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What JFK's assassination meant to television...then and now

Sen. John F. Kennedy speaks at the Long

Sen. John F. Kennedy speaks at the Long Island Arena in Commack. (Nov. 6, 1960) (Credit: Newsday file)

Too much TV coverage of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy . . . or too little? There is (after all) a lot: For example, The History Channel's "JFK Assassination: The Definitive Guide" and "Lee Harvey Oswald: 48 Hours to Live," tonight competing with Tom Brokaw's "Where Were You: The Day JFK Died."

TV will break today for a moment of silence around  1:30 (ET)  and then the rush will continue.

But consider that this question has a certain generational impact, as well. To anyone over the age of 55, though probably closer to 60, that long ago day was forged in the pale, cold light of a TV screen — sitting, watching breathlessly, in horror, in disbelief, in shock or in grief . . .

But those memories, as memories must be, are increasingly distant and drawn, confined to a smaller group of people who still care and still watch. Long Island as an example: With a population of just slightly under 3 million (2010 census), only roughly 14 percent is comprised of people 65 and older.

Each of them, I can assure you, remembers precisely what they were doing 50 years ago, and I can further assure you that a common denominator of their day was that television set.

Remember that in 1963, television was still a relatively young medium — just about 13 years old, not counting the late 40s, when schedules and networks were still in an embryonic state. TV was still a novelty, color TV an exotic luxury — true color along with shows in color would not arrive until the middle of the decade.

People watched everything on their sets in shades of gray — that was the reality of TV, as presented day after day . . . And then, this incredible moment in Dallas, in black and white, but as real, as solid, as the hand you hold in front of your face . . .

TV news by '63 was no longer subsidiary to radio — that transition had happened, at least resoundingly, by '59-60, with coverage of the political conventions — but its role remained amorphous — a young industry in search of a mission. I lay some of this out in a story in today's paper, but it can't begin to capture the role television news suddenly stumbled upon that day — partly because television itself was surprised .

I spoke with Roger Mudd the other day — Roger, then a young CBS News correspondent in Washington — who remembers coming home later that night."My wife was at home watching television and she was crying and our 5 year old son Daniel came into the room where she was and saw his mother crying, so he turned the television off. So here's this young fellow, 5 years old, not knowing why his mother was crying but all he knew was that the television was to blame."

That linkage — of grief, loss, horror, mourning, catharsis and all in real-time, and all on TV — wasn't merely novel but revolutionary. Suddenly TV was no longer a "utility" — a toaster with pictures — but an elemental part of our emotional life: Our most secret hopes and fears and desires, all bound up with the hopes and desires and fears of 200 million other people.

Advertisers by then of course understood this potential, and so did Kennedy — TV's first made for and by president, who used the medium to exploit that elemental power. Most Americans didn't know Kennedy through the pages of their local newspaper — they knew him only from TV.

His entire life, and death, had become the most potent TV drama in history, and remains so to this day. And those newsmen on TV who told the final chapter of this story not only made their legend, but they made their industry.

The hegemony of Cronkite would ultimately extend to the hegemony — expressed in shorthand — of Brokaw-Rather-Jennings: That very idea, so utterly peculiar before 1963, of the anchorman as hand holder, comforter and chief purveyor of all in the world that is worth knowing on any particular day began exactly 50 years ago today.

I spoke with Brokaw about this a couple days ago, who takes a different approach to this: "I've always said, that actually Vietnam made [Cronkite's career] more than the assassination. Vietnam was the defining moment for him — it was about the war, and him taking a stand [but the assassination coverage] marked the beginning of the television age, with people taking it seriously . . .

"And not just coverage of the event itself but obviously the funeral too and how it was treated. And as I've said repeatedly, people felt familiar with him — the first president who had been in their living room every night. Television had penetrated most of America and Americans felt they knew this president."

So back to my question — too much, too little? I'll go with the latter. Fifty years later, most people still don't fully understand the power of that device in their living room — now 100 inches wide and one inch deep, with a thousand channels and 100 ways to interact with that game console they have attached . . .

This 50th anniversary, if you are paying any attention at all, should give you just the slightest sense of what all that means, and how it came to mean that. Here's Brokaw's thoughtful chat with Jon Stewart the other night about all this  . . . (And Newsday app readers, please head on over to Newsday.com/TVzone

 

Tags: The History Channel's "JFK Assassination: The Definitive Guide" and "Lee Harvey Oswald: 48 Hours to Live , Tom Brokaw , Dan Rather , CBS News , Walter Cronkite , television , Verne Gay

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