, or reporters are concerned, that was the great thing about Walter Cronkite, was that he never got — other than the fact when he was at the Cape, and the first time there was a rocket went up, and his great, “Oh, baby, go.” Other than that, he was a very calm man. And I think, I think that that really is the, the role of the people who are on the air, because that’s who you’re going to be, that you know, don’t panic. Don’t panic. And you’ve got to you’ve got to keep a level head and hope that the people who are watching you, that you can help them keep a level head.

And, and very frankly, you know, you get very personal in these things, and I know I look at this market, and (chuckles) I say, “Well now, if we really have a problem, who am I going to watch that’s going to keep me calm and not go off, you know, or not, or not have a writer back there handing them something to say?” And I think that, that a maturity in people who are giving the news or whatever is so important, because I think that we lose track. And I still say “we,” because even though (chuckles) I’m not active, obviously, in television now, but we owe that to, to a public, is that, you know, you tell them, tell them what’s going on, but tell it in a way that is not going to cause them to panic and, you know, say, “My Lord, is this the end?” or whatever.

INTERVIEWER: We heard horror stories of footage being mishandled, lost. Were you aware at the time this really needs to be preserved, or did it seem like some material shot that weekend wasn’t of that much value?

EDDIE BARKER: Well, I think you just have to go back to Lincoln, and what, that’s been how long, 125 years or whatever? And I think we realized that what was happening was going to be something that there would be an interest in for a long time, yeah. I’ll tell you, one of the problems that we had, and the newspapers had it much more so than we did, was a lot of the press that came into town would steal you blind, (laughs) you know? And that happened.

I know over at the Times Herald, which was the paper that owned the station, and they got to where they just barred anybody from coming in, because people — you know, we just, we had some problems like that, and, but I don’t know. To answer your question, I don’t know that, as far as I’m concerned, I didn’t, I don’t have a memento of the thing at all, of that time at all. I just don’t collect things like that and probably now, looking back on it, I should, because it would be something for the grand kids to see.

INTERVIEWER: Some people believe there might be some lost pictures that would solve the mystery. What do you think about that?

EDDIE BARKER: Well, I, you know, I — do you want to know who killed Kennedy? Lee Harvey Oswald, and he acted alone. And this cottage industry that has been built up, I was so close at the time to law enforcement, and there was never a doubt in my mind, then or today, that Lee Harvey Oswald did it, did it all by himself, and the rest of this is a bunch of bunk. And, you know, now we’ve — and the person who did so much to really mess up history, it was Oliver Stone in that movie, which was a — really, it’s awful (chuckles), you know, as to what happened.

INTERVIEWER: You don’t think there’s any footage out there that would solve the question even for the conspiracy theorists?

EDDIE BARKER: Did you ever hear the name Howard Brennan? Okay. Howard Brennan, had there been a trial, would have been the key witness for the government. And Howard Brennan was standing across the street looking up at the windows and the whole thing. And he saw, he told the Secret Service that he saw this man up there with a rifle, and he actually saw him fire the shots. And an interesting story there in that he, after this — and there was another, there was a young black man there, Amos — and I cannot remember Amos’ last name. I interviewed him. But he, Brennan went to, to the police and said what he saw. And he said to them then, he said, “You’ve got to promise me one thing.” “What is that, Mr. Brennan?” He said, “I never have to talk to reporters.” They said, “You don’t ever have to talk to a reporter.”

Well, he didn’t, up until he was a key witness at the Warren Commission Report, and we were, I was involved in the piece that CBS was doing. In those days, there was an embargo on stories, and the Warren Report was released on a Friday with an embargo to release it Sunday night, 6:00 Eastern Time. And so I was getting ready to go to New York and I got a call from their researcher up there, and said, “Who’s Howard Brennan? I never heard of him.” Well, they said, “Look, he’s the key in this thing,” because they were reading the report. And so, I won’t bore you with all of the details on the story, but I ended up getting Howard Brennan, getting him on an airplane and taking him to New York and did the only interview with him he ever did and he convinced me. That was the, the one-person theory.

Then there were these three men who were on the fifth floor below, and they — I interviewed all of those men, and you know, the old concrete or whatever in the roof when the shots were fired fell loose and fell down on them, you know? And so I talked to people like that, and then I hear all this bit about somebody on, you know, on the railroad bridge or somebody down in the sewer, and I can’t buy it. I’m sorry.

INTERVIEWER: What about your relationship with CBS and how you worked with Dan Rather. You were coordinating KRLD’s coverage in Dallas. How did that arrangement work?

EDDIE BARKER: Well, it was, of course, then, we rode the network practically the entire time, because that was then where the story was coming from. We, we were feeding a lot to CBS, of course, from the police station where Oswald was, you know, being held, and the Jesse Curry news conference and all of those things. We were feeding up there, but so Rather was involved with the, you know, with the network, but he did not do anything toward being part of, you know, operating our newsroom. He was operating out of our newsroom. And we oh, golly, we were on the network, I’ve forgotten how many hours. And then we would break away when, oh, various things would come up, like, they were wanting reaction of the mayor, various things, and you know, we were doing things like that.

And then the next day, they wanted to do an interview with Judge Hughes, Sarah Hughes. So I went out and did the interview with her and things like that. But we stayed with the network, oh, Lord, pretty much through Saturday night. And then Sunday, of course, was the transfer of Oswald to the jail, and we were taping it, but we were not on live. I think NBC’s, WFA, WBAP actually had the, the live coverage of it. But we had, you know, we had tape of it, and we had people in the basement down there. I think I had — oh, let’s see. I had one cameraman and two reporters, the current sheriff was one of my traffic reporters. What’s his name? But then the guy who was the partner of Tippit worked for us. I can’t remember his name now.

INTERVIEWER: What was the relationship that reporters at KRLD had with the police and the sheriff’s department, as opposed to what might happen today?

EDDIE BARKER: Well in those days, 40 years ago we had a very warm relationship with the police department and with the sheriff, and I know in our radio newsroom — we were combined, all radio and TV together — but I used police officers to do the traffic for us and, and to monitor the police radios. And, of course, that turned out to be a big helping hand, because they were able, and did. You know, we were close, and they could help us on a lot of, a lot of things.

And I was personally pretty close to the FBI then because of an earlier story that I had worked several years earlier in which the FBI really needed me, and it was a kind of a swap-out on a pretty good size story, and I had maintained great relations with them. And the sheriff, well, every reporter in town knew Bill Decker, and it was, it was just — you know, we were not trying to find a lot of fault with the police, and I think maybe today you — it’s a standoffish situation. And so the relationship was very good. And the night of the assassination, when Jesse Curry, the chief of police, was trying to accommodate the press, you know, probably the biggest mistake he ever made. He probably should have thrown everybody out and said, “You’re not going to mess me up.” And everybody knew Jesse Curry, you know?

And I remember Eric Severeid came down for the Ruby trial, and I ended up being his escort for the several days he was here, and he could never explain this closeness. And he wrote, he did a column one night about the relationship of the press in Dallas to the sheriff and everybody that, you know, it was a very small town in a way. And we never had any trouble with the police, and they, you know, we, I don’t think ever, I can’t remember any time when there was a big flap between the police and the press. We got along (chuckles), got along admirably.

INTERVIEWER: Do you think that helped you cover the story?

EDDIE BARKER: Oh, sure. Oh, yes. Yes. And in later times, if I may go ahead a little bit, CBS wanted to do, go back and really redo the whole thing. And the producer on it was Don Hewitt, who is a wonderful guy to work with. But anyway, they put aside four hours, one night each hour for four nights, and they needed all kinds of things in Dallas. And this sounds like a very self-serving statement, but I was able to get it for them, like access to the School Book Depository, sixth floor. And the chief of police blocked off that whole area down there around the School Book Depository for about four or five hours one Saturday so CBS could come in there and do all of the reenactment that they wanted to do. And that paid off handsomely, the fact that we had great relations with the, you know, with the police chief. And it was, it was always like that. We never had any problems with the police.

INTERVIEWER: Is there any story that people never ask you about, that you always think how come no one has ever wanted to know this about that weekend, or about your coverage?

EDDIE BARKER: Well, I guess I’ve been asked it but it doesn’t come up very often. People will say well, you know, did this ever hit you, what was happening, or whatever? And it did not hit me till Saturday night, really what — because Saturday night we kind of slowed down, because the story then had pretty well — it was in place here. The, the alleged assassin was in custody. The story was moving back, really, to Washington and, you know, and the burial of the president and all. And so Saturday, by Saturday night, we had slowed down considerably, and I think that’s when it really hit me. I you know, all of a sudden it, it hit me pretty hard that what, you know, what I had been involved in, what we all had done.

And I think that most reporters, most good reporters, if I can class (chuckles) myself in that class, I think that you, really, you remove your personal feelings or whatever when you’re on the story. You know, the story is paramount. The story is, you know, that’s what you’re concentrating on, and you’re not concentrating on, “Oh, golly, isn’t this awful?” or, or whatever. And I think there comes a time when it hits you, and it hit me Saturday night. But up until then, I had been moving at such a rapid pace, as so many of us had, that really didn’t have time to grieve about it or to think about it.

INTERVIEWER: When it hit you, what happened?

EDDIE BARKER: I cried. I think you just build up — your nerves build up, and you just kind of have, you know, you just kind of let go, and I shed a few tears, I did. And, you know, I figured, well, that’s the end of the story in a way or whatever, and then Sunday morning, here it goes all over again. But I think that you — yeah, I just, you know, I did. I just kind of broke down and had a little cry, and that was all of a sudden when it hit me.

INTERVIEWER: Are you tired of talking about the story?

EDDIE BARKER: No, you can’t say that. I, no, I don’t go around looking for audiences to talk to, obviously, but no. It’s something that happened, and I was pretty fortunate, if you can, if out of tragedy can come something that was good for anybody, because I ended up with, you know, the first interview that Marina [Oswald] ever did, and we had a couple of other very good breaks. And the storied death of, of Jack Ruby, and you know, and things like that. And they’re a lot of fun to, when you get around a bunch of reporters, to still recall your, your adventures, or whatever it was. But that’s, that’s my story.