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The Four Days That Made Tv News
What you don’t remember about the day JFK was shot
May/june 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 3
It was a series of sounds and images that had monumental impact and will always remain in the minds of those who watched: the bloodstained suit, the child saluting the coffin, the funeral procession to the muffled drums, the riderless horse. More than thirty years later American culture is still obsessed by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and by its greater meaning. Yet, viewed purely in television terms, the impact of the four-day coverage of the Kennedy killing and funeral looms almost as large. It’s not simply that most Americans were glued to their TV sets as vicarious mourners over this four-day period. Nor was it that the death of Kennedy, America’s first political TV superstar, was itself turned into a television production.
Rather, as scholars such as Barbie Zelizer have noted, this was the event that legitimized television in the eyes of the public, which meant that after it was over, print would never again challenge television as the public’s primary source of information and authority. Moreover, by the time it was over, this tragedy had ushered in a new age in which television, by its very presence, altered the events it was covering, thus creating a kind of televisual Heisenberg principle. This augured a culture wherein TV would thrust itself and its reporters as much into any story as the newsmakers themselves.
Yet it was the Oswald assassination, more than that of the President, that defined the impact on the evolution of television. Looking back at those four days in November 1963, the coverage and the response can really be divided into three mini-shows, or phases. In the first—coverage of the presidential assassination itself—television news was still too primitive to be memorable and thus to have much impact with such a fast-breaking story. There were, after all, no immediate pictures of the actual assassination, and the technology didn’t exist to get good images or witnesses on the air quickly. Indeed, according to Gerald Posner’s Case Closed, when NBC’s Robert MacNeil dashed into the building nearest him immediately after the shooting, he bumped into a man leaving it and asked him where there was a pay phone. The building was the Texas School Book Depository, and the man who directed him to the phone, MacNeil later learned, was Lee Harvey Oswald.
Initially, MacNeil had trouble getting on the air. When he tried to call his network right after the shooting, he yelled, “This is MacNeil in Dallas!” and the voice on the other end said, “Just a minute”—and never came back. Thus, in the first few hours after Kennedy was shot, radio was no different from television in conveying information—and in fact reported the headlines faster. Most Americans heard the news from friends or radio. Still, if only because of the endless number of times it has been repeated on anniversary shows in the more than three decades since, many Americans can recognize the moment (1:40 P.M., EST, some ten minutes after the shooting) when CBS first pre-empted its regular programming (“As the World Turns,” with Nancy dusting a pile of books), with only a visual that read “CBS News Bulletin,” backed by a Walter Cronkite audio: “In Dallas, Texas, three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade in downtown Dallas. The first reports say President Kennedy has been seriously wounded by this shooting.” When it was done, CBS cut to a commercial for Nescafé.
Cronkite earned his place in television history by accident: The CBS correspondent who should have handled midday bulletins—Harry Reasoner—was out to lunch. (Reasoner ended up anchoring the CBS coverage that night.) For much of the next hour, Cronkite and his counterparts at the other two networks attempted to glean details, mostly by reading the wire-service reports or talking to reporters by calling in from the Trade Mart, where Kennedy had been scheduled to speak next. Various rumors were relayed that Kennedy was dead, and CBS radio reported that fact eighteen minutes before its television network did. Cronkite waited for official confirmation, which in those days still meant confirmation from a print or wire reporter. At 2:38 P.M., EST, he got it and delivered the news, his voice cracking, while he aimlessly removed his glasses and then put them back on: “From Dallas, Texas, a flash, apparently official. President Kennedy died at 1 P.M., central standard time, two o’clock, eastern standard time—some thirtyeight minutes ago.” Though Cronkite’s announcement has now become in effect the official one, CBS officials were so shaken by his unusual loss of composure on the air that they sent him home a few minutes later and had Charles Collingwood take over.
Few people then or since have thought to note how television itself had helped make Ruby’s shooting possible.
Shortly before Cronkite left the studio, he picked up a ringing phone, only to hear from an irate viewer. “I want the people at CBS to do something about that Walter Cronkite,” she began. “It’s a disgrace that a man who has been trying to get John Kennedy out of office should be on the air talking at a time like this.”
“Madam,” the normally unflappable Cronkite answered, “this is Walter Cronkite, and you are a God-damned idiot.”