JFK assassination: TV news grows up in a hurry

To those who lived through it (including me), nothing is comparable to those four days in 1963 beginning on Nov. 22 when we heard the news that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas.

Televisions all over America went on and stayed on through Monday night. We had never seen anything like it — wall-to-wall coverage of a news event.

The change that happened to America is well chronicled by an article (The JFK assassination as news: TV provided an intimate experience of national trauma) by Marc Fisher published in the Washington Post last week. Fisher writes:

What did produce lasting change was the four days of round-the-clock coverage — “the birth of a new media culture,” says Aniko Bodroghkozy, a communications professor at the University of Virginia who has studied the impact of the Kennedy murder.

TV, which had in recent years become a standard appliance in American homes, asserted itself as the nation’s primary source of news. The three networks had expanded to half-hour nightly newscasts just two months before the shootings in Dallas. The idea that TV broadcasters might stay on the air all night was itself a novelty born of the assassination.

The following is a sidebar that I wrote for Journalism: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How a few years ago:

The JFK assassination: Television’s first big story

     CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite interrupted his network’s normal daytime programming on November 22, 1963 with the words:

“In Dallas, Texas, three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade in downtown Dallas. The first reports say that President Kennedy has been seriously wounded by this shooting.” The time was 1:40 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. Almost an hour later Cronkite, choking on his words, told his audience, “From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official. President Kennedy died at 1:00 P.M. Central Standard Time, two o’clock Eastern Standard Time.” He then looked over at the studio clock. “Some thirty-eight minutes ago,” he said.

For the next three and a half days, television turned its sole attention to this story. It was, in many ways, ill prepared to do so. Television news was barely fifteen years old and without satellites or many of the modern miracles of technology that we know today. Most television cameras, for instance, took a full two hours to warm up.

That lack of experience showed on that Friday afternoon. On NBC Frank McGee and Chet Huntley anchored the network’s coverage. Arms would extend into the picture handing them news bulletins. Telephone lines could not be connected to their sound system, so McGee wound up repeating the words of correspondent Robert McNeil to the audience as he listened over the phone. The men and women on the air were as confused as their audience.

But the story was there and turned out to be far more than the death of the president. Lyndon Johnson took the oath of office on board Air Force One (one of the few events of that story that was not broadcast), and the plane carrying the body of the dead president returned to Washington that evening. As it did, police in Dallas arrested a man they believed to be involved with the shooting.

Over the next four days, Americans stayed in front of their television sets. They saw images they would never forget:

• Jackie Kennedy, the president’s widow, jumping off the back of Air Force One in her blood-stained pink suit.

• A glimpse of Lee Harvey Oswald, the man police had arrested, being escorted through the Dallas City Police Station on Saturday.

• The shocking murder of Oswald by Jack Ruby on Sunday morning as Oswald was being transferred to the Dallas County Jail. NBC was broadcasting the transfer live when the shooting occurred.

• Jackie Kennedy and her daughter Caroline kneeling in front of the president’s casket as it lay in state in the Capitol rotunda.

• The riderless black horse that led the funeral procession through Washington, D.C., on Monday.

• Three-year-old John Kennedy Jr. saluting his father’s casket as it passed in front of the church where his funeral mass had been held.

For four days, American mourned and watched. And in those four days, television news showed it capacity to inform and unite.

***

I found the following photos at the National Archives site not too long ago. I had never seen them before and thought they should be included with this post. They are of John and Jackie Kennedy getting off the plane at Dallas and getting ready to start the motorcade toward downtown Dallas.

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Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.

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