In television's younger days, going live was extremely difficult, costly and rare. But 50 years ago, a monumental tragedy made live coverage essential, no matter the cost, whenever a president left the White House. WNYC’s Sara Fishko recollects those dreadful days in November when everyone was paralyzed in front of the small screen.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, as we consider how information has traveled from the Gutenberg Press to 19th-century newspapers, let's consider the era of broadcast TV. In television's younger days, going live was extremely difficult, costly and rare. But 50 years ago, a monumental tragedy made live coverage essential, no matter the cost, whenever a president left the White House. We first aired this piece, one of our favorites, in 2003. In it, WNYC’s Sara Fishko recollects those dreadful days in November, when everyone was paralyzed in front of the small screen.
ERIC LEINSDORF: Ladies and gentlemen.
SARA FISHKO: Conductor Eric Leinsdorf, Symphony Hall, Boston, November 22nd, 1963.
ERIC LEINSDORF: We have a press report over the wires that the president of the United States has been the victim of an assassination.
SARA FISHKO: If you were alive and over, say, 5 years old in November, 1963, wherever you were, you remember it.
ERIC LEINSDORF: We will play the Funeral March from Beethoven's Third Symphony.
SARA FISHKO: The nation heard the news over wire services, radio, by word of mouth, public announcement and, most dramatically, on television. Television took over our lives for what are sometimes called those four dark days in Dallas, the Friday of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the Saturday, Sunday and Monday that followed.
[WALTER CRONKITE SPEAKING, UP AND UNDER]
And on the next Thursday after that, the country huddled around its Thanksgiving tables, struggling to recover, which I guess we did. But after that November, we would never be the same and neither would TV.
REPORTER: It a – it appears as though something has happened in the motorcade route. Something, I repeat, has happened in the motorcade route.
SARA FISHKO: Radio was there and wire services and newspapers, but it took television exactly ten minutes after shots were fired to go on the air that day.
WALTER CRONKITE: Here is a bulletin from CBS News. In Dallas, Texas three shots were fired at President Kennedy's motorcade in downtown Dallas…
SARA FISHKO: That began four days of on-air improvisation, television's first continuous coverage of a prolonged, painful breaking news story.
CHET HUNTLEY: It was impossible to tell at once where Kennedy was hit, but bullet wounds in Governor Connally's chest were…
THOMAS DOHERTY: There hadn't been an assassination of a, of a of a president since McKinley at the turn of the century.
SARA FISHKO: Thomas Doherty is professor of film studies at Brandeis University and has written about the TV coverage of the Kennedy assassination.
THOMAS DOHERTY: So even without television, this would have been uniquely disorienting and shocking. With television though, it becomes this indelible memory for an entire generation, that with TV we can actually experience the news and watch it as it's unfolding, in the same existential moment that the news is happening.
CHET HUNTLEY: The information that we have - this is no time, obviously, for speculation…
SARA FISHKO: Remarkably, it had been earlier that very fall, September, 1963, that CBS had expanded its nightly newscast to a half hour, from its previous program of only 15 minutes a night. NBC followed soon after.
REUVEN FRANK: Newscasts expanded ‘cause they had to.
SARA FISHKO: Reuven Frank was producer of the Huntley-Brinkley Report in the '50s and '60s and went on to be president of NBC News.
REUVEN FRANK: You just couldn’t get the news in. You know, we had been agitating for a half hour for a long time. With Kennedy, the television president, they thought maybe it had a shot. And it did.
SARA FISHKO: And then that day in Dallas came, in quite a different technological era.
REPORTER: - telephone call that's from NBC's Robert MacNeil who is with the president's party…
ROBERT MacNEIL: There was a little waiting room with swinging doors, and I’d looked inside and there were two pay phones that were empty.
SARA FISHKO: Former anchor and now author Robert MacNeil was in Dallas, covering the Kennedy motorcade for NBC.
ROBERT MacNEIL: And I grabbed one of them and I kept it for the rest of the afternoon.
FRANK McGEE: Bob are you there? This is Frank McGee. Bob…
ROBERT MacNEIL: When I phoned from that pay phone in Dallas, they couldn't, couldn't connect me through to air.
FRANK McGEE: …because we're having some difficulties with our communication setup.
ROBERT MacNEIL: And I would say a sentence and McGee would repeat it.
FRANK McGEE: The president is seriously wounded.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Which was fine for me, because it slowed me down.
FRANK McGEE: The shot which wounded the president occurred as the motorcade…
REUVEN FRANK: In '63, we were still to the point where a camera weighed, I don't know, a hundred and something pounds, and a mobile unit was the size of a Santini Brothers truck.
SARA FISHKO: Reuven Frank.
REUVEN FRANK: Our remote truck in Dallas broke down, not the television part of it, but the truck part of it, the engine. So [LAUGHS] NBC for much of that weekend was represented by a remote truck, this big, enormous thing, being towed around by a tow truck.
SARA FISHKO: Obstacles, to be sure.
WALTER CRONKITE: From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official: President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time, 2 o’clock Eastern Standard Time.
SARA FISHKO: But by the time the awful truth was known, the networks had resolved to broadcast continuously and remove commercials for the duration.
ROBERT MacNEIL: It was an instinctive reaction, I think. It was spontaneous and instinctive, and for the first time.
REUVEN FRANK: There was never any debate, inside the organization, about dumping commercials from about 2 o’clock Friday afternoon. We knew it. You couldn’t have commercials. Some people on the money side started to agitate for going back to commercials, and we just threw them out of the office.
SARA FISHKO: By the end of that first day, America was exhausted and transfixed.
THOMAS DOHERTY: Six o'clock, November 22nd.
SARA FISHKO: Thomas Doherty.
THOMAS DOHERTY: The cameras are there to record the coffin being, you know, taken off the plane and loaded into a hearse, and you see this image of Jackie Kennedy. You know, her dress and the, the stockings she's wearing are, you know, stained with blood and she's, of course, looking utterly shattered. And it seems almost this, you know, voyeuristic intrusion into this very private moment.
LYNDON JOHNSON: I know that the world shares the sorrow that Mrs. Kennedy and her family bear.
SARA FISHKO: By Saturday, a parade of dignitaries was filing by the body, lying in state. There were more details about a suspect, Lee Harvey Oswald, and reporters were struggling with the reality of a new president.
REPORTER: Vice President Johnson - President Johnson - I'm sure that many of us have made that mistake and will repeat, repeat it many times.
SARA FISHKO: Nothing could have prepared TV or its viewers for Sunday.
THOMAS DOHERTY: A lot of folks would say that it is the Sunday event that is truly the one that unhinges America ever after and that it [MUSIC] you know, this is really when the '60s began.
REUVEN FRANK: It was Sunday morning.
SARA FISHKO: Reuven Frank.
REUVEN FRANK: And the president of NBC was watching at home, along with half the country, and he was getting bored with what we were covering. And he said, switch to something live - he said. And the only thing we had live was Tom Pettit. Nobody [LAUGHS] really thought it was worth covering.
SARA FISHKO: NBC reporter Pettit was following the prisoner, Oswald, as he was moved from jail to jail.
REUVEN FRANK: They switched and there it was.
TOM PETTIT: There is Lee Oswald.
He’s been shot, he's been shot.
SARA FISHKO: CBS had had its cameras running, but they had switched to an essay at the time.
DAN RATHER: They insisted in finishing the essay, rather than coming to us live -
SARA FISHKO: Dan Rather was in Dallas, covering the Texas trip for CBS.
DAN RATHER: - at a time when I was first asking, then calling, then screaming, "Come to us live." But decisions get made, and that was an unfortunate decision. We turned the video tape right around and played it, you know, immediately, so you could say, well, really what did it amount to. But, at the time, to say I was disappointed would be a vast understatement.
MAN: - a loud firecracker rang out.
MAN: He grabbed his side and he said "Ow."
THOMAS DOHERTY: Nielsen Ratings have never even approached, ever again, you know the, the kind of, you know, stratosphere that they had on, on that day. It was really 93 percent of the American public was by a television, you know, watching on, on Sunday.
SARA FISHKO: Monday, the funeral.
[US NAVAL ACADEMY CHOIR SINGING]
ROBERT MacNEIL: You didn't need to have people nattering on about nothing and just bloviating to hold the air space. There was enough inherent drama in millions of people weeping over their television sets.
SARA FISHKO: What did television learn from November 1963?
REUVEN FRANK: From then on, the presidency, it, it just took over the news. It - I - by the way, I don't think this is peculiar to television, I think all news media. The White House Bureau’s coverage expanded exponentially. A lot of people felt they had missed the biggest story of their lives, and from then on nothing the president did or does is not covered.
DAN RATHER: I think - I know before Dallas I had no idea of the power of television to move people. This is shared national experience.
SARA FISHKO: Dan Rather.
DAN RATHER: The closest thing I had known to it was listening to the World Series on radio. And, you know, after a World Series game on radio, you could go out and everybody had experienced it and could – you know, could talk about it. But that was in radio and when I was a child. At the time of Dallas, it was television and I was no longer a child.
ROBERT MacNEIL: I didn't feel my own feelings until the day of the funeral.
SARA FISHKO: Robert MacNeil.
ROBERT MacNEIL: We were filming and a man came and sat down and put a transistor radio down, and it happened to be tuned to the funeral in Washington -
[BAGPIPES PLAYING/UP AND UNDER]
- at the moment when the Black Watch bagpipe band passed. And suddenly, all my defenses and everything just dissolved, and there I was sobbing, tears running down my face. There it was, and suddenly it just all poured out.
SARA FISHKO: Television and all of us grew up those four days among those images. It was a crisis more fully appreciated by watching, than by learning about. That's what television could and can do. Jackie Kennedy knew it, even that night in her bloody skirt. She had been asked by many why she had chosen not to change clothes. "No," she said, "let them see what they've done." For On the Media, I'm Sara Fishko.