OPINION – Fifty years ago Friday, television grew up, going from “Leave It To Beaver” to adulthood with the way it covered the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
We had some masterful reporters working the beat that cold, gray November day when the die was cast and for five years, assassination was part of our tragic time.
As the news broke on the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963, we had Walter Cronkite and Charles Collingwood at CBS; Frank McGee, Chet Huntley, and Bill Ryan at NBC; and Ed Silverman and Ron Cochran of the fledgling ABC network filling the air with as much news as their field reporters and the wire services could supply.
There had been nothing like this in the nascent field of TV news. In fact, it had only been two months since NBC, which was the big dog in the game at that time, and CBS went from a nightly 15-minute network news program to 30 minutes. Incredibly, it would be years before ABC caught up to the times and expanded its nightly news report.
So it was all new and, thankfully, there were reporters in the studios that day with broad backgrounds in news. They weren’t pretty boys with slick one-liners and the ability to smile deftly into a camera lens while delivering the news. These were grisly news pros who went about their business objectively, even when the strain of human emotions would rise in their throats, as it did many times during the four-day, nonstop coverage of the Kennedy assassination and numbing events that followed.
Only once in the last 50 years has television been so selfless, so devoted to the story as it was back then and that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists took down the World Trade Center.
But, the elements of coverage of the Sept. 11 attack far differed from those of the Kennedy assassination.
There were advances in technology that brought us startling footage of the events surrounding the terrorist attack. We had video, still photos, reporting teams that, by sheer numbers, enabled the news networks of today to adequately cover every aspect of the events surrounding the terror attack. In 1963, there were no satellite links, no cell phones, none of the modern conveniences that brought us nearly every conceivable angle of the World Trade Center attack.
All we had in November 1963 were shadowy black and white images on tiny picture tubes. The gear these crews used was large, crude, heavy, and difficult to connect for a live remote broadcast. Yet, it was all assembled to allow us to share in the tragedy, the grief, the history of the moment – from the initial reports out of Dallas to the killing of suspect Lee Harvey Oswald, to the emotionally heartbreaking image of 3-year-old John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting his father’s flag-draped casket – live. It may not seem like much when compared with today’s coverage, but, it was a monumental task.
The power of the medium was revealed as we gathered, for four days, in front of our televisions to learn, to try to grasp what seemed so unbelievable, to mourn.
There simply was nowhere else for the nation to go.
Cronkite, of course, is revered, often looked to as an exemplary standard by which news gatherers are judged, and he did outstanding work in covering the Kennedy assassination. However, he was not yet the icon he would become. CBS was second in the ratings to NBC, which boasted Huntley, David Brinkley, Frank McGee and a team of pros that was looked up to as the epitome of television news, such as it was.
But, there were others who stepped up during those days, without whom, the story would not have been told as accurately and professionally as it was.
There was a very young Dan Rather, who was a Southern bureau chief for CBS who flashed the first bulletin to the network that Kennedy had expired, basing his report on the fact that he had spoken with one of two Roman Catholic priests dispatched to the hospital to administer the sacrament of Last Rites to Kennedy, the Parkland Hospital Chief of Staff, and one of his reporters on the scene who had obtained confirmation from one of the Secret Service agents at the hospital.
Robert MacNeil was a reporter for NBC, assigned to covering the President’s trip to Dallas. He was in the motorcade when the shots rang out, gave up his ride to the hospital and began interviewing people in Dealey Plaza. He later turned up at Parkland Hospital where he arranged an open telephone to the NBC News desk, where he was linked directly to McGee, who was on the air. His tenacious reporting led him onto a prestigious and lengthy career in broadcast journalism as he worked tirelessly, reporting from Dallas.
Jim Lehrer, then a young reporter for the Dallas Times-Herald, is remembered as the reporter who rushed up, face-to-face with Oswald as they were moving him through a police station hallway and asked: “Did you kill the president?” The question and Oswald’s response, “I didn’t kill anybody,” are part of the historic television archive.
Bob Schieffer, currently CBS’ chief Washington correspondent and host of “Face The Nation,” worked for the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram at the time of the assassination. He was a police reporter, working the desk the day Kennedy was shot when a telephone rang in the newsroom. “I just answered a phone and a woman said, ‘Is there anybody there who can give me a ride to Dallas?’ And I said, ‘Lady, you know, the president has just been shot? And besides, we’re not a taxi service.’ And she said, ‘Yes, I heard it on the radio.’ She said, ‘I think the person they’ve arrested is my son.’ And it was Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother.” Schieffer picked up Marguerite Oswald and drove her to Dallas, getting his exclusive story in the process.
At 25, Peter Jennings was building a reputation as one of Canada’s premier news reporters. He was co-anchor of the nightly CTV late-night news program and was known for his hard-hitting reports. As soon as news broke of the Kennedy shooting, he boarded the next plane to Dallas and was the first Canadian reporter to hit the ground, microphone in hand. He is remembered, however, not for being first, but for his probing work in Dallas as the story unfolded. He returned to the United States a year later to cover the Democratic convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where Elmer Lower, who was then president of ABC News, offered him a job. Four months later, Jennings began his meteoric rise at ABC.
You will, undoubtedly, run across at least one of the specials that the networks are planning for Friday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination.
As you do, try to understand how the people who brought us the news during those four terribly disturbing days, had no model, no template for what they took on.
Think, for a moment, of the obstacles they had to overcome, and realize that while it may have been important to be first with the story, it was more important to be right.
In retrospect, it was just this side of miraculous.
Ed Kociela is an opinion columnist. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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