Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Alistair Cooke correspondence sheds light on reporting dark days of 1968

Letters show Guardian editor thanking US correspondent for Robert Kennedy coverage, and Cooke criticising rivals' 'flash dubious hard news'

Alistair Cooke
Alistair Cooke in 1972. Four years earlier he wrote of the 'crackle of sharp sounds' he heard at the scene of Robert Kennedy's assassination. Photograph: AP

How the BBC must wish its headlines in recent weeks were more like those on the day it began broadcasting regular news bulletins exactly 90 years ago, on 14 November 1922. The subjects of the first stories included a speech by Bonar Law, recently returned to the leadership of the Conservative party and newly into Britain's briefest stint as prime minister, notwithstanding his victory in the general election the following day. There were reports of Old Bailey sessions, a train robbery, the sale of a Shakespeare folio, fog in London and the latest billiards scores.
To help mark the anniversary, we celebrate again the legacy of Alistair Cooke, for more than a quarter of a century the US correspondent for the Manchester Guardian and its successor, as well as author of Letter from America for the BBC for nearly six decades, by publishing letters between Cooke and Alastair Hetherington, then editor of the newspaper, written during the dreadful days of 1968.
That year Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated and there were race riots in major cities as the US divided over civil rights and the Vietnam war. The violence included an infamous confrontation in August between Chicago police, the Illinois national guard, troops and secret service agents and anti-war demonstrators outside the Democratic national convention.
The correspondence, held in the Guardian archive at the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, sheds light on Cooke's dispatches both for this newspaper and for the BBC, which has recently published transcripts and audio recordings of more than 900 of his broadcasts, roughly a third of the total output. They include the memorable letter of 9 June 1968 about Kennedy's assassination in Los Angeles days earlier, "in a small narrow serving pantry of the Ambassador Hotel, a place that I suppose will never be wiped out of my memory as a sinister alley, a Roman circus run amok and a charnel house".
We have previously republished Cooke's account printed in the Guardian on 6 June. "Over the gabble of the television, there was suddenly from the direction of the kitchen a crackle of sharp sounds. Like a balloon popping. An exploded flash bulb maybe, more like a man banging a tray several times against a wall …"
More at The Guardian

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