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How the JFK assassination changed TV news and the journalists who covered it 60 years ago

By Stephen Battaglio, Los Angeles Times
Published: November 19, 2023, 6:19am
3 Photos
John F. Kennedy&rsquo;s murderer Lee Harvey Oswald during a Nov. 22, 1963, press conference after his arrest in Dallas. Oswald was killed by Jack Ruby on Nov. 24 on the eve of Kennedy&rsquo;s burial.
John F. Kennedy’s murderer Lee Harvey Oswald during a Nov. 22, 1963, press conference after his arrest in Dallas. Oswald was killed by Jack Ruby on Nov. 24 on the eve of Kennedy’s burial. (Stringer/AFP/Getty Images/TNS) Photo Gallery

On Nov. 22, 1963, 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 announced that President Kennedy had “died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time.”

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.

The moments marked the dawn of a new era in media as the three television networks — NBC, CBS and ABC — that owned the audience 60 years ago stayed on the air for four days to provide live, continuous coverage of a national crisis for the first time.

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.

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.

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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.”

O’Brien, a former CNN anchor who’s seen more than her share of on-screen “breaking news” banners, was struck by the restraint of the journalists involved.

“There’s not the over-the-top coverage we’re used to today,” O’Brien said. “No one is saying anything they’re not sure about.”

When Kennedy died from the gunshots as first lady Jacqueline Kennedy watched in horror, no TV or newspaper photographer recorded the moment of impact.

The now historic images of that horrific day were captured by snapshots and home movie camera footage taken by people in the crowd, including the 26-second 8 mm film shot by Dallas clothier Abraham Zapruder. They were a precursor to the mobile devices carried by people used to document seminal news events in later years, such as the police murder of George Floyd in 2020.

The scant visual documentation of the Kennedy assassination has contributed to public skepticism and generated conspiracy theories over what exactly occurred and who was responsible.

“When I show the assassination footage to my students, immediately they say, ‘Oh, God, if it happened in another era, we’d know who shot Kennedy for sure because we would have all had our iPhones recording it,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “You’d have every possible angle covered.”

The young, vibrant Kennedy was the first president to embrace television, welcoming cameras into news conferences and the White House, where the glamorous first lady gave a live tour in 1962 that aired on CBS, NBC and ABC.

Yet the country still relied on newspapers and radio as its primary sources of news. Network TV coverage was limited to evening newscasts that were neither immediate nor comprehensive. (The multichannel cable universe that gave audiences 24-hour coverage on CNN was still 17 years away.)

Stories were shot on film and shipped to New York, where they were edited for NBC’s “Huntley-Brinkley Report” and the “CBS Evening News,” which until September 1963 were both only 15 minutes long. Live continuous coverage was limited to planned big events such as election nights, political conventions and British royal coronations.

But with the drama unfolding so quickly in Dallas, 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.

“The medium became a living room town hall for Americans trying to cope with a horrible tragedy,” Sabato said.

The journalists on the scene saw their careers elevated by the experience. Five went on to be network TV anchors — Bob Schieffer and Rather at CBS, MacNeil and Jim Lehrer at PBS and ABC’s Peter Jennings, who was a 23-year-old correspondent for Canada’s CTV when he covered the story.

At the time, Rather was the New Orleans bureau chief for CBS, having joined the network the year before. He had spent most of time covering civil rights protests out of the city, as CBS affiliates in Atlanta and Jackson, Mississippi, refused to assist the network in covering the movement led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“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.”

The young Rather was still aiming to be worthy of CBS News veterans such as Charles Collingwood and Eric Sevareid, who made their reputations as radio correspondents during World War II and still loomed large at the division.

“Before the Kennedy assassination, I was considered a ‘maybe’ for sticking it out and making a career at CBS News,” Rather said. “Keep in mind that I walked among legends.”

While a major part of Cronkite’s legacy is tied to his dramatic announcement of Kennedy’s death, it 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.” (He remained at CBS until 2006, when he was forced to depart over a disputed “60 Minutes” report on President George W. Bush’s military service.)

“I never had a script in front of me,” Rather said. “It was a deadline every nanosecond.”

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.”

“Yes I heard it on the radio,” the woman replied. “I think the person they’ve arrested is my son.”

The voice on the line was Marguerite Oswald, the accused assassin’s mother. “Where do you live?” Schieffer asked.

Schieffer and another reporter drove her to Dallas. He scored an exclusive interview and almost got to meet Lee Harvey Oswald himself until an FBI agent realized he was a reporter and not a cop (Schieffer wore a black snap brim hat as a way to pass as a detective at crime scenes).

In 1963, journalism organizations didn’t have in-house counseling to help reporters deal with the trauma that came with covering a story. They headed for the bar or simply coped on their own.

“It was less acceptable in those times to seek psychological help,” said Rather. “I believe in the power of prayer. I prayed.”

Schieffer remembered how the events he witnessed 60 years ago changed him.

“I went back to my regular job on the on the police beat,” he said. “We covered a lot of wrecks in those days. There was a family that was horribly killed — their car ran into the back of a truck carrying pipes. We were standing there with some cops waiting for the justice of peace to get there and I realized that I had no feeling whatsoever. It took a long time for it to come back.”

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