THE KENNEDY ASSASSINATION: DAWN OF A NEW MEDIA; TV News, and How We Saw It, Changed Forever Americans United around Their Television Sets for the First Time

By Patton, Charlie | The Florida Times Union, November 23, 2003 | Go to article overview

THE KENNEDY ASSASSINATION: DAWN OF A NEW MEDIA; TV News, and How We Saw It, Changed Forever Americans United around Their Television Sets for the First Time


Patton, Charlie, The Florida Times Union


Byline: Charlie Patton, The Times-Union

For anyone who spent that grim weekend 40 years ago in front of the television set, the images remain vivid:

-- CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite, after reading the official confirmation that President Kennedy was dead, briefly appearing to fight back tears.

-- Kennedy's widow, holding daughter Caroline by the hand, kneeling by the flag-draped casket and kissing it.

-- Kennedy's son, John F. Kennedy Jr., on his third birthday, solemnly saluting as a caisson containing his father's coffin passes.

-- And, perhaps most vividly, and certainly most shockingly, accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald grimacing in pain as he is shot in the stomach outside the Dallas police headquarters.

On that weekend, as never before in history, Americans gathered around their televisions, changing forever the relationship between the medium and its audience.

"This was the event that legitimized television in the eyes of the public," Steven Stark wrote in his 1997 book Glued To The Set.

"It was the first electronically mediated national mind-meld," said David Courtwright, a professor of history at the University of North Florida who is scheduled to be a presenter this weekend at "Solving the Great American Murder Mystery: A National Symposium on the 40th Anniversary of the JFK Assassination" at the Duquesne University School of Law.

Watching television that weekend, "there was truly a sense of community," Courtwright said. "There was a powerful shared emotion."

What became the first event in history for which television coverage dominated the national consciousness began when CBS broke into its broadcast of the soap opera As the World Turns. At 1:40 p.m. EST on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, Cronkite spoke over a bulletin slide:

"In Dallas, Texas, three shots were fired at President Kennedy's motorcade in downtown Dallas," Cronkite reported. "The first reports say that President Kennedy has been seriously wounded by this shooting."

As the World Turns then resumed, but only briefly. By 2 p.m., when doctors were officially pronouncing Kennedy dead, CBS, ABC and NBC had replaced regular programming with coverage of the assassination.

As Stark points out in Glued To The Set, most people did not get their initial news of the assassination from television, but from radio or word-of-mouth. Television news had not yet become a primary source for information and, in fact, until September 1963, when first CBS and then NBC expanded to 30 minutes, network evening newscasts were only 15 minutes long.

CBS radio actually reported Kennedy's death 18 minutes before Cronkite, at 2:38 p.m., told the audience, "From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official. President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time, 2 o'clock Eastern Standard Time. Some 38 minutes ago."

But once the word spread, people began gathering in front of their televisions.

"History, for the first time, became what was recorded for television cameras," said Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television.

Today, we take such saturation coverage of a major event as a given. Then, it was largely unprecedented.

As Thomas Doherty writes in an article on the Kennedy assassination in The Museum of Broadcast Communication's Encyclopedia of Television, broadcasters had to scramble to supply the images while coping with technological limitations that made the television news business far different than it is today.

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