The network coverage of
the assassination and funeral of John F. Kennedy warrants its reputation as
the most moving and historic passage in broadcasting history. On Friday 22
November 1963, news bulletins reporting rifle shots during the president's
motorcade in Dallas, Texas, broke into normal programming. Soon the three
networks preempted their regular schedules and all commercial advertising
for a wrenching marathon that would conclude only after the president's
burial at Arlington National Cemetery on Monday 25 November. As a purely
technical challenge, the continuous live coverage over four days of a
single, unbidden event remains the signature achievement of broadcast
journalism in the era of three network hegemony. But perhaps the true
measure of the television coverage of the events surrounding the death of
President Kennedy is that it marked how intimately the medium and the
nation are interwoven in times of crisis.
The first word came
over the television airwaves at 1:40 P.M. EST when CBS News anchorman
Walter Cronkite broke into As the World Turns with an audio
announcement over a bulletin slide: "In Dallas, Texas, three shots
were fired at President Kennedy's motorcade in downtown Dallas. The first
reports say that President Kennedy has been seriously wounded by this
shooting." Minutes later, Cronkite appears on screen from CBS's New
York newsroom to field live reports from Dallas and read news bulletins
from Associated Press and CBS Radio. Eddie Barker, news director for CBS's
Dallas affiliate KRLD-TV, reports live from the Trade Mart, where the
president was to have attended a luncheon. As a stationary camera pans the
ballroom, closing in on a black waiter who wipes tears from his face,
Barker relates rumors "that the president is dead." Back in New
York, a voice off camera tells Cronkite the same news, which the anchorman
stresses is "totally unconfirmed." Switching back to Dallas,
Barker again reports "the word we have is that the President is dead."
Though he cautions "this we do not know for a fact," the visual
image at the Trade Mart is ominous: workman can be seen removing the
presidential seal from a podium on the dias.
Behind the scenes, at
KRLD's newsroom, CBS's Dallas bureau chief Dan Rather scrambles for
information. He learns from two sources at Parkland Hospital that the
president has died, a report that goes out prematurely over CBS Radio.
Citing Rather, Cronkite reports the president's death but notes the lack of
any official conformation. At 2:37 P.M. CBS news editor Ed Bliss, Jr. hands
Cronkite an AP wire report. Cronkite takes a long second to read it to
himself before intoning: "From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently
official. President Kennedy died at 1:00 P.M. Central Standard Time, two
o'clock Eastern Standard Time." He pauses and looks at the studio
clock. "Some thirty-eight minutes ago." Momentarily losing his
composure, Cronkite winces, removes his eyeglasses, and clears his throat
before resuming with the observation that Vice President Lyndon Johnson
will presumably take the oath of office to become the thirty-sixth
president of the United States.
To appreciate the
enormity of the task faced by the networks over the next four days, it is
necessary to recall that in 1963, before the days of high-tech, globally
linked, and sleekly mobile newsgathering units, the technical limitations
of broadcast journalism militated against the coverage of live and
fast-breaking events in multiple locations. TV cameras required two hours
of equipment warm-up to become "hot" enough for operation. Video
signals were transmitted cross-country via "hard wire" coaxial
cable or microwave relay. "Spot coverage" of unfolding news in
the field demanded speed and mobility and since television cameras had to
be tethered to enormous wires and electrical systems, 16mm film crews still
dominated location coverage, with the consequent delay in transportation,
processing, and editing of footage. The challenges of juggling live
broadcasts from across the nation with overseas audio transmissions, of
compiling instant documentaries and special reports, and of acquiring and
putting out raw film footage over the air was an off-the-cuff experiment in
what NBC correspondent Bill Ryan called "controlled panic."
The resultant technical
glitches served to heighten a national atmosphere of crisis and imbalance.
NBC's coverage during that first hour showed correspondents Frank McGee,
Chet Huntley, and Bill Ryan fumbling for a simple telephone link to Dallas,
where reporter Robert McNeil was on the scene at Parkland Hospital. Manning
the telephone and bobbling a malfunctioning speaker attachment, McGee had
to repeat McNeil's words for the home audience because NBC technicians
could not establish a direct audio feed. As McNeil reported White House
aide Mac Kilduff's official announcement of the President's death, the
phone link suddenly kicked in. Creating an eerie echo of the death notice,
McGee, unaware, continued to repeat McNeil's now audible words. "After
being shot at," said McNeil. "After being shot," repeated
McGee needlessly. "By an unknown assailant..." "By an
afternoon, information rushes in about the condition of Texas governor John
Connolly, also wounded in the assassination; about the whereabouts and
security of Vice President Lyndon Johnson, whom broadcasters make a
determined effort to call "President Johnson;" and, in the later
afternoon, about the capture of a suspected assassin, identified as Lee
Harvey Oswald, a former Marine associated with left-wing causes.
So urgent is the
craving for news and imagery that unedited film footage, still blotched and
wet from fresh development, is put out over the air: of shocked pedestrians
along the motorcade route and tearful Dallas residents outside Parkland
Hospital, of the President and First Lady, vital and smiling, from earlier
in the day. The simultaneity of live video reports of a dead president
intercut with recently developed film footage of a lively president
delivering a good-humored breakfast speech that morning in Forth Worth make
for a jarring by-play of mixed visual messages. Correspondents on all three
networks are apt reflections of spectator reaction: disbelief, shock,
confusion, and grief. Grasping for points of comparison, many recall the
death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt on 12 April 1945. NBC's Frank McGee
rightly predicts, "that this afternoon, wherever you were and whatever
you might have been doing when you received the word of the death of
President Kennedy, that is a moment that will be emblazoned in your memory
and you will never forget it...as long as you live."
At 5:59 P.M. Friday,
the president's body is returned to Andrews Air Force Base, where
television catches an obscure, dark, and ghostly vessel taxing in on the
runaway. When the casket is lowered from the plane, glimpses of Jacqueline
Kennedy appear on screen, her dress and stockings still visibly
bloodstained. With the new First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson, by his side, LBJ
makes a brief statement before the cameras. "We have suffered a loss
that cannot be weighed," he intones flatly. "I will do my best.
That is all I can do. I ask for your help--and God's." Speculations
about the funeral arrangements and updates on the accused assassin in
Dallas round out the evening's coverage. NBC concludes its broadcasting day
with a symphonic tribute from the NBC Studio Orchestra.
On Saturday, the trauma
is eased somewhat by religious ritual and Constitutional tradition. Close
friends, members of the president's family, government officials, and the
diplomatic community arrive to pay their respects at the White House, where
the president's body is lying in state. Former Presidents Truman and
Eisenhower speak for the cameras, offering condolences to the Kennedy
family and expressions of faith in democratic institutions. Instant
documentary tributes to the late president appear on all three
networks--quick, makeshift compilations of home movies of Hyannisport
frolics, press conference witticisms, and formal addresses to the nation.
Meanwhile, more information dribbles in about Oswald, the accused assassin,
whom the Dallas police parade through the halls of the City Jail.
On Sunday an
unprecedented televised event blasts the story of the assassination of John
F. Kennedy out of the realm of tragedy and into surrealism: the on-camera
murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, telecast live. At 12:21 P.M. EST, as
preparations are being made for the solemn procession of the caisson
bearing the president's casket from the White House to the Capital rotunda,
the accused assassin is about to be transferred from the Dallas City Jail
to the Dallas County Jail. Alone of the three networks, NBC elects to
switch over from coverage of the preparations in Washington, D.C. to the
transfer of the prisoner in Dallas. CBS was also receiving a live feed from
Dallas in its New York control room, but opted to stay with the D.C. feed.
Thus only NBC carried the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald live. "He's been
shot! He's been shot! Lee Oswald has been shot!" shouted NBC
correspondent Tom Petit. "There is absolute panic. Pandemonium has
broken out." Within minutes, CBS broadcasts its own live feed from
Dallas. For the rest of the day all three networks deploy their Ampex
videotape technology to rewind and replay the scene again and again. Almost
every American in proximity to a television watches transfixed.
Amid the scuffle after
the shooting, a journalist's voice can be heard gasping, "This is
unbelievable." The next day New York Times television critic
Jack Gould called the on-air shooting of Oswald "easily the most
extraordinary moments Of TV that a set-owner ever watched." In truth,
as much as the Kennedy assassination itself, the on-air murder of the
president's alleged assassin creates an almost vertiginous imbalance in
televiewers, a sense of American life out of control and let loose from
Later that same
afternoon, in stark counterpoint to the ongoing chaos in Dallas, thousands
of mourners line up to file pass the president's flag draped coffin in the
Capitol rotunda. Senator Mike Mansfield intones a mournful, poetic eulogy.
With daughter Caroline by the hand, the president's widow kneels by the
casket and kisses the flag, the little girl looking up to her mother for
guidance. "For many," recalled broadcasting historian Erik
Barnouw, "it was the most unbearable moment in four days, the most
tributes to the late president and scenes of mourners at the Capitol
intertwine with news of the assassin and the assassin of the assassin, a
Dallas strip club owner named Jack Ruby. Remote coverage of church services
around the nation and solemn musical interludes is intercut and dissolved
into the endless stream of mourners in Washington. That evening, 8:00 P.M.
EST ABC telecasts A Tribute to John F. Kennedy from the Arts, a
somber variety show featuring classical music and dramatic readings from
the bible and Shakespeare. Host Fredric March recites the Gettysburg
Address, Charlton Heston reads from the Psalms and Robert Frost, and
Marian Anderson sings Negro spirituals.
The next day--Monday,
25 November a National Day of Mourning--bears witness to an extraordinary
political-religious spectacle: the ceremonial transfer of the president's
coffin by caisson from the Capitol rotunda to St. Matthews Cathedral, where
the funereal mass is to be celebrated by Richard Cardinal Cushing, and on
across the Potomac River for burial at Arlington National Cemetery.
Television coverage begins at 7:00 A.M. EST with scenes from DC, where all
evening mourners have been filing past the coffin in the Capitol rotunda.
At 10:38 A.M. the coffin is placed on the caisson for the procession to St.
Matthews Cathedral. Television imprints a series of memorable snapshot
images. During the mass, as the phrase from the president's first inaugural
address comes through loudspeakers ("Ask not what your country can do
for you. Ask what you can do for your country)" cameras dissolve to a
shot of the flag draped coffin. No sooner do commentators remind viewers
that this day marks the president's son's third birthday, then outside the
church, as the caisson passes by, little John F. Kennedy, Jr. salutes. The
spirited stallion Black Jack, a riderless steed with boots pointed
backwards in the stirrup, kicks up defiantly. Awed by the regal solemnity,
network commentators are quiet and restrained, allowing the medium of the
moving image to record a series of eloquent sounds: drums and bagpipes,
hoofbeats, the cadenced steps of the honor guard, and, at the burial at
Arlington, the final sour note of a bugle playing "Taps."
The quiet power of the
spectacle is a masterpiece of televisual choreography. Besides maintaining
their own cameras and crews, each of the networks contributes cameras for
pool coverage. CBS's Arthur Kane is assigned the task of directing the
coverage of the procession and funereal, coordinating over 60 cameras
stationed strategically along the route. NBC takes charge of feeding the
signal via relay communications satellite to twenty-three countries around
the globe. Even the Soviet Union, in a broadcasting first, uses a
five-minute news report sent via Telestar. CBS estimated 50 engineers
worked on the project and NBC 60, while ABC put its total staff at 138.
Unlike the fast breaking news from Dallas on Friday and Sunday, the
coverage of a stationary, scheduled event built on the acquired expertise
of network journalism.
achievement came with a hefty price tag. Trade figures estimated the total
cost to the networks at $40 million, with some $22,000,000 lost in
programming and commercial revenue over the four days. Ironically, the one
time none of the networks cared about ratings, the television audience was
massive. Though multi-city Nielsens for prime time hours during the Black
Weekend were calculated modestly (NBC at 24, CBS at 16, and ABC at 10),
during intervals of peak viewership--as when the news of Oswald's murder
struck--Nielsen estimated that fully 93% of televisions in the nation were
tuned to the coverage. As if hypnotized, many Americans watch for hour upon
hour at a stretch in an unprecedented immersion in deep involvement
spectatorship. Not incidentally, the Zapruder film, the famous super 8mm
record of the assassination, was not a part of the original televisual
experience. Despite the best efforts of CBS's Dan Rather, exclusive rights
to the most historically significant piece of amateur filmmaking in the
twentieth century were obtained by Life magazine. The Zapruder film
was not shown on television until March 1975 on ABC's Goodnight America.
Almost certainly, however, in 1963 it would have been deemed too gruesome
and disrespectful of the feelings of the Kennedy family to have been
broadcast on network television.
The saturation coverage
of the assassination and burial of John F. Kennedy and the startling murder
of his alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald on live television yielded a
shared media experience of astonishing unanimity and unmatched impact, an
imbedded cultural memory that as years passed seemed to comprise a
collective consciousness for a generation. In time, it would seem
appropriate that the telegenic president was memorialized by the medium
that helped make him. For its part, television--so long sneered at as a
boob tube presided over by avaricious Lords of Kitsch--emerged from its
four days in November as the only American institution accorded
unconditional praise. Variety's George Rosen spoke the consensus:
"In a totally unforeseen and awesome crisis, TV immediately, almost
automatically, was transformed into a participating organ of American life
whose value, whose indispensability, no Nielsen audimeters could measure or
statistics reveal." The medium Kennedy's FCC commissioner Newton Minow
condemned as a "vast wasteland" had served, in extremis, as a
Baker, Dean C. The
Assassination of President Kennedy; A Study of the Press Coverage. Ann
Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Department of Journalism, 1965.
Berry, Joseph P. John
F. Kennedy and the Media: The First Television President. Lanham,
Maryland: University Press of America, 1987
Dayan, Daniel, and
Elihu Katz. Media Events: The Live Broadcasting of History.
Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1992.
"Rallying Around the Flag." American Journalism Review (College
Park, Maryland), September 1994 .
Watson, Mary Ann.
"How Kennedy Invented Political Television." Television
Quarterly (New York), Spring 1991.
See also Media