One of the most amazing facts about the Kennedy assassination is that, according to a national opinion poll carried out in the immediate aftermath of that eventful weekend, 68 per cent of Americans had heard about the shooting by the time the president was pronounced dead at 1 p.m., and by six o'clock that evening 99.8 per cent of the nation had heard the news (Sheatsley and Feldman 1965: 152–3; Spitzer and Spitzer 1965: 101–3). The speed with which Americans (and, indeed, the rest of the world) heard the news was unprecedented, and highlighted the importance of the media – particularly television – in creating a sense of national unity in grief in the immediate aftermath of the assassination. In the period from the shooting to the funeral Americans bought record numbers of newspapers and were glued to their television sets as events unfolded. These were, according to a member of the editorial board of the New York Times at the time, 'four of the most tumultuous days in the life of the nation and the history of American journalism' (Semple 2003: vii).
But how exactly did the media shape people's perceptions of the assassination, and to what extent did they set the agenda for future representations of the event? Is it true, as many journalists have insisted, that the assassination was a watershed event in the history of the media? Was the media coverage of the Kennedy assassination a triumph of professionalism (as many journalists asserted), or was it a dereliction of their duty (as conspiracy critics have subsequently claimed)? How did journalists stake their claim for authority in the telling of national history? This chapter will begin by summarising what the newspapers, magazines and broadcasters actually covered, before going on to look at the wider question of how these early accounts shaped future ones, and whether the event was a success or a failure for the media.