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10 Key Moments in JFK Assassination Coverage

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10 Key Moments in JFK Assassination Coverage

The JFK assassination in Dallas, Texas served as the birth of breaking news coverage on television. Here are 10 key moments.

For a generation, November 22, 1963 was the day the world changed.

It was the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated as he rode in a motorcade through the streets of Dallas, Texas, as he worked to unite the deeply-split Democratic Party ahead of the 1964 election.

Live coverage was limited because of the technology of the time. A live feed was up at Love Field, where the president and first lady arrived in Dallas, and from the Dallas Trade Mart, the place the presidential motorcade was headed at the time of the assassination.

But while there was press in and along the motorcade route, it was an amateur, Abraham Zapruder, who filmed the actual assassination with a home movie camera.

When the shots rang out at 12:30 p.m. Central time in Dallas, reporters scrambled for telephones to call their respective newsrooms to get the word out.

Here are 10 key moments in the breaking news coverage of the event, all in Central time, since that was the time zone in which the assassination happened:

Friday, November 22, 1963

1. 12:34 p.m. – First Wire Report of the Shooting

Merriman Smith, a journalist with United Press International, was riding in the press car in the motorcade. Smith was in the front seat between the driver and the acting White House press secretary for the tour, Malcolm Kilduff. Three other pool reporters were in the back seat.

When the shots rang out, Smith grabbed the phone in the car and began dictating his information to the UPI office, making UPI the first wire service to get the word of the shooting out.

The UPI report read:

Three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade today in downtown Dallas, Texas.

Kennedy’s press secretary, the late Malcolm Kilduff, later said Jack Bell, an Associated Press reporter waiting for his chance to get the word to his agency, finally grabbed the phone from Smith and, as Kilduff put it, with “unspecified expletives” took a swing at Smith with the phone. Kilduff recalled Smith had more foresight and ducked, so it was Kilduff, not Smith, who got hit in the head with the phone.

2. 12:36 p.m. – First National Radio Bulletin of the Shooting

ABC Radio was the first to make the announcement to a national audience as newscaster Don Gardiner broke in to a Doris Day recording of “Hooray for Hollywood” to read the UPI bulletin:

3. 12:38 p.m. – First Local Radio Bulletin of the Shooting

There’s a bit of a controversy here: Radio station KLIF broadcast the first bulletin of the shooting reported in the motorcade at 12:38 p.m., roughly the same moment Kennedy’s car arrived at Parkland Hospital. The report from KLIF was:

This KLIF Bulletin. From Dallas: Three shots reportedly were fired at the motorcade of President Kennedy today near the downtown section. KLIF News is checking out the report, we will have further reports, stay tuned.

But KBOX, a rival station, reportedly covered the shooting as it happened — Wikipedia reports the widely circulated soundbite, “It appears that something has happened along the motorcade route” was not from the live coverage but from a recreation made later, likely for documentary purposes. There’s apparently no actual air recording (what we’d call an “aircheck” in the industry) of the earliest reports from KBOX.

4. 12:40 p.m. – First National Television Bulletin of the Shooting

CBS was first to break the news to a television audience, but there’s an interesting story behind that broadcast. It was a lesson quickly learned about the technology involved in the television cameras in use at the time. Walter Cronkite would later recall the old iconoscopic tubes at the time needed several minutes to warm up before they would produce a usable broadcast picture. When word came of the shooting, there was no camera warmed up and ready to go.

So Cronkite was forced to rush into an announcer’s booth to broadcast the news over a “CBS Bulletin” slide, interrupting the then-live As the World Turns, with this:

Here is a bulletin from CBS News. 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. More details just arrived. These details about the same as previously: President Kennedy shot today just as his motorcade left downtown Dallas. Mrs. Kennedy jumped up and grabbed Mr. Kennedy, she called ‘Oh, no!’ The motorcade sped on. United Press says that the wounds for President Kennedy perhaps could be fatal. Repeating, a bulletin from CBS News, President Kennedy has been shot by a would-be assassin in Dallas, Texas. Stay tuned to CBS News for further details.

They continued to interrupt periodically over the next twenty minutes or so, and when stations returned to CBS following a station break at 2 p.m., Cronkite was on camera in the newsroom.

5. 12:45 p.m. – First Local Television Bulletin of the Shooting

It’s worth noting that at the time of the shooting, CBS had an advantage over NBC and ABC: while CBS was broadcasting As the World Turns to its affiliates, both NBC and ABC were “down,” meaning the networks weren’t broadcasting national programs and the local affiliates were airing local programming.

ABC affiliate WFAA in Dallas was first to interrupt their local programming with the news. News director Jay Watson interrupted a lifestyle show that was in the middle of demonstrating new fashions. Watson had been at Dealey Plaza and ran back to the station when he saw what happened. Here’s what he said:

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. You’ll excuse the fact that I am out of breath, but about 10 or 15 minutes ago a tragic thing from all indications at this point has happened in the city of Dallas. Let me quote to you this… and I’ll… you’ll excuse me if I am out of breath. A bulletin, this is from the United Press from Dallas: ‘President Kennedy and Governor John Connally’ have been cut down by assassins’ bullets in downtown Dallas.

Watson brought in a family — witnesses Bill and Gayle Newman who had also been in Dealey Plaza with their two young children and interviewed them about what they saw unfolding right in front of them.

6. Approximately 1:12 p.m.-1:33 p.m. – Unconfirmed Reports of Kennedy’s Death

Reporters were receiving word from doctors and nurses in the hospital and two priests who administered the Last Rites to the president that he had died. But no “official” sources had confirmed the news.

CBS’s Dan Rather phoned one of the priests at approximately 1:11 p.m. and was told Kennedy had died. At about the same time, Wikipedia says, CBS affiliate KRLD’s Eddie Barker was approached by a doctor who’d called the emergency room and was told Kennedy was dead. Barker, moments later, reported this on the air, stressing it was an unconfirmed report.

At approximately 1:20 p.m., Edwin Newman reported on NBC and CBC Radio that the priests said the president had died. The footage of that report has become a well-known clip because of the reaction of a woman who had joined a crowd listening to a car radio:

ABC Radio reported at 1:25 p.m. of an unconfirmed report of Kennedy’s death from Parkland Hospital.

At 1:27 p.m., Cronkite reported Rather’s unconfirmed news of the priest’s claim that Kennedy had died.

At 1:33 p.m. Ron Cochran reported on ABC-TV the two priests said Kennedy had died. Though unconfirmed, “ABC prematurely placed a photo of the President with the words, ‘JOHN F. KENNEDY — 1917–1963’ on the screen,” Wikipedia notes.

6. 1:33 p.m. – Wires Report Official Announcement of Kennedy’s Death

Kilduff announced to reporters at Parkland Hospital at 1:30 p.m., one hour after shots rang out, that Kennedy had died. Since Kilduff, as acting White House Press Secretary, was considered an “official” source, wire reports scrambled to get the word out.

7. 1:38 p.m. – Walter Cronkite Broadcasts ‘Flash’ from Wires on Kennedy’s Death

Walter Cronkite’s announcement of the “official” word of the president’s death has become one of the most well-known clips from that day.

He was in mid-sentence when a newsroom staffer handed him the page ripped from the Associated Press teletype machine. He put on his glasses and read the report:

From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official: ‘PRESIDENT KENNEDY DIED AT 1 P.M. (CST),’ 2:00 Eastern Standard Time, some thirty-eight minutes ago.

Cronkite removed his glasses and appeared to choke up for a moment, but quickly regained his composure, clearing throat as he said:

Vice President Johnson… has left the hospital in Dallas, but we do not know to where he has proceeded. Presumably, he will be taking the oath of office shortly and become the thirty-sixth president of the United States.

8. 5:00 p.m. – A New President Addresses the Nation

The arrival of Air Force One in Washington after Kennedy’s killing was a somber moment for the nation. America watched as the casket carrying Kennedy’s body was removed from the plane and placed in an ambulance. Jackie Kennedy was assisted out of a lift by Kennedy’s brother, Robert. She wore the same outfit she had been wearing earlier in the day, but it was stained with Kennedy’s blood. She reportedly told the Johnsons on the plane that she “wanted them to see what they had done to Jack.”

Lyndon Baines Johnson spoke with his wife, new First Lady Lady Bird Johnson. The speech was short but to the point. His aides had crafted the speech and he adjusted the last line from asking for “God’s help” to asking for the people’s help and God’s:

This is a sad time for all people. We have suffered a loss that cannot be weighed. For me, it is a deep, personal tragedy. I know the world shares the sorrow that Mrs. Kennedy and her family bear. I will do my best; that is all I can do. I ask for your help and God’s.

Saturday, November 23, 1963

9. 12:10 a.m. – Lee Harvey Oswald Brought Before Reporters at Police Headquarters

Lee Harvey Oswald, who had been charged in the assassination of President Kennedy and the murder of a Dallas patrolman, was brought before news cameras at approximately midnight Saturday morning for an impromptu press conference.

Oswald requested legal assistance. When a reporter asked him if he killed the president, Oswald responded, “No, I have not been charged with that, in fact nobody has said that to me yet. The first thing I heard about it was when the newspaper reporters in the hall asked me that question.”

Some took that to be an odd answer for someone who protested his innocence: why would he say he hadn’t been charged rather than saying he hadn’t done it? 

Dan Rather told CNN the Dallas Police agreed to bring Oswald before the cameras with the understanding that reporters would not shout questions to him. As he was being escorted out, a reporter inquired of Oswald about an injury above his eye, to which Oswald responded, “A policeman hit me.”

Sunday, November 24, 1963

10. 11:36 a.m. – Lee Harvey Oswald Shot by Jack Ruby

If there were one moment that would guarantee an endless debate over the events of November 22, 1963, it was a second shooting two days later.

As an unsuspecting television audience watched live video of Lee Harvey Oswald being escorted to an armored car to be transferred to a more secure jail, nightclub owner Jack Ruby stepped out from a crowd and fired once, at close range, into Oswald’s abdomen.

My mom told me she was at her sister’s home and they were watching as it happened.

“Jack Ruby just came up sort of sideways and just put the gun to Oswald and shot him,” she told me last year. “We just thought, ‘Did that really happen?’ You saw things on The Twilight Zone, weird stuff, but you knew that was just a picture. We couldn’t believe what we saw.”

As we approach another anniversary of the killing in Dealey Plaza, the controversy continues. More recent forensic analyses have removed a good deal of doubt about the so-called “magic bullet” by showing that the position of seating in the car would have allowed for the trajectory needed for the single bullet that previous theories rejected because of a supposed “mid-air turn” that would have to have been made.

But we’re still no closer to knowing — to everyone’s satisfaction — whether Oswald acted alone or in a conspiracy. At this distance, I think if someone found definitive proof, there would still be those who would never accept it.

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