After JFK assassination, TV news comes of age
At the outset of its watershed moment 50 years ago Friday, television news hit a snag. Walter Cronkite was just settling in for a late lunch -- cottage cheese and pineapple, which he never finished -- when a bulletin came in from United Press International announcing that "three shots" had been fired at President John F. Kennedy's motorcade in Dallas.
But there was no camera in CBS News' midtown studio -- it had been sent out for repair -- nor was there a cameraman around to operate those that were working. So instead, a "bulletin" card interrupted a telecast of "As the World Turns," while the CBS anchor relayed the news to the nation, radio-style, from a converted phone booth.
Twenty minutes were needed to get a camera and operator, but once television coverage finally began at 2 p.m., it would not stop for the next four days.
Television news "up until that point was really not part of everyday American life," said Roger Mudd, then a CBS correspondent in Washington. "It was after."
Former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, then a 23-year-old TV newsman in Omaha, says "it [the assassination] marks the beginning of the television age, with people taking television news seriously."
That age began with Cronkite removing his glasses, then announcing the death of the president at "two o'clock eastern standard time, some 38 minutes ago." From that Friday through to Monday evening, each network devoted nearly 72 hours of airtime to assassination coverage. Most homes with TV sets in the United States, about 50 million, were tuned to some portion of the coverage. On Monday at 1:30 p.m., after the funeral procession left St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington, D.C., virtually every TV set in the country was tuned in, according to Nielsen, a TV landmark never before reached.
For most people, the memory of those four days was forged on TV, too. After coverage ended, CBS president Frank Stanton sent a memorandum to staffers, noting television's "capacity . . . to bring a shocked people together in common awareness, in common sympathy and in common rededication."
Said Brokaw: "I don't think anything since has matched the Kennedy television moment because the shock of it, and the pageantry and majesty, even in our grief. We were out to do the job and, intuitively, part of that job was to chase the feeling of what the country was going through and to be, if you will, a surrogate for lots of people who didn't have access."
Both CBS and NBC's evening news broadcasts had recently expanded from 15 minutes to 30. However, "watching the evening news was not quite as ingrained as after the assassination," said Mudd -- now 85, and who was on the air with a live report from the Capitol rotunda when Lee Harvey Oswald was shot on Nov. 24.Over those four days, he said, Cronkite "did such a magnificent job that he became synonymous with all of television news."