The Four Days That Made Tv News


Over the decades, television would create other times when the whole country could experience an event together. This, however, was the first moment it had done so, establishing the largest domestic audiences in the history of the medium until then. Thus those days in November had consequences for the development of the medium itself. “I think we were frightened when we saw our capability,” one TV executive said later. Somehow the fear soon passed, as did the concern over lost profits. By suspending all regular programming and canceling all commercials over those days between the shooting and the funeral, CBS and NBC had lost an estimated four million dollars; ABC a bit over two million.

As a consequence of this event, as Zelizer notes in her wide-ranging book on media treatment of the assassination, Covering the Body, television’s hold on the public vis-à-vis print was never seriously challenged again—even in the eyes of those who had once distrusted TV. “I never in my life expected to spend six hours looking at television,” said Gov. Albertis Harrison of Virginia over that weekend. By the following year, when delegates at the Republican National Convention wanted to voice their displeasure with the press, they shook their fists at the network anchor booths above. Thus the concepts of television news and of news itself had become inseparable. Television was now more than the medium of choice; it was the only medium anyone could envision capturing an event. In one weekend America had gone from a print and radio nation (we read and heard the news) to a television nation (we saw the funeral).

Through its coverage television had also made itself part of the story, seemingly without anyone’s realizing it. When people remembered that weekend years later, what they recalled were the television images—and the TV journalists who provided words to go with them. We take such a fact for granted now—where else would you learn about something?—but the assassination and its immediate aftermath were a dividing line in our cultural history. For most of those four days in November 1963, the reporters had kept quiet and let the events speak for themselves. From then on, however, TV the teller would become an inextricable part of every tale.