May/june 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 3
What you don’t remember about the day JFK was shot
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.