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 unknown assailant..."
Throughout Friday 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 traditional moorings.
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 unforgettable."
Throughout Sunday, 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 thePsalms 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.
The colossal 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'sGoodnight 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 national lifeline.
McCartney, James. "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.