Buffalo Broadcasters

Column: TV coverage of JFK's assassination

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November 18, 2013

by Mark Scott

BBA Web-Newsletter Editor

Friday marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  But it’s also the 50th anniversary of the date broadcast journalism, particularly TV reporting, came of age.  This is not to say there weren’t important moments in our industry before 1963.  Edward R. Murrow’s live radio reports from London during World War II, Murrow’s legendary essay that helped bring down Senator Joseph McCarthy and live coverage of the first US manned space flights were all fine examples of the power of radio and television.  But it was the killing of Kennedy that had the most profound impact on our industry. For four days, the three major TV networks at the time presented continuous coverage of this national tragedy.  TV did what no newspaper could do.  The live coverage brought the nation together so that we could all collectively mourn Kennedy’s death. 

Those of us in the business today have to marvel at what Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley and their colleagues must have gone through to get this live coverage out.  They had none of the technical conveniences we have today.  There were plenty of glitches.  At CBS, the on-air camera took 20 minutes to warm up.  So, Walter Cronkite had to go to a radio booth to announce the initial report that “three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade in downtown Dallas,” while the black “CBS News Bulletin” slide appeared on screen.  At NBC, Frank McGee literally had to repeat what Robert MacNeil was telling him over a phone because the network could not patch in a live telephone feed to the studio.  But these legendary anchors overcame these obstacles and stayed on the air to bring a grieving nation the latest details.

I was eight at the time.  I had no idea yet that I would be pursuing a career in broadcast journalism.  I was in my third grade classroom at Allendale Elementary in West Seneca.  My assignment that afternoon was to stand by the door as my fellow students left for the buses to make sure they were taking their notebooks home for weekend homework.  I saw some sixth-graders milling around in the hallway, saying the President had been shot.  I don’t remember if there was a PA announcement of what happened.  Since it was so close to dismissal, we got on the bus, and I came home to find my mother crying.

I have very vivid memories of watching the return of President Kennedy’s body to Andrews Air Force Base, where a catering truck used to load food into airplanes was employed to lower his casket to the ground.  The most scarring moment for this eight-year-old came Sunday morning.  We were a Huntley-Brinkley household, so we were watching NBC.  They were the only network covering the transfer of Lee Harvey Oswald from the city to county jail.  A shot rang out.  My mother screamed and fell to her knees praying. 

Throughout this 50th anniversary, we have seen tape of Walter Cronkite’s coverage.  His announcement of the death of President Kennedy is now indelibly a part of television broadcast history.  It has been replayed thousands of times (probably millions if you include You Tube views).  We have seen much less tape of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley on NBC, who during the 1960s were very much Cronkite’s equals.  Back in 1963, ABC was a poor third.  In fact, I had to “Google” for information about ABC coverage to find out that is was Don Goddard and Ron Cochran, two broadcast journalists whose names are vaguely familiar but of whom I have no memory. 

Interestingly, five broadcast journalists first gained notoriety for covering the Kennedy assassination – all five eventually becoming anchors of evening news programs.  The PBS News Hour has a story on all five

Robert MacNeil was in Dallas covering the Kennedy visit for NBC News.  Jim Lehrer was a reporter for the Dallas Times Herald and was at the police station when Oswald was brought.  Both eventually became News Hour anchors.

Peter Jennings was a Canadian TV news anchor at the time of the assassination and traveled to Dallas to report on it.  Two years later, he joined ABC News where he anchored the evening news from 1983 until his death in 2005. 

Dan Rather was the chief of CBS’ southern bureau in 1963 and was in Dallas to cover the presidential visit.  Rather succeeded Cronkite as anchor of the CBS Evening News in 1981.

Bob Schieffer was a police reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram 50 years ago.  He briefly succeeded Rather at the anchor desk in the mid 2000s and is currently the host of the Sunday interview program, Face the Nation

According to Schieffer, the CBS News website will begin streaming its assassination coverage in real time at 1:40pm Friday and will present all four days of it.  I hope their website can handle what I expect will be a huge audience of us 55+ baby-boomers who will log in to relive what we experienced 50 years ago.

Now an invitation to those of you who were young reporters, producers and anchors 50 years ago.  Would you please spend an hour this week writing up your memories so we can share them here?  Again, I was eight.  So, I can only relate to what I saw on TV.  But if you were working when the UPI machine rang ten bells, announcing the “Flash” from Dallas, please do get in touch. 
 

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