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.
It's important to pause here and remember that these early broadcast journalists were raised as wire men. They were not delivering the news with an entertainment flourish; they were essentially reading copy. So it's telling to hear what these newsmen were thinking seven minutes into the coverage—and to listen to them sketch out where the story would head for the next 50 years:
Here is a bulletin from CBS News. President Kennedy has been the victim of an assassin's bullet in Dallas, Texas. It is not known yet whether the President survived the attack against him... The car itself rushed on... It took him directly to a nearby hospital... And witnesses there refuse to comment on whether the President was still alive or not.
As the bullet was heard to wing out of the assassin's gun, Secret Service men unlimbered their automatic rifles but the damage, of course, by then had been done...
Next, CBS tells us for the first time about the grassy knoll—and delivers the first (but certainly not the last) bit of misleading information that would be shared with the American people on this day:
After these three loud bursts of gunshot Dallas motorcycle officers escorting the president quickly leaped from their bikes and raced up a grassy hill. At the top of the hill a man and woman appeared huddled on the ground. In the turmoil, it has been impossible so far to determine whether the Secret Service and Dallas police returned the gunfire that struck down Kennedy and Connally or whether this couple at the top of the hill, crouched down, their inert forms as the police rushed them were the would-be assassins...
... More details on the attempted assassination of President Kennedy [notice now it is "attempted," the network here is tempering its initial unqualified description of the event]. Mrs. Kennedy was on her knees, we're told, on the floor of the rear seat of the car, her head toward the president, apparently leaning over and trying to converse with him.
[An] AP reporter who was with the group says that this man and woman we reported earlier were on a hilltop were seen scrambling to the upper level of a walkway overlooking an underpass of which the car was approaching...
And here, approximately 10 minutes after the network breaks programming, we get the first official response. It is from Lawrence O'Brien, a presidential aide, who, Cronkite tells us, "has no information about whether the president is still alive." At this moment, we also hear for the first time about Lyndon Johnson, who is reported to be unharmed, and who by this time is at the hospital about to become the president—about to go back to Love Field, about to be sworn in on that crowded plane by U.S. District Judge Sarah Hughes, about to return to Washington to the first day of the rest of his life.
Next from Cronkite, we get the backdrop—details of the president's trip to Dallas—before he tells his audience, 13 minutes after the start of coverage, that:
It might be recalled that Dallas has been a hotbed of criticism of President Kennedy and his administration by outspoken rightist groups. Only two weeks ago, Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, of the United Nations, was in an incident in Dallas when he was besieged by pickets, far right wing pickets, outside of a speech he made there. And he was struck in the head by a picket sign by an outraged conservative who felt that we should not be in the United Nations. Even today through Dallas there were some cars touring the streets with signs "US or UN."
Next, Cronkite, filling in time while new details come to him, talks about Texas Governor Connally and his place within the Democratic party, and about how the president had gone to Texas on that trip to try to settle ideological differences between Democratic factions within the state. Then there is another reference to a "grassy knoll." Then Cronkite mentions the assassination attempt on President Harry S. Truman in Washington in 1950. And then he mentions the assassination attempt on President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933.
Again, all Cronkite is doing here is reading wire copy reports. Soon there will be video, live reports from network journalists and from reporters at local affiliates like KLRD in Dallas. Soon there will be the international reactions pouring in, to be read on the air. Soon there will be the eyewitnesses interviewed about what they saw and did not see. Soon the enormity of what has just occurred will begin to sink in. The same thing happens today when breaking news occurs. Only the time today from break-in to video is almost instantaneous.
Here is how it all started:
The Next Hours
The rest of the news coverage that day has probably been scrutinized over the past half century more closely than any single event in history—or in the history of news. Most things the reporters got right. Some things they didn't. Some bordered on the hysterical. Some were stoic. Some kept referring back to the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, although even in November 1963, the comparison was inapt. But most just did what we expect journalists to do—which is to ask questions, and try to get answers, and then share what they have learned.
But if you watch the original footage this week, let go of the urge to make technical or editorial judgments about how precisely the assassination was covered and how such coverage might be different today. Resist the temptation to flare at the flaws you see. Forget the J-school analysis. Just try to absorb, as a human being, the pain and the grief and the shock that is coming at you. And remember, if you can, that these recorded hours are a precious chronicle of a nation in the middle of a crisis.
Those long hours toggle back and before between iconic moments like this, when Cronkite breaks the news, and for a moment breaks down:
... and moments of incredible perspective and sensibility—like this brilliant first draft of history from Brinkley when he says:
It has all been shocking but perhaps one element in the shock was the speed. By the Washington clock, at a little after one o'clock this afternoon, President Kennedy was about as alive as any human being ever gets. Young. Strong. Vigorous. Looking forward to no doubt five more years, he hoped, of leadership in this country and of the Western world. His wife, young, beautiful, looking very happy, was beside him and seeming to be having a wonderful time and leaning across the back seat of the car to say to him: "You can't say Dallas hasn't been friendly to you." That was at one o'clock.
Five hours later, at six o'clock, Mr. Kennedy had been murdered. Lyndon Johnson was President of the United States. Mrs. Kennedy was a widow, a brave and composed one that nobody could fail to admire. All of them were back in Washington, returning in the same airplane that took them to Texas to an incredible tragedy. And the sheer speed of it was too much for the senses... What has happened today has been too much, too ugly, and too fast...
... and moments of candor and humility from Robert MacNeil, then a young NBC News report covering the president's trip to Dallas. His report, of Kennedy's joyous day before he was shot, and then the sorrow afterward, is simply heartbreaking for the discordant images it offers within the span of just a few minutes:
But mostly that afternoon you see men (and they are mostly men) trying to do their jobs in extraordinary conditions. You see some journalists (like McGee) handling it better than others (like Chet Huntley). You see the faux wood paneling of the NBC News set. You see the CBS Newsmen in shirt sleeves behind Cronkite. You see, in other words, the raw product of a medium changing before your very eyes, in the span of just a few hours. It was like that on September 11, 2001, of course. And it will be like that on the next horrible day that America endures.
The Final Word
It's impossible to get the sense of the shock of November 22, 1963, unless you take the time to watch the many hours of coverage. Because even though the drama is long gone for all of us today, even though we all know how the story ends, there is something inherently dramatic about watching other people, including famous people (like Cronkite and Brinkley), absorb right in front of us the enormity of what was happening to them and to their country. Brinkley, in particular, seethes with fury at the senselessness of the violence. Cronkite, tears held back or no, looks and sounds just shattered. Just three months earlier, he had interviewed this president about Vietnam.
Before you leave this page, just watch the eloquence with which Frank McGee, a sadly forgotten figure in the rich history of NBC News, signed off on behalf of his network on the night of November 22, 1963. Remember, this guy had been sitting there in a chair for hour upon hour, trying to do the best he could with the information being given to him. He shone that day. And then, at the end of it all, he said this. Truly, remarkably, as poignant and as humble as anything that has been said since on the topic:
There is no way of calculating the millions of words that have been uttered in the course of this day, in all countries of this world, as human beings fumble for words to express their offended senses at what has happened in the United States. I seriously doubt that any words uttered by anyone anywhere have succeeded in expressing in what you feel yourself. I would suppose that the answer for that is...
And here, McGee nearly breaks down in tears before resuming.
... only to be found in the hearts of each of us. This concludes NBC News' coverage for today... This is Frank McGee, NBC News, speaking for Bill Ryan, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, Herb Kaplow, Peter Hackes, Robert MacNeil and literally hundreds of technicians and newsmen who have worked throughout the day to bring you this sad story. November the 22nd into the history books, stamped forever with the blackness of this date. Thank you. Good night.