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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
The rest of that day’s coverage completed the first stage of this mini-series. Oswald was caught and identified, but there would be little usable footage until much later that night. However, CBS’s young, relatively unknown Dallas bureau chief, Dan Rather, distinguished himself with his scoops. The one memorable TV event of that Friday occurred when the plane bearing the President’s coffin landed at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington at around 6:00 P.M. Jackie Kennedy, in her bloodstained suit, emerged following the casket, and then newly sworn-in President Lyndon Johnson delivered a short statement. On the whole, however, that night’s coverage was not the stuff of television greatness. Having dispensed with commercials and regular programming alike, the networks ran old tapes and speeches of President Kennedy, as well as funeral music. The TV audience at that time was not yet very large. The meager audience and the slow tempo of the telecasts continued on through Saturday as the networks covered the arrival of the body at the White House and the procession of arriving dignitaries.
Phase two of the coverage came on Sunday in Dallas, though premonitory scenes had appeared earlier. In an apparent effort to appease television reporters, the accused and manacled assassin had been trotted out from his cell by the Dallas police on several occasions, and so had the alleged murder weapon. (One notable effect: For years afterward network executives would not allow any rifles with telescopic sights to appear on television for fear this would recall the assassination for viewers.) Reporters were given the chance to yell out, “Why did you kill the President?” as Oswald was led away for interrogation. At times the halls of the station held more than a hundred reporters, and one session was cut off because, in the words of the police chief, “the newsmen tried to overrun him.”
Thus it was no surprise that Oswald’s transfer from the city prison to the county jail on Sunday was treated as something of a media event, despite protests from the Justice Department in Washington that the prisoner should be transferred secretly. Bowing to media requests, the police scheduled the transfer by van for noon on Sunday, to be covered live on NBC and then on tape by the other two networks. This meant that the narrow basement corridor heading to the van was filled with reporters, wires, and blinding TV camera lights. In such chaos it was easy for a gunman to enter the basement, and Jack Ruby did.
As Oswald emerged slowly in handcuffs, five minutes late so he could change his sweater and flanked by two policemen, CBS radio newsman Ike Pappas thrust a microphone in his face. “Do you have anything to say in your defense?” Pappas asked. A second later Ruby stepped forward from where he had been lurking behind the reporters and shot Oswald in the stomach—live on national television, another first. “He’s been shot; he’s been shot; Lee Oswald has been shot,” NBC reporter Tom Pettit kept repeating. Few then or since have thought to note how television itself had helped make the shooting possible. One who did at the time was Jonathan Miller in The New Yorker: “In being so inquisitive, television may have become an accomplice in the crime —may have actually joggled events in the direction they took.... One could almost feel the lens urging Ruby out of the crowd. In fact, in the pictures, it looked as if he came out of the camera itself.” Thus television changed history twice on that day—first by setting up Ruby with his opportunity and then by providing America with its first dramatic watch-it-as-it-happens national news event. From Ruby’s bullet to CNN in Baghdad to OJ.'s Bronco chase, the news would never be the same as it sought to capture—and sometimes create—similar moments.
Still, phase three awaited. Though the networks now had the kind of footage that in the tabloid age of the nineties would have become the centerpiece of coverage, on that weekend they dropped Oswald rather quickly. That’s because they were already into the last mini-show of the coverage and the one that almost everyone remembers best: the beginning of the ceremonial period of national mourning and the funeral. From Sunday’s procession and ceremonies in the Capitol and on through Monday’s funeral, Americans used television to experience their grief collectively, and television delivered. “When the day’s history is written,” wrote Jack Gould of The New York Times, “the record of television as a medium will constitute a badge of honor.”
Over the decades, TV would create other times when the whole country could experience an event together. But this was the first one.
Though each network provided its own news team, the three combined their camera efforts (forty-one units in all). This meant that the visual coverage was superb for the time, although out of courtesy there was never a fullface close-up of Jackie, the children, or any immediate members of the family. All in all, it was an impressive performance—so much so that the former Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton Minow, a frequent critic of the networks, said: “We always hear that television is a young medium. If so, it grew up in a couple of days.”