In November 1988, on the 25th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, I was in my first year of law school in Boston. Thanksgiving that year fell on the 24th, I did not make the long flight home, and I was not invited to any graduate-school turkey dinners. So I holed up in my studio apartment in the Fens, ate delicious chicken parm subs, and watched endless rebroadcasts of the initial television coverage of the event.
In Boston especially, you can bet, the images that week were relentless. Hours of the old NBC and CBS News broadcasts that were seared into the memories of the adults in my life. I watched not only because it was such a rare real-time glimpse into history (the way our children and grandchildren no doubt will watch the broadcasts from 9/11) but because it said so much about journalism in 1963.
On that 25th anniversary, many of the major journalists and dramatis personae on the scene in Dallas (or New York or Washington) on November 22, 1963, were still alive. Walker Cronkite was still around. So were David Brinkley and Tom Wicker. So were Theodore Sorenson and Pierre Salinger and David Powers. And so, for that matter, were Jackie Kennedy and John F. Kennedy Jr. and Teddy Kennedy and even Rose Kennedy, the slain president's mother.
This year, it's different. Those icons now are gone, as are a hundred million or so ordinary Americans who endured those sad days. And in their place have come another hundred million or so other Americans for whom the Kennedy assassination is a snippet on a film or a paragraph in a textbook or a murder mystery. Fifty years from now, we'll still mark the occasion, only it will be something like this: "Last Surviving Witness to Kennedy Assassination..." The river of history thus ever flows.
All of which is why it is increasingly important—if you care about journalism or history or politics, or if you simply care about the way in which human beings react to great tragedy in their midst—to watch the "as it happened" videos of the assassination and its aftermath. Taken together, this footage is invaluable not just as an affirmation of fact and evidence (and myth and mistake) but as the single most vivid totem of a time most of us living today never knew and never will. (CBS News will stream its original coverage online here on Friday afternoon and has more coverage here. You can find ABC News' original coverage here. NBC News' coverage also is available.)
The First Half Hour
When you start watching the CBS News coverage from November 22, 1963, you notice immediately that they got it mostly right, even at first, thanks to the wire reports coming out of Dallas: The shooting happened in broad daylight, in front of thousands. You also notice in those frantic first minutes of coverage—for over half an hour—there is no video. There is only audio, a voice reading printed copy—radio on the television—the coalescence of all three mediums, one ascending, the other two slowly on their way down. First, over a black screen, Cronkite's voice announces:
Here is a bulletin from CBS News. In Dallas, Texas, three shots were fired at President Kennedy's motorcade in downtown Dallas. The first reports say that President Kennedy has been seriously wounded by this shooting.
More details just arrived. These details about the same as previously. President Kennedy shot today just as his motorcade left downtown Dallas. Mrs. Kennedy jumped up and grabbed Mr. Kennedy. She called: "Oh No!" The motorcade sped on. United Press says that the wounds for President Kennedy, perhaps, could be fatal. Repeating, a bulletin from CBS News: President Kennedy has been shot by a would-be assassin in Dallas, Texas. Stay tuned for CBS News for further detail.
Two things happen next that are extraordinary. First, CBS News goes back to its soap opera—to a commercial for Nescafe and then to a station promo. And then the screen goes blank for 30 excruciating seconds. We know today from the memoirs that it was chaos inside the CBS News newsroom that day—as it was in newsrooms all over the world. And it would take two minutes before the network would make it back onto the air with coverage of the assassination. That's unthinkable today.
More important, right here in this first minute, you can begin to hear in Cronkite's rising voice his growing realization of the import of what he has just read from the wire copy. This moment itself is revelatory—and a significant piece of history in its own right. This is how at least some Americans reacted immediately to the news they absorbed that day, a jolt followed by the slow dawning of shock and dread. Cronkite would have several moments like that—more famous moments—but this was the first.
When CBS News came back from commercial, there was still no video, still no Cronkite seen in a chair, still just a black screen with the words "CBS News Bulletin." And then more from the disembodied voice of "the face" of CBS News:
Further details on an assassination attempt against President Kennedy in Dallas, Texas. President Kennedy was shot as he drove from Dallas airport to downtown Dallas. Governor Connally of Texas, in the car with him, was also shot.
It is reported that three bullets rang out. A Secret Service man was heard to shout from the car, "He's dead"—whether he referred to President Kennedy or not is not yet known. The President, cradled in his arms of his wife, Mrs. Kennedy, was carried to an ambulance and the car rushed to Parkland Hospital outside Dallas. The President was taken to an emergency room in the hospital ...
Recounting again the details of this incident. Three shots were heard to ring out as Kennedy and Governor Connally and Mrs. Kennedy rode in the back seat of the open car. Immediately a Secret Service man said he saw blood spurt from the President's head. He fell into the laps of Mrs. Kennedy and Mrs. Kennedy shouted "Oh no." Mr. Connally was seen to crumple also. The car sped on ...
The outline of the day's events is right there in just the first few minutes. The president is shot in the head. He is cradled by his soon-to-be-widow. Connally is wounded, too. They are rushed to Parkland. The details fill in over the next hours and days. The emotion floods in, too—and quickly speculation about the ramifications of the act, both political and international. There are also the age-old rites of mourning and passage. But the spine of the story is there before the nation actually sees Cronkite or any other reporter onscreen.
And then CBS News again goes back to its regularly scheduled programming, to this soap opera that will become the answer to a thousand quiz questions and to commercials—new Friskies Magic Sauce cubes!—for another three minutes before coming back to the black screen. By now, the network's lede graph is assassination. There is no word like "alleged" or "reported" to temper the fact (though the network will remedy that shortly). From here in, there will be no more commercials for dog food.