The Power of TV: From The Kennedy Assassination to 9/11

Modern media's first breaking-news test came on November 22, 1963. Before September 11th, the question "where were you when" had a different ending: the moment when you learned about the assassination of a President was the shared touchstone for millions of lives. People found out about the tragedy in near simultaneity, and together watched the story evolve on television. They saw -- in real-time -- the story reach an apex when Lee Harvey Oswald was shot in the basement of the Dallas Police Department. It was the first live televised murder.

The Kennedy assassination came at a remarkable moment near when the national media -- and national audience -- were first ready for the broad, immediate distribution of news.

Since Pearl Harbor, communications had been maturing. Telephones, in 32 percent of households in 1937, were in nearly every home and business at the time of the assassination. As late as 1950, only 10 percent of American homes had televisions; by 1965, that figure had reached 94 percent.

By 1963, live national broadcasts were well established. The first was in 1951, when Americans tuned in to see a live speech by President Truman from San Francisco. The signal was carried over transcontinental cable and microwave radio relay. At least anecdotally, the first live breaking news was coverage of the Springhill Mining Disaster in 1958. Kennedy himself held the first live Presidential news conference in 1961. On the very afternoon of his assassination, networks planned the first trans-Pacific telecast -- a pre-recorded segment of President Kennedy offering his greetings to the Japanese people.

Word of the tragedy in Dallas first broke over the teletype. For all of the now-trite analogies labeling a thing "the Twitter of its time" -- teletype really was. Brief bursts of terse information went out immediately to followers. Clients, running different end terminals, took the data and sometimes pushed it back out to their followers: radio listeners, newspaper subscribers.

UPI issued the news over its wire first. Dr. Larry Lorenz, now a professor at Loyola, recounted how they learned about and distributed the story. His explanation provides a fascinating look at how the service worked even on a normal day:

Most of the stories on the wire were routine, but stories editors deemed more consequential could take precedence and were coded so as to trigger alarm bells on the Teletypes. Five bells signaled a "bulletin," major breaking news or an important new development in an ongoing story. A five-bell "urgent" was a story that was important but not as hot as a bulletin. The top priority story, preceded by ten bells, was a "Flash," given to only the most cataclysmic events. Flashes were so rare the edition of the "Broadcast Style Book" that we used then made no mention of them. Subsequent editions would.

The five bells chimed at 12:34. Roberts turned to the machine behind him and tore off the bulletin.

"Hey. Look at this," he said. The bulletin read:

"Three shots were fired at President Kennedy's motorcade in downtown Dallas."

As O'Connor recalled it years later, he heard me "shouting 'Jesus Christ!' after Roberts read aloud the first bulletin that came across. Larry practically flew across the room to get to the printer."

I told Renwald to take back control of the broadcast wire. He did, but it was difficult. All the bureaus were sending. Worse, New York tried to send the bulletin from Dallas. "GET OFF GET OFF GET OFF," Renwald typed.

At Dallas' Sixth Floor Museum, the teletype's role in alerting the nation is reflected in the prominent display of a now-yellowed print-out of the UPI feed. Reading down, one can follow developments as they happened, starting with a brief: "KENNEDY SERIOUSLY WOUNDED----" (Read the feed here.) In the museum's copy, ink from writing on the reverse has seeped through the paper; you can see that someone has written on the back, in a box, "Oswald."

Presented by

Philip Bump is a former politics writer for The Atlantic Wire.

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