August 22, 2014

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Covering A Tragedy

What came of a horrible weekend: the dawn of the age of television news.

Of all the elements of the JFK assassination, the one that fascinates me the most is how the most tragic four days in modern history (aside from the 9/11 attacks) were covered by the media, particularly television.

This is the first time television had to cover something like this. And as fantastic as it might have seemed then, the technology was still primitive, compared even with what it had just a few years later.

To begin with, there were few places television news could go live, at least on a moment's notice.  Satellites which could transmit pictures from around the world were just coming into existence, and those "events" were likely planned well in advance.

If you watch on the internet the coverage from the three networks that existed at that time, the first thing you find is that most of their information early on came from the news wires.  For instance, look very closely at the image of Walter Cronkite on CBS announcing the president is dead.  Right behind him, before he makes that announcement, is a man closely watching a teletype machine or "ticker"; a machine which, through the 1980's, transmitted stories sent by the major wire services, typed word for word, as on a typewriter.  While Cronkite was on camera, the man sees something the wires have sent (likely a short dispatch saying only "Kennedy dead").  He slowly rips the piece of paper from the machine and hands it to Cronkite off camera.

It isn't that CBS (or NBC or even ABC) didn't have reporters on the scene; they did.  They just had a difficult time getting information out over the air.  Remember, this is the era before cell phones; reporters had to scramble to get to the few phones available (likely pay phones), and some, I've read, had bystanders stay with the phone while the reporters scrambled to get the latest information available on the president's condition at the hospital. Anything which aired live came from locations where cameras had already been set up.  A good example is the Dallas Trade Mart, where President Kennedy was to have delivered a luncheon speech.  Reporters there worked sources they found who were there for the luncheon (a number of prominent Dallas people had gathered there) to get what information they could. 

All weekend long, getting TV cameras to sites where news was being made wasn't an easy process. A few years ago, I watched one of the never-ending JFK conspiracy documentaries on cable TV.  There was footage from the Dallas Police Department where Lee Harvey Oswald was being held.  In the middle of that now-50 year old video, I saw an ABC-TV camera being wheeled into place; it was the size of a camera you would normally see in a studio; not the video tape cameras newspeople used later (and ours today don't even employ tapes; instead, they have tiny discs which store video in the manner a DVD does).

Most impressive, perhaps, was the manner in which TV reporters and anchors reported the increasingly grim news in the first hour after the shooting.  While citing sources as saying the president was dead, they hastily added the information was not "confirmed": another way of saying it had not officially been announced by the White House. That's something that should have been practiced when President Reagan was shot in 1981, and the networks inaccurately reported White House Press Secretary James Brady died in the shooting.

The best comment I've heard which sums up the trial by fire the TV networks went through during that horrible weekend came from Newton Minow, the Federal Communications Chairman who, just two years earlier, had dismissed television as a "vast wasteland".  His comment after the assassination: "They say television is a young medium.  If that's true, it has just grown up quickly."

 

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