John F. Kennedy was the first president to embrace television. His assassination in Dallas on November 22, 1963 — which will be revisited, 50 years later, in numerous TV documentaries and specials this month — made an indelible impact on America's relationship with the medium as well.
Before that heart-wrenching weekend, extended live network news coverage was limited to planned events such as political conventions and election nights. Network correspondents gathered in Texas that week expecting to cover Kennedy's visit via filmed reports for their evening newscasts. Instead, TV news organizations scrambled to cover the story's horrific turn in real time. According to the new PBS documentary JFK: One PM Central Standard Time, which premieres Nov. 13 (10/9c, check local listings), CBS News personnel had to search for an available TV camera so anchor Walter Cronkite could get on the air. His initial audio-only reports that interrupted soap opera As the World Turns were done in a radio booth while an ominous "CBS News Bulletin" filled the screen.
Over at NBC, Don Pardo, a staff announcer who still works for Saturday Night Live, read the first account of the shooting. Shortly afterward, viewers saw NBC News veteran Frank McGee fumble with clunky telephone equipment to get an on-the-scene account from correspondent Robert MacNeil. "The only thing I can compare it with is September 11," says CBS News' chief Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer who was in Dallas that day and will anchor the Nov. 16 special As It Happened: John F. Kennedy 50 Years (9/8c, CBS). "There was total shock. It was at the height of the Cold War and there was a big strategic Air Command base in Fort Worth. We wondered — is this the first shot of World War III?"
Over the four days of continuous coverage on all three broadcast networks, viewers were transfixed by the incomprehensible story being brought into their living rooms as it unfolded. "For the first time in a big overwhelming national event, everybody could share it simultaneously," says NBC News special correspondent Tom Brokaw, who reports on Americans' reaction to the tragedy in Nov. 22's Tom Brokaw Special: Where Were You? (9/8c, NBC).
Viewers heard stunning eyewitness accounts, saw Jack Ruby murder accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald live on NBC, and cried upon seeing the slain president's young family at his funeral. The cumulative effect on American culture was transformative. "After that weekend people depended on television as their primary source of news," says Schieffer. "Up until that point you didn't believe a story until you read it in the newspaper."
Schieffer will forever be linked to the tragedy through a phone call he fielded at the city desk of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, where he worked the police beat. It was Oswald's mother asking for a ride to Dallas police headquarters where her son was in custody. Schieffer grabbed his hat, picked up Mrs. Oswald and scored an exclusive interview. "Ever since that day I cannot let a telephone ring more than once before picking it up," says Schieffer. "It might be a big story."
The story was a career-maker for some of those who were in Dallas that weekend. Dan Rather, then the New Orleans bureau chief for CBS, and MacNeil and his future PBS co-anchor Jim Lehrer, a Dallas newspaper reporter at the time, all became TV news fixtures. So did a young CTV correspondent named Peter Jennings, who flew in from Canada to cover the assassination and within two years became the evening news anchor for ABC.
No one was elevated more by the coverage than Cronkite. Not yet "the most trusted man in America," Cronkite was still years away from overtaking NBC's popular anchor team of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley in the ratings. His poor competitive position even got him pulled off his network's 1964 convention coverage. But as the years passed, the image of a shaken, choked-up Cronkite putting his glasses on to read the government's official confirmation of Kennedy's death, followed by his glance to the newsroom wall clock and a solemn declaration that the president had died at "1 pm central standard time," became the defining TV news moment of the tragedy and cemented the anchor's reputation.
"It was the hard-bitten newsman bringing you the information while almost in tears," says Richard Wald, a journalism professor at Columbia University and a former network news executive. "The significance and the repetition of that became a representation of what the whole thing was about. Everyone who saw it later believed it encapsulated their feelings."
Wald is convinced those four days in November showed America how television could provide a comforting, emotional bond during a time of unfathomable grief — a task it would be called on to handle repeatedly over the next 50 years. "Television won your heart that day," he says. "That's what happened."