“From Dallas, Texas – the flash – apparently official. President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago.”
Those were the first words spoken by CBS anchor Walter Cronkite, as he began covering one of the most shocking news stories of the early 1960s.
John F. Kennedy, the 35th president, was struck by an assassin’s bullet while he was riding in his motorcade alongside First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, Texas Gov. John Connally and his wife in Dealy Plaza in downtown Dallas.
As their vehicle passed the Texas School Book Depository, Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly fired three shots from the sixth floor, hitting Kennedy and Connally.
Both Kennedy and Connally were rushed to Parkland Hospital, where President Kennedy would be pronounced dead 30 minutes later. He was 46.
It has been 50 years since the national psyche was shattered; the world stood still and experienced one of the most unfathomable atrocities to hit American soil at the time.
For the generation of Americans born after the attack on Pearl Harbor and the turmoil of World War II, this moment was one of the first traumatic events that compelled the nation to turn on the television to make sense of the chaos as it developed over the next four days.
The media blitz that would follow would become the longest running uninterrupted news coverage in American history until the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Kennedy was not the first president to appear on television, but he was the first to use the developing medium to his advantage. He was a controversial and impactful figure in American politics. With the help of television, he was able to connect with the American public in a new and intimate way. The 1960 presidential campaign that pitted Kennedy against then Vice President Richard Nixon culminated in a close election. But it was Kennedy’s captivating personality and appearance that gave him the upper hand
In the first televised presidential debate to the nation Kennedy’s public image as a young, charismatic politician was amplified to Nixon’s nervous and uncomfortable on-screen appearance.
Considering the short time he was in office, Kennedy’s influence and impact has had a lasting effect on modern politics. His famous inaugural speech called upon a new generation of young voters to “Ask not what you country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
His policies on civil rights and the emergent space program were instrumental in pushing the United States to the forefront of the modern age.
Kennedy’s presidency coincided with the rise of television broadcast news.
His charisma strengthened by television changed the way presidential campaigns are run. Candidates today rely on public image projected through news media perception as critical to their campaigns and their term in office if elected
It was Kennedy’s natural appeal in front of the camera that set the benchmark for decades to come.
Kennedy’s presidency was not without its share of conflict. The Bay of Pigs disaster and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 put the young president to the test and made him the center focus of nightly news stories on television.
Despite his tenacity in handling crises in foreign affairs, his innovative domestic policies, even the rumors of his martial infidelity, what will forever overshadow Kennedy’s thousand days in office was the one tragic day in Dallas.
Prior to 1963, evening news programs had been limited to 15 hurried minutes, five nights a week.
Only a few months before Kennedy’s fatal trip to Dallas, major networks NBC and CBS had begun scheduling 30-minute newscasts with Walter Cronkite and the news team of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley as leading anchormen.
Nov. 22, 1963 marked not only the death of a president, but the birth of the “breaking news” television phenomenon that now dominates the national media landscape.
This was the first major testing of the resolve and fortitude of our national news broadcast organizations. There were no tweets, no talking heads or pundits offering speculation or misleading theories. The weight of the tragic news left no room for opinion, there were only facts.
There was not just a sense of loss, but for many who remember that day, it was a wave of immediate panic. It was the moment when everything stopped. The world was changed in an instant and television news followed every step of the way.
For the first time in their television history, NBC remained on the air day and night to cover the entire event, beginning half an hour after the shots rang out.
The powerful image of Cronkite reporting the news as it came through the wire, removing his thick black-framed glasses, blinking back tears and reporting the death of the president “some 38 minutes ago,” has become an unforgettable moment in television history.
Television broadcast news was much more fact-driven, straight journalism, in contrast to the tabloid-driven media circus we are familiar with today.
The networks then did not show any segments of the famous Zapruter film in their initial coverage of the assassination. In fact, it would be 12 years before the American public would view the grisly images of Kennedy’s final moments during an ABC News special in 1975, which is a polar opposite to today’s immediacy of breaking news.
In a time of fear and uncertainty the television news indisputably held the nation together.
Days later, news media cameras were on location to film the Dallas Police Department transporting accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.
But the American public was in for yet another shock as Dallas nightclub owner and Kennedy supporter Jack Ruby stepped past reporter and fatally shot Oswald with a pistol live in front of television cameras.
As shocking as the killing of Kennedy, Oswald’s death was the first televised assassination. Although in 1964, the Warren Commission reported Oswald acted alone; it was immediately after his surreal killing that the swirl of conspiracy theories began, which for decades would eclipse the tragedy felt by the nation.
The youthful generation of Americans Kennedy hoped to inspire to greatness had witnessed the death of an American president, the arrest and shocking murder of Oswald before his trial and the swearing in of a new president, Lyndon Johnson, all from their living room TV sets.
The death of President Kennedy would not be the last time the television news media would be called upon to help the nation make sense of tragedy.
The United States would be shaken in 1965 by the killing of civil right activist Malcolm X, and in 1968, the assassinations of both Martin Luther King Jr., and Kennedy’s younger brother and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy.
By the mid-‘70s, after almost a decade of futile U.S. involvement in Vietnam, along with the Watergate scandal involving President Nixon, the public’s distrust in the executive branch was deepened.
There are those historians who argue, that had Kennedy never been assassinated, the U.S. involvement in Vietnam would never have led to a fruitless exhaustion of our armed forces and economy. But regardless, Americans tuned in daily to see the horrible images from overseas.
Long gone were the days when journalists would turn a blind eye to scandal within the government. The American people demanded the truth and looked to television news to keep the government balanced.
The mystery of the Kennedy assassination, the increasing turmoil in Vietnam along with the resignation of president Nixon as a result of the Watergate scandal, had shifted the American public’s distrust in face value information.
In recent memory, the harrowing images from the Columbine High School massacre and falling of the Twin Towers has proven tragic news has gotten faster, more practiced and daresay more rote with age.
It started with four days in 1963, it was the birth of modern news and the death of naivety. It was the weekend America lost its innocence.