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11/22/63: the day television news came of age

Most of us learn about breaking news from Facebook, Drudge, Huffington, CNN, Fox News or a thousand other sources. But the roots of instant news hark back to just before Thanksgiving in 1963.

It’s fascinating to watch clips of the Kennedy assassination news coverage. During that autumn long ago, the de facto way Americans got their national news was from one of the three major networks’ newscasts that aired during the dinner hour. Remember, this was the era of black and white TV. Many dads still fetched afternoon newspapers off the sidewalk as they returned home from work. Many moms stayed home, fixed dinner, took care of the kids and ironed sheets and curtains. Boys had short haircuts and segregation was an endangered way of life. Vietnam hadn’t yet spilled into our living rooms and the Beatles hadn’t hit our shores. This was the era of folk singers on college campuses.

On any given weeknight, adults watched one of the big three network news programs because there was practically nothing else on at that time of day. There were no cable networks and it would be five years before independent UHF stations appeared and struggled for profitability.

I remember my grandparents gently turning their big TV console — a piece of furniture actually — from the family room toward the dining room table each night so they could watch the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.

Only two months before the assassination, NBC and CBS expanded their nightly newscasts from 15 minutes to 30. Walter Cronkite created his nightly sign off, “…and that’s the way it is” when his broadcast expanded because he thought 30 minutes would give him ample time to cover everything of importance.

Excellent broadcast journalism was evident in 1963, but it was delivered without flash. There was no tape; all reports were on film. Graphics — usually just maps — had to be projected on a big screen behind the anchors. The only live elements of a newscast were stories read by the anchorman in the studio.

In an instant, network TV news came into its own. The Kennedy assassination was the first live breaking TV news special. Watching it unfold — with all those reporters, newsroom staff and engineers making it up as they went along is fascinating stuff.

If an assassin struck the president today, social media would relay the story to the world in less than a minute. Web traffic would spike. We’d see hundreds of video clips posted by bystanders. Tweets would spell out every angle of the story including many facts that weren’t true. Cable news channels would go wall to wall with feeds, experts, opinion and conjecture.

But in 1963, all the networks attempted to avoid speculation. Covering the president’s visit to Dallas, a young Dan Rather was horrified when a CBS radio producer misunderstood him and had the network announce Kennedy’s death before it was official. He had to listen in silence as the network played The Star Spangled Banner. Rather beat everyone else with the story by several minutes, but if he knew if he was wrong, his career would be over.

As a side note, it’s interesting to recount two examples of premonition. The night before the assassination, Senator Hubert Humphrey gave a speech in Washington about mental health. He inferred that an entire city — like Dallas — could be affected by mob mentality that could even lead to the assassination of the president. And Kennedy himself made a remark in his hotel room the next day — the morning of November 23rd. Looking out his window at the huge crowd below and seeing Confederate flags and protesters, he remarked to an aide that “this would be a good day to assassinate the president.”

Friday, November 22, 1963 turned out to be a date that millions of baby boomers would remember the way their parents remembered Pearl Harbor and millennials remember 9/11. In Mrs. Brown’s second grade class at Evamere Elementary School in Hudson, Ohio, my classmates and I were informed by our teacher, courtesy of the custodian’s AM radio, that the President had been shot. She said busses would soon be here and we would all be leaving school early. When I got home, my friend Davy Joslyn’s mother was crying. Our TV set was being repaired, so we didn’t get to see live coverage until early that evening when President Johnson exited Air Force One in Washington, walked up to a bank of microphones, looked at the cameras and said “I ask for your help…and God’s.” For a seven year old, it was scary stuff.

Back to when the news broke at 1:39pm: CBS’s is the only complete television coverage that survives. We can watch all of it. NBC’s staff forgot to roll tape for the first 20 minutes, and ABC’s archive is incomplete.

Kennedy was shot at 1:30pm Eastern time. Just after 1:35pm, UPI’s Merriman Smith first alerted the world of the assassination via UPI teletype. He had the scoop of the century, refused to hang up the mobile phone inside the press car when he was done dictating the story and physically prevented his rival from AP from using it. UPI was first — alerting newsrooms around the country with a five-bell alarm — the most serious and rarely used of all alerts. Don Gardiner immediately broke in over the ABC radio network and was the first to report the story. CBS television caught up 30 seconds later.

The stakes were unimaginably high. No modern president had been assassinated. FDR’s sudden death in 1948 was the closest thing to a tragedy most Americans could remember. In the fall of 1963, CBS and NBC were battling for leadership in television news and had started investing millions to expand their news departments. NBC’s newscasts were fronted by Chet Huntley, a stern old-school journalist from Montana paired with David Brinkley, a former print reporter from North Carolina who read stories with a smirk as if he were about to offer a punch line.

CBS countered with Walter Cronkite, a veteran print and radio reporter who had anchored CBS’s televised political conventions as far back as 1952. Huntley and Brinkley were leading in the ratings.

ABC was struggling. The network had enjoyed a brief era of popularity and profitability in the late ‘50s with westerns and violent dramas, but the popularity of those shows had passed. By the early ‘60s, ABC was searching for an investor. The conglomerate ITT emerged, but the US Justice Department was concerned about ITT’s size and potential for conflict of interest, so it refused to OK the merger. This caused a financial crisis at ABC, and its lack of resources was on full display that fateful afternoon.

The planets aligned for CBS. For one thing, the network was live at 1:30pm, feeding the half hour soap opera “As the World Turns” to stations around the country. Virtually every CBS affiliate was carrying the show. So when the “CBS News Bulletin” slide interrupted the Hughes family’s woes at 1:39pm, every viewer watching CBS saw it.

NBC was at a disadvantage because it wasn’t offering a network show at 1:30. Local stations like New York’s WNBC were running their own shows like “Bachelor Father.” Not only did the NBC News manager on duty have to get permission from management to interrupt the network, the executives who could approve it were away at lunch and had to be found.

Then the network had to get the attention of local stations and get them to dump out of whatever they were showing. NBC’s first report of the assassination came from announcer Don Pardo, but it was only seen on its New York station.

ABC was feeding a rerun of “Father Knows Best” and broke in at 1:40 with its bulletin slide, but relatively few ABC stations were airing the program. Compounding ABC’s lack of influence was a dearth of affiliates in medium sized and small cities.

Compare the three networks that day and you can see that CBS was where the story came together the best. Watching CBS clips on YouTube, you can sense controlled panic. After the “CBS News Bulletin” slide interrupts As the World Turns, coverage begins with Walter Cronkite closing the audio booth door. Then he reads the fateful UPI wire copy about “three shots…fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade. The first reports say President Kennedy has been…seriously wounded…by…this…shooting.” Cronkite infers at the end of the first bulletin that the President’s wounds “perhaps…could be fatal.” And after he concludes with “stay tuned to CBS news for further details,” you can hear CBS producer Don Hewitt in the background saying, “Connally, too,” referring to the Texas Governor, who had also been shot.

The next 45 seconds is riveting. CBS runs a commercial for minute-brewed Nescafe instant coffee, then a live promo for that evening’s “Route 66” and then for what seems like an eternal 30 seconds, the network goes dark as local stations inserted their own ads.

Imagine what was going on across the country during those 30 seconds.

Pandemonium: stay-at-home moms standing in front of their TV sets with their hands over their mouths. Frantic phone calls being made to neighbors and family members. Viewers switching channels to see if anyone else had more information.

And when “As the World Turns” resumed, the CBS News Bulletin slide immediately interrupted it. Following one more commercial break, CBS and the other networks stayed on the air for four days without commercials (or dramatic theme music, special event titles or opinionated talking heads, as we would see today).

Here again, we see the limitations of 1963 technology. That bulletin slide remained CBS’s only visual for another 15 minutes. Walter Cronkite couldn’t appear live until the newsroom camera’s tubes had warmed up. From that day forward, there was always a “hot” camera ready to cover breaking news. When he finally did appear, Cronkite was wearing a white shirt and tie but no suit jacket, as was mandatory at the time. He simply forgot to put it on.

Cronkite ad libbed for another 40 minutes until the flash arrived on the teletype (you can see a newsroom employee behind Cronkite rip it from the machine). Cronkite then paused, touched his thumb to his lower lip and announced, “The flash…apparently official…President Kennedy died at 1:00 central standard time…2:00 eastern standard time…some 48 minutes ago.”

As news of Kennedy’s death sunk in, Cronkite, eyeglasses off, halted and began to well up with tears before continuing.

It’s interesting to note that while Cronkite’s pause to compose himself represents one of the most riveting moments in television history, CBS chairman William Paley ordered that correspondent Charles Collingwood immediately replace Cronkite on the anchor desk so Cronkite could take time to compose himself. Here again we see primitive television. Cronkite had to get up from his chair on live television as Collingwood — wearing a suit jacket — jockeyed to take over the seat.

Meantime over at NBC, anchors Paul Ryan and Frank McGee appeared in front of a plywood wall because it was the only studio with a functional camera. The two men bantered with each other for what seems like an eternity because no remote video feeds were available. Occasionally they were able to hold up photos from Dallas that had been transmitted via fax.

At one point, McGee had to hold a telephone receiver to his ear and repeat for viewers what the Dallas reporter was telling him on the phone because engineers couldn’t figure out how to get the connection on the air.

And over at third place ABC, anchorman Ron Cochran smiled self-consciously during the initial bulletins and kept referring to the fact that he had been pulled away from lunch. With no bench strength of reporters, ABC had little to offer.

In those early hours of assassination coverage, the networks did manage to secure live feeds from their Dallas/Fort Worth affiliates, which in turn, originated a few remote feeds of their own from downtown Dallas. Getting these feeds worked out involved switching the direction of AT&T’s video signal between New York and Dallas, a complex process that required coordination up and down the network.

CBS’s Dallas affiliate was KRLD. Its newsman Eddie Barker did an excellent job providing perspective of what was happening. Barker knew local geography and many of the officials who were being shown on camera. He was the first to imply that Kennedy had died.

Shortly after the shooting, ABC affiliate WFAA interviewed Abraham Zapruder, whose 8mm film remains the most vivid account of the shooting, in their studios near Dealey Plaza.

“Live” feeds were so unusual, CBS’s Harry Reasoner sounded startled and impressed as CBS showed the landing of Air Force One in Washington, carrying the new president as well as Kennedy’s casket. Over the next three days, the networks pooled their equipment so they could all show as much of the funeral procession as possible.

The Kennedy assassination was a catalyst that changed the way broadcast journalism works. From there, we began seeing more live remote news broadcasts and better technology. Of course, these improvements would have happened eventually. But on that day approaching Thanksgiving in 1963, television was forced to grow up just as America lost its innocence.


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