I spent some spare time last week watching some of the old television coverage of the Kennedy assassination. There were a few specials on tv that piqued my curiosity and I subsequently found hours of coverage on the web and youtube.com.
Friday, November 22, 1963 through November 25th was an historic period not only for our nation and the world, but for television. I was fascinated by how my predecessors in this industry covered such a huge story.
Despite the advances in television in the past 46 years, journalists then faced some of the same challenges we face today. On November 22, 1963, viewers of CBS and Channel 3 saw only a CBS graphic for the first few special reports with the voice of Walter Cronkite reading the few details known then. The first report was at 12:40 PM Dallas time, ten minutes after the president was shot.
The reason? It took a while to fire up the studio cameras and lights. Cronkite wasn’t seen on air until 1:00PM, 20 minutes after the first bulletin.
We’ve been there with the technical setbacks. A broken live truck; having a crew stuck in traffic; an engineer off duty. It happens today, although we can pretty much get on the air in our studio in a matter of seconds. What we’ll be able to show people is another story.
Jay Watson of WFAA almost had the scoop of the century but was vexed by technical limitations. Abraham Zapruder, who filmed the assassination, walked into WFAA to get his film developed and was promptly interviewed live by Watson.
Watson told viewers the film was being processed and would be shown shortly. What Watson didn’t know was that WFAA’s equipment only processed black and white film, not color. Zapruder took his infamous film and went to a local Kodak shop to get it developed. As it turned out, LIFE magazine bought the rights and the film wasn’t shown to the public until the 1970s.
Covering breaking news today is often a matter of hustle and luck. We all want the pictures right away, but it is not always that easy.
We’ve all seen the the famous clip of Cronkite removing his glasses to say “From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official. President Kennedy died at 1:00 P.M. Central Standard Time.”
That didn’t happen until 1:38PM CST, and I always thought that was the first time viewers learned their President was dead. Actually, Cronkite had already reported that President Kennedy was dead. At 1:17PM, Cronkite reported that the CBS affiliate in Dallas reported Kennedy was dead, and then came Dan Rather’s report, then an Associated Press report quoting two priests who administered last rights at Parkland Hospital. By most accounts Kennedy was dead by the time the priests arrived at 12:50PM, even though the official time of death is listed as 1:00PM.
Viewers didn’t see much from the scene for a while. News photographers shot with film then and it took time to develop and then splice. The first images of the scene were actually still photographs, in fact Cronkite held up pictures to the camera before any film was ever seen.
Mistakes were made as they regrettably are today. It was reported that Vice-President Lyndon Johnson had been shot and suffered a heart attack. There were reports a secret service agent was killed. The name of Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit, who was murdered by Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was reported over the radio before his wife was told.
If you get a chance, check it out on youtube.