The JFK assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas, remains one of America’s biggest mysteries and a fascination for history buffs.
Every November, streaming services roll out documentaries, old and new, on the assassination of John F. Kennedy. That horrible day happened almost six years to the day before I was born. But there are a few reasons that even though it happened before my time, I still find the JFK assassination fascinating.
READ MORE: 10 Key Moments in JFK Assassination Coverage
For me, it has little to do with the elaborate conspiracy theories people still cling to. Yes, it can be fun to explore inconsistencies in witness accounts and details that seem impossible. But some of that has since been disputed. The “magic bullet’s” questionable trajectory, which conspiracy buffs for years argued would require mid-air zig-zags, has been disproved. The theory held that for the wounds between Kennedy and Texas Gov. John Connally to line up properly from one single bullet, the bullet would have to have changed directions multiple times. But that assumed Connally sat in the same kind of seat the Kennedys sat in and directly ahead of Kennedy. But the Connallys were in jump seats in front of the Kennedys. Those seats were lower and more inward in the car.
But it isn’t the conspiracy theories that fascinate me
When I watch the various documentaries about the JFK assassination — among them, titles like The Day Kennedy Die, JFK: The End of Camelot, and JFK: 3 Shots That Changed America — I’m drawn to the news reporting at the time.
I’ve said before that the Kennedy assassination was really the birth of breaking news on television. Before that, people turned to newspapers and then to radio for breaking news stories. Kennedy’s death became the first major story that brought people to the TV screen.
If you look at it from today’s standards, you’d have to call the coverage primitive. There were few live shots — none along the parade route. TV networks picked up broadcasts from their Dallas affiliates. Network anchors struggled to sort through the rapidly-evolving story.
Yes, there were early reports that turned out to be wrong. That often happens in breaking news, even today. But things were happening so fast on that day that there seemed to be even less of a filter when it came to fact-checking.
One early report suggested a secret service agent was also shot in the motorcade. That turned out to be false. A report on the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald stated two Dallas Police officers were shot. That also turned out to be false.
When it came to reporting the death of the president, everyone seemed very careful to stress the word “unconfirmed.” Then there was that moment with a tearful Walter Cronkite when he read the flash bulletin from the wires:
How the technology has changed in 60 years
When Kennedy was killed, there were no smartphones. Otherwise, we would have an endless collection of video to watch over and over again. Other than the television stations who recorded the motorcade…on film…and photos taken of the crowds…on film, there was no video of what happened.
In fact, dressmaker Abraham Zapruder’s home movie — on film — quickly became the definitive eyewitness account of what happened in Dealey Plaza. Conspiracy theorists even debate what that film shows (and what they say it doesn’t show).
Reporters couldn’t grab their iPhone and shoot a quick report. Even worse, they couldn’t even call their newsrooms and report what was happening. The shooting left them scrambling to find payphones. Merriman Smith, the United Press International correspondent, was lucky enough to be first to grab the phone in the press car following Kennedy’s limousine. He dictated what he saw to his office. Some accounts suggest he held onto the phone just long enough to make sure he had a good lead over his competitors who were also in the car and demanding the phone. Smith won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage.
Even photos of the motorcade came in by wire and had to be printed in hard copies. A look at recordings of assassination coverage show a complete lack of fancy graphics. There are no opens and interstitials that now clutter up even the most low-tech newscasts. Even the names we are used to seeing along the bottom of the screen are missing from 1963 airchecks.
You couldn’t have reached into your pocket and pulled out any device, other than a transistor radio, to find out what was happening.
It was a completely different era. Yet that footage serves as an open time capsule to life in the early 1960s and how hard information was to come by before “the information age.”
How our nation has changed in the past 60 years
Another thing that really strikes me was the attitude of the nation. I won’t pretend for a second that when some learned of the JFK assassination, they didn’t express happiness. Kennedy was not universally loved at the time he was killed.
Yet you saw grown men and women shedding tears in the streets. The footage of people waiting for word outside Parkland Hospital for word shows worry and grief.
Retired radio reporter Sid Davis recalled meeting a woman who was going to Kennedy’s funeral who was in tears. She was a Republican, she told him, but said she didn’t realize before how much she’d admired Kennedy.
The only time in my lifetime I’ve seen grown people crying in the streets was on Sept. 11, 2001, as America was under terrorist attack. It’s hard to imagine anyone coming together with that much unity these days.
It’s certainly difficult to imagine many Republicans admitting to admiring any Democrats. Or vice versa.
Maybe my fascination with the JFK assassination has less to do with that horrible day 60 years ago and more to do with what we seem to have lost as a nation. We lost a degree of innocence. We lost the inability to imagine something so horrible happening because we’d now seen it play out in our living rooms.
Maybe that was the start of the slow deaths of mutual respect and shared experience. It wasn’t the sole cause of those deaths. But maybe it was one of many reasons they seem so hard to find these days.
I wouldn’t want to go back in time to 1963. As annoying at technology can be, and as isolated as it can make one feel, I’d hate to be without it. I wouldn’t do well without readily-available information.
But maybe looking back at the events of Nov. 22, 1963, can remind us — even those of us who weren’t yet born — of what once was…good or bad.