It is with no small amount of gratitude coupled with a modest amount of shock that I can still recall with some degree of personal connection and accuracy the events of sixty years ago today. It seems like a lifetime ago and as the years go on, the differences between the world then and the world now grow starker and more dramatic.
It was an otherwise typical late autumn afternoon for this pre-schooler, home for an entire day on the Friday before the first Thanksgiving we would be hosting at our then spanking-new and relatively spacious Queens address. We preceded the Mets in a move from upper Manhattan to the borough by a little less than a year, as we did the impending New York World’s Fair, the second to be held in the park we could walk to in a quarter-century. My parents both went to that one and wanted me to have a few chances to as well; we could walk to it, though, of course, we never did. But we did walk, slowly, to the supermarket on the corner that unlike the one we left behind actually had aisles we could fit through and would even deliver heavier items upon request, long before the concept of Instacart was even a thought.
We typically timed our shopping runs to when there would be a break in the NBC game show lineup, which was at 1 pm, and on this day we got home about an hour and half later and I immediately turned it back on, not realizing the next one wouldn’t air until 3:30. So we had a soap opera on for white noise as we unpacked all the fixings for Thanksgiving. And then we heard the booming voice of a soon-to-be far more famous NBC staff announcer break in, as the DAILY BEAST’s Asawin Suebseang recalled:
Don Pardo—the announcer for NBC’s Saturday Night Live starting with its debut in October 1975…found himself covering one of the most traumatic events in American history. Following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, he made NBC’s first on-air announcement that JFK had been shot in Dallas, Texas. “President Kennedy was shot today just as his motorcade left downtown Dallas,” Pardo said in the initial bulletin. “Mrs. Kennedy jumped up and grabbed Mr. Kennedy. She cried, ‘Oh, no.’ The motorcade sped on. A photographer said he saw blood on the president’s head. It was believed two shots were fired.”
Minutes later, more notable newscasters joined the fray, as the Los Angeles TIMES’ Stephen Battaglio narrates:
At NBC News, anchors Chet Huntley and Frank McGee listened as correspondent Robert MacNeil, on a muddy pay phone connection from Dallas, delivered the stunning details describing how Kennedy was gunned down while riding in a motorcade through the city’s downtown.
And over on the other channel, the one we would have been watching for PASSWORD had we been home a little earlier, this historic moment was happening:
CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite battled to hold his emotions in check as he read a wire service report and looked up at the clock in a New York studio and he announced that President Kennedy had “died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time.”
Even Cronkite was still relatively new to network news then, having taken over the job barely a year earlier. Both his newscast and that of Huntley and his longtime compadre David Brinkley had been expanded to 30 minutes only a couple of months before. There was, of course, not only no cable news network or internet, this was even before an all-news radio station existed (that wouldn’t happen until two years later).
But for the weekend that ensued in the wake of losing who was arguably the most beloved and generationally transformative president this nation had ever known, what channels did exist became virtual 24/7 havens for nonstop news that arguably established the framework and demand for how much news, and how much detail, the American public wanted.
As Battaglio astutely observed:
The marathon broadcasts set the template for the decades that followed, as viewers grew accustomed to seeing military invasions, revolutionary uprisings and terrorist attacks unfold in real time with the advent of 24-hour cable news and the internet.
Unlike the current media landscape where there are dozens of outlets for consumers to catch up on demand, everyone watched the JFK tragedy and its aftermath at the same time.
“The only thing on television anywhere in the country was the Kennedy assassination,” said former CBS News anchor Dan Rather.
Footage of the network and local TV coverage can be found on YouTube and shows up in new documentaries and reexaminations that are still being turned out for every significant anniversary.
We saw the morbid details unfold in real time, first with anchormen struggling on camera to pass along information being relayed by that low-tech phone line, then with reporters on the ground in Dallas. The coverage continued through the weekend, with every significant event producing a renewed news cycle and analysis. The Dallas affiliates and bureaus gained national prominence. Indeed, for a couple of up-and-coming CBS journalists who would become household names, the weekend changed their lives in particular dramatically:
Rather was the New Orleans bureau chief for CBS, having joined the network the year before. “I was surprised that they called me and said, ‘We want you to swing away and set up this coverage for President Kennedy’s trip to Texas,'” Rather, now 92, recalled. “It was viewed as a very routine presidential pre-campaign trip.” (I)t was Rather who first reported on CBS that the president had died, ahead of the White House confirmation. Rather was a mainstay throughout the weekend, with hours of anchoring and reporting on location in Dallas, putting him on a path to become Cronkite’s successor at the “CBS Evening News.”
(Bob) Schieffer, was a 26-year-old police reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram at the time. Those days in Dallas made him a star at the paper, eventually leading to a 50-year career at CBS that included a stint in the evening news anchor chair and 20 years as moderator of the topical news program “Face the Nation.”
Schieffer was not even assigned to cover the president’s visit. With the other Star-Telegram reporters dispatched to the scene, he was answering phones at the newspaper’s rewrite desk when a call came in from woman asking for a ride to Dallas police headquarters.
Schieffer, 86, recalled telling her, “Lady, this isn’t a taxi service and besides, the president has been shot.”
Not only were careers forged, but arguably, the coverage of news itself changed, particularly in the aftermath, as Battaglio further reminds:
(A) shocked nation took in the raw video feeds that preempted all regular TV programming and canceled $19 million worth of commercials time (equivalent to $191 million today when adjusted for inflation)…Viewers saw every moment of the shooting’s aftermath unfold in real time, including the shocking killing of Kennedy’s charged assailant, Oswald, in the basement garage of Dallas’ police headquarters. NBC carried it live. At times, the images on screen resembled a noir crime drama. After nightclub owner Jack Ruby was identified as Oswald’s killer, the ABC station in Dallas showed in-studio interviews with strippers and dancers who worked for him. By the fourth day, the networks were helping a devastated nation mourn with the first presidential funeral on live TV.
We paid attention then. We still are. And if you didn’t happen to be alive then, there’s still plenty of ways to catch up that are still being created, as the MIGHTY’s Tessa Robinson described:
Just in time for the 60th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, National Geographic has released an incredible, three-part series, titled “JFK: One Day in America.” With eyewitness accounts, spectacular footage and detailed context, viewers get a full picture of what really happened the day our nation lost a giant: November 22, 1963. For someone who didn’t live through the Kennedy assassination , I found the series to be brilliantly done. While many of the details of the day are things most Americans know I also learned so much about the first family, the police officer (J.D. Tipitt) who was killed during the manhunt, and more about who Jack Ruby was (a nightclub owner who had ties to the PD and the press). I was shocked by the thousands of people lining the streets in anticipation of JFK’s visit to Texas, and the millions more who mourned his death.
And slightly older and still-curious content creators are also churning out new productions, again per Battaglio:
Film director Rob Reiner recently collaborated with journalist Soledad O’Brien on a new iHeart podcast, “Who Killed JFK?,” that raises doubts as to whether Kennedy’s assailant, Lee Harvey Oswald, had acted alone.
Reiner still recalls being sent home from physics class at Beverly Hills High School after the news broke and spending the weekend transfixed by the wall-to-wall coverage.
“I’ve studied it for 60 years, and every time I watch it, I keep hoping it’s not going to happen, and then it’s ‘Oh, my God,'” Reiner said. “For those of us who were around at the time, it just never leaves you.”
And to watch the raw footage of what went down on NBC that autumn afternoon, still gripping and dramatic especially with the hindsight of a generation of news coverage where, sadly, far too often some tragic shooting of people far less prominent than a U.S. president is a regular occurrence, it’s easy to understand why we are still paying attention, still curious, and still wishing Camelot wasn’t taken from us so abruptly.
Anyone who may not have been alive for the Kennedy administration needs to keep in mind that he was, in many ways, as impactful and as newsworthy, both in politics and gossip, as Barack Obama, Leonardo DiCaprio and Prince William combined. His family was as complex and headline-generating as the freaking Kardashians. We grieved as deeply as Jackie Kennedy did, she having lost an infant son only three months before losing her young husband and the father of two toddlers. It’s no wonder the legitimate and illegitimate news media followed her around for the rest of her life in a manner that later would be emulated by how they hounded Princess Diana.
Yep, the world was a lot different before we went to the spacious Smilen’s supermarket that fateful morning sixty years ago today. When you’re out shopping or unpacking today, let’s all be thankful we haven’t had to grapple with anything quite as impactful since. So far.
Until next time…