50 years ago today

On Friday, Nov. 22, 1963 around 12:30 p.m., John F. and Jacqueline Kennedy were riding in a motorcade in downtown Dallas.

At the same time, those watching a CBS-affiliate TV station in the Eastern Time Zone (and therefore not viewers of WISC-TV in Madison, which was carrying “The Farm Hour”) were watching this:

About seven minutes later, listeners to ABC radio stations heard this:

About three minutes after that, the aforementioned CBS viewers saw this:

Those listening to the biggest Top 40 station in Dallas had their listening to the Chiffons (given what we now know about Kennedy, an ironic choice of song) interrupted:

Those watching whatever their NBC-TV station was carrying around 12:45 heard this …

… while those watching WFAA-TV in Dallas at the same time saw this:

Those watching ABC-TV’s rerun of “Father Knows Best” (again, in the Eastern Time Zone) saw this:

From then on, for the first time in history, all three TV networks presented wall-to-wall (or as close as possible; most TV stations went off the air after midnight) coverage of breaking news:

I have great interest in JFK’s assassination and coverage thereof for a couple of reasons. I went to John F. Kennedy School  in Madison, so that may be part of it, in addition to my being a media geek.

Coverage of Kennedy’s assassination came a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, which would have qualified for breaking news had the technology existed to bring live bulletins beyond someone sitting in front of a camera or microphone reading a script.

What is interesting from viewing the coverage is the quality of most of the TV coverage for an unprecedented (for TV) event. It was far from perfect (the ABC-TV coverage is particularly difficult to watch early on), but live remote reports were rare even when they could be set up in advance, let alone when they needed to be set up on the spur of the moment. NBC had its own problems getting a telephone report from Robert MacNeil (later of PBS’ MacNeil–Lehrer Report).

In comparison, the local radio coverage left something to be desired. Perhaps it’s because coverage standards have changed, but it blows my mind (pun not intended) that radio stations would report that the president had been shot in their own city, and then go back to their usual programming (music and, in one case, a Bible program). One reason is that radio news reporters were strewn all over the area to cover Kennedy’s several appearances in Fort Worth and Dallas. One station went between its own coverage and CBS radio coverage, while another went between its own coverage and NBC radio coverage, which also incorporated NBC TV coverage.

TV initially did the same thing. Imagine today watching, say, reports that a plane has crashed into the World Trade Center in New York, and then being asked to stay tuned for later bulletins. In the nearly five decades since today, viewers expect wall-to-wall  coverage, whether or not actual news is broadcast or repeated endlessly intertwined with less-than-factually-based observation and speculation.

There were mistakes, because there are always mistakes in such coverage. Lyndon Johnson was reported to also have been shot and to have had a heart attack. (Imagine the panic that briefly created.) A Secret Service agent was reported to have died. (Oswald killed a Dallas police officer after shooting Kennedy.)

Since there was no such thing as a minicam and satellites weren’t in much use yet, there is no tape of the actual announcement from White House assistant press secretary Malcolm Kilduff:

Nearly everything (except for CBS-TV’s NFL games on Sunday, since, unlike the American Football League, the NFL did not cancel games Nov. 24, a decision NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle later regretted) was knocked off the air for the next four days. That included NBC’s “Bob Hope Chrysler Theatre” on Friday, CBS’ Jackie Gleason and “Gunsmoke” Saturday, and CBS’ Ed Sullivan and NBC’s “Bonanza” on Sunday.

One is struck on watching the coverage how Kennedy’s assassination emotionally affected those covering it in a way I doubt would be repeated in today’s cynical age:

From nearly 50 years later, some reporters and commentators sound as if they were in the tank for Kennedy — or, more accurate, Kennedy the image:

A rather clear-eyed, even cold commentary came from NBC’s Edwin Newman, a UW grad:

Newman’s colleague, Chet Huntley, gave a commentary that might have to be repeated in our currently overheated political atmosphere:

Had I been a columnist or commentator (who might have actually voted for Kennedy instead of Richard Nixon, particularly had I been able to discern what a disastrous president Nixon would become) in late November 1963, I might have peered through my glasses or newfangled contact lenses, puffed on my pipe, and typed out something like this:

On Monday, Americans will get to witness on television something most have never seen before, except possibly in a theater newsreel — a state funeral. This country’s last state funeral took place in 1945 upon the death of Franklin Roosevelt.

It was noted at the time of President Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961 that this country had an unprecedented number of living former presidents — Dwight Eisenhower, Kennedy’s predecessor; Harry Truman, Eisenhower’s predecessor; and Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt’s predecessor. It is one of many cruel ironies of this weekend that all three have outlived our youngest elected president.

Kennedy was not our youngest president; that was Theodore Roosevelt, who became president upon the assassination of William McKinley, the last president to have been assassinated before Friday. However, our youngest elected president is also the youngest to have died in office.

Those men who fought in and survived World War II will note the additional irony of one of their own, who had his PT boat cut in two and sunk by a Japanese destroyer 20 years ago, surviving that only to die of violence back in this country.

When you reach the age of President Kennedy, you start to notice when people of your own age show up in the obituary columns. Usually, their deaths are because of heart attacks or car accidents or cancer. President Kennedy projected youth, energy and vitality, thanks in large part to his family. Whether or not you voted for him, most men of President Kennedy’s age or with a young family identified with him much more than with any other president of our memory. And now, Mrs. Kennedy will have to raise their two young children by herself, a widow thanks to, according to the wire reports, a former Marine who left this country for the Soviet Union.

President Kennedy knew much tragedy in his short life. Two of his men on PT 109 were killed in the collision with the Japanese destroyer. His older brother, Joe, died during World War II. One sister, Kathleen, died in a plane crash. Another sister, Rosemary, is retarded and in a nursing home. Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy had a stillborn daughter and another son, Patrick, die shortly after birth earlier this year. The president’s father suffered a massive stroke earlier this year. This latest Kennedy family tragedy is now the nation’s tragedy as well.

Those readers who were around in the 1940s remember where they were when news was reported about the Pearl Harbor attack and the death of Franklin Roosevelt. Now, this generation has its own where-were-you-when moment. This moment, though, reflects poorly on the United States of America.

I tried to write that what-if column from the viewpoint of 1963. (Hence the term “retarded” to describe Rosemary Kennedy, who had a low IQ and was the victim of a lobotomy ordered by her father, a world-class scumbag.) Americans then and now like to think of ourselves as idealists. A lot of Americans got into government because of Kennedy and what he seemed to represent. Even though Kennedy defeated a presidential candidate just four years older, Kennedy represented to most Americans youth and vigor. (We know now from his medical record that that was an inaccurate representation, as was a great deal of his life story.) He also represented nearly unlimited possibility, such as his embracing a flight to the Moon.

Those of my generation have never experienced an assassination of a president, though an attempt was made on Ronald Reagan’s life. So it’s hard to say how we’d react today to a similar event. Much of the reaction would be based on our political worldview, which is the wrong motivation. We are much more cynical today for good reason, and we see politics as a zero-sum game — one side wins, which means the other loses.

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