The Kennedy Assassination represented not only the death of a president but the birth of breaking news coverage on television. But in the five decades since JFK, certain aspects of breaking news coverage haven’t changed all that much.
Legendary anchor Walter Cronkite said he happened to be standing by the wire machines when the first flash appeared that shots had been fired at the presidential motorcade in Dallas, Texas. But the CBS newsroom quickly realized there was a problem: as they hurried to get on the air, technology at the time bit them in the rear end.
The old television cameras of the era needed time to warm up. The camera in the newsroom wasn’t on.
So, over a “CBS News Bulletin” slide, viewers of As the World Turns heard Cronkite say 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.”
While ABC was first to report the story on radio, CBS was first to broadcast the horrific news to a national audience on television.
I’m a JFK coverage buff, so I’ve watched lots of airchecks from that day to see how the events from Dealy Plaza were covered as they happened.
Over the course of the next few minutes, as everyone scrambled to get on the air, rumors, speculation and wrong information made the air. Unnamed sources, and eventually doctors and priests were said to have told various reporters that the president had died. CBS Radio was first to report that Kennedy had died, based on a tip from CBS’s Dan Rather, who’d talked to one of the priests who’d performed Last Rites on the president. It would be several minutes before CBS would mention that report on television.
At one point on one of the networks, a report suggested Vice President Lyndon Johnson, who appeared to be holding his arm as he walked into Parkland Hospital, had also been wounded. Johnson hadn’t been wounded, but was kept in a secure location within the hospital while everyone waited for word on Kennedy’s condition.
Early on, a Secret Service agent was reported to have been shot to death during the attack. No Secret Service agent was even wounded that day.
Unfortunately, the nature of breaking news is that information is constantly changing. Even official sources get information wrong and have to correct themselves after they’ve confirmed that wrong information for a reporter. The earliest reporting in a breaking news situation relies a great deal on eyewitness reports, and any law enforcement official can tell you that among a group of eyewitnesses to a shocking crime, the stories are almost never identical.
The biggest change in 50 years of broadcasting is the technology with which breaking news can be transmitted. Younger people may well have a hard time imagining a world without social media to help them spread information like wildfire. Back then, people actually had to sit by a television or radio and wait for information to be delivered.
Reporters likewise had to wait. Stories were filmed back then, which meant that someone had to actually develop exposed celluloid. There were no digital cameras that could record an image on a miniature hard drive — because videotape is so 1990 — and play it back minutes later. There were no fancy backpack transmitters that could beam live reports over cellular networks, providing live coverage of an event as it happened.
And there were no flashy, spinning, pulsating graphics that danced across the black and white screens to colorfully proclaim breaking news was happening. Somehow, back then, Americans all had attention spans longer than that of a typical housefly, and could therefore be compelled enough by the story alone to just stay tuned without all of the dizzying effects.
At various points in the first few hours, anchors held up photographs printed from wire services and mounted on black matte boards to show images of the motorcade moments before Lee Harvey Oswald opened fire. Photographs!
NBC’s coverage included several minutes of Frank McGee relaying a report, a few words at a time, from Robert McNeil, who reported from Parkland Hospital by telephone. The emergency studio from which McGee and Chet Huntley anchored footage didn’t even have an easy way to patch in a telephone call. McNeil would speak four or five words at a time and McGee would repeat them. After they found a way to get the call on the air, McGee was still in this stop-and-go relay mode, so viewers had to sit through several minutes of hearing everything twice.
Even that was compelling enough to keep watching.
CBS’s Charles Collingwood suggested that this was one of those days that everyone would remember where they were when they heard the news. The last such day to which they referred was the day in 1945 when news broke that then-President Franklin Roosevelt had died.
Other anchors, similarly trying to fill time as they waited for new details, referred to the fact that President McKinley was the last president prior to Kennedy to be assassinated in office. That was back in 1901, but barely a memory for most of those watching.
Much the way many people who’ll watch television today don’t recall the assassination of Kennedy.
But people mostly didn’t change the channel. They kept glued to the tube, waiting, right along with anchors, for every new detail.
Oh, did I mention that remote controls, though around, were not yet in widespread use, yet? For most people, changing the channel still meant actually getting up from your seat and turning a dial on the television all the way across the room.
Can you imagine?
Were you around when President Kennedy was assassinated? If so, what do you remember most about that day? If not, what is most striking to you about clips of coverage you’ve seen online?