To watch the coverage of the Kennedy assassination 50 years later is to see just how raw and unformed so many parts of the news media that we now take for granted were, and to marvel at the ways in which our technology has utterly transformed our relationship to current events.
Kennedy's murder surely had a role to play in that transformation; it was the first national crisis played out through endless live television coverage, cementing broadcast journalism as a vital part of the cultural experience.
When the bullets actually struck, however, it could seem to modern eyes that hardly anyone was watching.
In 2013, there would probably be cable news coverage of Kennedy's motorcade on several networks, and there would be livestreaming online, and WhiteHouse.gov would be featuring its own video, and the local stations would be there, and everyone would be tweeting about it, and the world would have seen hundreds of different angles of the tragedy within moments.
In 1963, though, none of that existed. We have, instead, the Zapruder film—a few seconds of silent footage—and the halting coverage from television networks, and the wire service copy that started frantically arriving at newsrooms around the country.
UPI had the story first. Its teletype bulletin was simple, and it was sent to newsrooms everywhere (the image comes from the Texas State Library archives):
Pandemonium ensued. A UPI editor started frantically waving other editors off the wire, typing, "GET OFF GET OFF GET OFF."
Networks then started throwing bulletins with no pictures onscreen, like this one, from CBS News. "As The World Turns" was playing when it cut in. When the bulletins were over, the network cut back to its regularly scheduled programming—as if anyone still wanted to watch it. (Jump to 9:50 in):
Here's how it sounded on ABC Radio. The song playing was "Hooray for Hollywood":
Just imagine that — a terrifying news bulletin breaks into your soap opera or your song, and then you go back to your program.
Local Dallas viewers watching WFAA actually got a human being, program director Jay Watson. In this video, you can hear Watson telling his staffers to make sure everything is being taped—an allusion to the fact that most TV programming of the day was shot live and then discarded.
Of course, national people eventually got on the air. Polished it was not — no graphics, no pretending that anything was under control. On NBC, Frank McGee just talked to correspondent—and, later, PBS anchor—Robert MacNeil on the phone for minutes at a time, a formula replicated on other networks. This was the only way the anchors could get any kind of information in real time:
2013 has seen controversy after controversy about the media's persistent ability to report false news before getting official confirmation about anything, but, minutes before he was to make the pronouncement that sealed his legendary status, Walter Cronkite took a giant risk by feeding his viewers a report that Kennedy had, in fact, died.
"We just have a report from our correspondent, Dan Rather, in Dallas, that he has confirmed that President Kennedy is dead," he said. "There is still no official confirmation of this, however."
And, the famous announcement from Cronkite:
NBC's confirmation was relayed entirely over the phone:
Here's a BBC announcement:
The Soviet Union blamed the death on "extreme right-wing elements":
What followed were days of uninterrupted television coverage, the likes of which would not be seen again until 9/11.
And, of course, there were the newspapers, whose searing headlines captured the shock and intensity of the day as well as anything could: