Fifty-two years ago tomorrow, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. The JFK assassination marked the birth of breaking news on TV.
That event started a four-day period where everyone was united in mourning and glued to their television sets.
By the time I was born, a second Kennedy and a King had been gunned down. But I’ve always been fascinated by the facts of November 22, 1963.
One reason for that fascination has been the conspiracy theories that began hatching almost immediately after the shooting. There will never be a satisfactory explanation for what happened for everyone because there are too many people who believe it had to be some massive conspiracy and will never be convinced of any other possibility.
So be it.
But the other reason for my fascination has been the wealth of archival footage of the actual news coverage from that day.
The Kennedy Assassination was the true birth of breaking news coverage on television; no event before that within the lifespan of television had quite the same impact or scope. And what has always been incredible to me is how slow-moving that coverage was in 1963.
Every year that goes by makes that footage seem even slower when compared to the endless array of satellite shots, camera angles, flashy graphics and computer animation.
If today’s technology would have been available in 1963, viewers would have seen the shooting live on television — the Zapruder film wasn’t broadcast on television until 1979, 16 years after the shooting. They would also have been treated to 3D renders of Dealey Plaza that zoomed from the so-called sniper’s nest in the 6th floor of the Texas School Book Depository straight down to the location of the car when the fatal shot was fired.
Dramatic graphics would have punctuated each new element, increasing the pacing of the coverage. Multiple live shots would have instantly taken viewers to multiple locations immediately.
But that wasn’t how it was in 1963.
In fact, when CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite was ready to announce to the nation that shots had been fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade, he couldn’t even go on camera. It turned out, he would later explain, that the old television cameras in use at that time required about 10 minutes to warm up before a suitable picture could be received. No one had thought, before that day, to keep one camera “hot” all the time. So Cronkite’s first bulletin about the shooting came as a voiceover. As viewers of As the World Turns saw a slide that repeated the words, “CBS News Bulletin” down the screen, Cronkite said 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.
It would be at least 20 minutes before a camera could be brought into the newsroom and properly calibrated so that viewers could see Cronkite in the newsroom seated at his desk.
But that’s only the beginning of what is so striking about that early coverage.
This clip shows the real-time first hour of CBS News coverage (and begins with the CBS News Radio announcement, then shows the first television coverage beginning at 13:04.)
What’s amazing when you watch that archived footage is that all you see, except for an occasional live shot from the Dallas Trade Mart, where Kennedy was supposed to speak, or from the local Dallas affiliate, is that for the most part, the camera stays on a locked down shot of Cronkite. The first image from the motorcade, which Cronkite shows to the audience seven minutes later, is a wire photo of the Kennedys and Connallys in the limousine that had been matted to a piece of matte board. The camera had to zoom in to the photo as he described it.
No flashy graphics, no dramatic music to punctuate the image.
This clip, from local Dallas ABC station WFAA-TV, shows the chaos at the local level. The coverage begins about 15 minutes into the clip (after the initial radio announcement again) and shows a local fashion program being interrupted. It’s awkward, unpolished; but the story gets covered as well as any local station at the time could have covered it.
We’ve certainly advanced technologically since this early coverage. We have more tools than ever before when it comes to gathering and confirming information.
Even so, one has to wonder how much the quality of reporting in an ongoing breaking story has changed in half a century.
Patrick is a Christian with more than 26 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.