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."

The museum also has a spectacular minute-by-minute recap of how the press covered the day. It reveals that the media that day was modern in another sense: where once the President would be trailed by reporters with notebooks in their pockets, Kennedy's visit to Dallas included radio and television reporters in a car trailing him in the motorcade. When the President was struck, an NBC cameraman three cars behind his limo struggled unsuccessfully to get a picture of the vehicle before it sped off to Parkland Hospital. Ike Pappas, radio reporter for CBS, had better luck two days later. He was attempting to interview Oswald as Jack Ruby emerged from the crowd and fired the fatal shot.

From the studio, the television networks (in total: CBS, ABC and NBC) pulled information from the field, from teletypes, and dispatched correspondents to get reactions from notable people. As the New York Herald Tribune's TV and radio editor, Richard Doan, wrote the day after the shooting, "Veteran news hands like Walter Cronkite and Charles Collingwood, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, were visibly moved as they grappled with the reading of bulletins and talked with correspondents in Texas. ...Dallas and Fort Worth stations fed eyewitness reports to the networks."

Within hours, TV and radio networks had to make nearly unprecedented decisions about balancing news with advertising and regular programming. According to Doan, several radio stations switched to liturgical and sacred music for the week. ABC canceled commercial programming on TV and radio on the 22nd; CBS stopped commercial broadcasts until after Kennedy's funeral. NBC suspended them indefinitely.

The assassination of the President came at the beginning of that era in media that September 11th closed out. Like television and telephones during Pearl Harbor, the web in 2001 was still young. News sites choked from the traffic. Blogs were uncommon; Twitter nonexistent. News came as it came in 1963 -- by television.

It's worth asking if these tools, particularly social media, would even today be robust enough to handle an event at the scale of September 11th. Media outlets in 1963 had the benefit of having a tested, distributed system that was limited in scale. Twitter handled recent big news well (the Japanese tsunami, for example, or, well, Beyonce's announcement) -- but its moments of failure are legendary. Still today, websites can crumple under heavy loads. Just today the publisher of the Washington Post expressed skepticism about how social media would fare in a moment of crisis.

But time will only make these tools stronger and more flexible. After all, there will -- unfortunately and inevitably -- be another Kennedy / 9/11 moment. It will happen in a new media era; people will learn about it quickly and stay updated, wherever they happen to be.

Asking the question "where were you when" from that point on will receive millions and millions of different answers. Far more than people in 1963 could have imagined possible.