The Assassination of John F. Kennedy and Television News
The clip is ubiquitous. We’ve all seen it. Walter Cronkite, in shirtsleeves, announces “the flash, apparently official….” You can probably fill in the rest, visualizing Cronkite randomly putting on and taking off his black-rimmed glasses, visibly biting back emotion. This has become one of the iconic images of the Kennedy assassination: Cronkite’s tears standing in for the grief of the nation whom he was presumably speaking to. Because, of course, everyone was watching “Uncle Walter,” the most trusted man in America, right?
No, they weren’t. In 1963, Cronkite was not yet “Uncle Walter” and the CBS publicity campaign from whence came “The Most Trusted Man in America” was almost a decade away.[i] NBC’s The Huntley-Brinkley Report had higher ratings than Cronkite’s evening news show and my research suggests (although it’s impossible to say definitively) that more Americans were watching NBC on the day of the assassination. But we seldom, if ever, see clips of NBC coverage.
The iconic status of the Cronkite moment, along with images from Kennedy’s state funeral – the rambunctious riderless horse and especially little John-John saluting his father’s casket – tend to obscure how American television actually brought the assassination to the American public. I want to suggest that the networks did a woeful job in the early hours, but that a local Dallas affiliate of third-rated ABC provided remarkable journalism that not only helped ABC scoop the more established NBC and CBS, but showed what live television news would be doing in a few years.
In those first few hours the networks’ coverage was chaotic at best, characterized by what scholar Philip Rosen terms “technological insufficiency.”[ii] When the shots rang out in Dealey Plaza at 12:30 PM on Friday, November 22, many network news personnel were literally out to lunch. Scrambling to get to their studios and on air after the wire service bulletins began coming in, newsmen at all three networks in New York had to wait a good fifteen to twenty minutes for cameras to warm up. In the mean time, bulletin cards were thrown onto the screen and network television turned into radio: a voice-based medium with no images. All Cronkite and the other New York newsmen could do anyway was read wire service copy.
When they finally had working cameras and visual transmission, there still was nothing much for viewers to see. There was no live feed from Dallas. That would take some time to set up and, in CBS’s case, its mobile unit was at the Dallas Trade Mart where Kennedy had been scheduled to give a noon-time speech. CBS eventually showed live footage from the aborted luncheon with guests milling about. But no news was happening there. NBC grappled with the headaches of trying to communicate with its Dallas correspondent, Robert MacNeil, who had telephoned in from Parkland Memorial hospital where Kennedy and Texas Governor Connally had been taken. On air, reporters fiddled around with a telephone speaker in an excruciating attempt to allow viewers to hear MacNeil’s report. The cumbersome technology refused to work properly. Over at ABC, viewers watched as workmen literally built a newsroom set around the anchor as another reporter beside him stood with a phone glued to his ear trying to get updates. [iii]
Network television news, while certainly maturing as a journalistic medium – both NBC and CBS had inaugurated their nightly half-hour news shows almost three months earlier – was not ready for live, breaking, crisis coverage. Neither the technology nor the journalistic conventions for doing this kind of television coverage had yet developed.
At WFAA-TV in Dallas, the situation was very different. Program manager, Jay Watson, was in Dealey Plaza with another staffer to watch the Kennedy motorcade. The studio was only a few blocks away. The shots rang out just as they were turning from the Plaza back to work. Watson somehow managed to zoom in on one family lying on what we now call “the grassy knoll.” He ran to them, grabbed them, flagged down a car, and raced them all to the studio, having sent his colleague ahead to alert the newsroom.
While NBC, CBS, and ABC were showing bulletin cards and disembodied voices reading wire service copy before going back to scheduled programs and commercials, WFAA commandeered a live camera from the homemaking show that was going out live as Watson dashed into the studio. Thus, Watson was on camera with eyewitnesses a mere fifteen minutes after the awful event. Clearly out of breath and somewhat emotionally frazzled, Watson read the same wire service copy the Cronkite had read, but then he did what Cronkite could never do: Watson brought in his colleague and they gave their ear-witness accounts of what had occurred in Dealey Plaza. Watson then turned to the young family seated by him – a husband and wife with their little sons on their laps. The Newmans happened to be the best eyewitnesses Watson could possibly have grabbed. Literally right along side Kennedy’s limousine when the fatal shot blew off the top of Kennedy’s head, they had seen it all. Watson’s interview with the couple provided riveting television and pretty conclusive evidence within twenty-some minutes of the assassination attempt that the president was unlikely to survive such a head wound.
The scoops kept coming for WFAA. Not long after the Newmans appeared, Abraham Zapruder happened to walk into the studio hoping the newsroom could develop his film. Zapruder had been right behind the Newmans on the grassy knoll, balancing on a concrete abutment to capture footage of the Kennedy motorcade. We all know what he filmed. While the technical staff looked into developing the film, Watson decided to interview the dapper-looking Zapruder. It’s an odd interview. Watson almost doesn’t appear to be listening to Zapruder – he clearly doesn’t know quite who he has sitting next to him. In fact, Watson was doing two jobs at once: functioning as impromptu anchor and interviewer, but also acting as producer coordinating the show with his director in the control booth.
Watson wasn’t the only WFAA newsman in Dealey Plaza at 12:30. Tom Alyea, a reporter-cameraman was driving back from Fort Worth, where Kennedy and his entourage had spent the previous evening. As he and a fellow WFAA reporter came into Dealey Plaza, they heard a report on the police radio band about gunfire at Elm and Houston. Alyea jumped out of the car and ran to the intersection filming as he went. Following police, he managed to dash right into the Texas School Book Depository. Alyea was one of the only reporters to get inside the building and the only one with a camera. The remarkably accommodating Dallas police allowed Alyea to tag along with them as they explored the building looking for the assassin. Alyea filmed as they scoured the sixth floor, eventually finding the sniper’s nest and the carefully hidden rifle. Trapped inside the now quarantined building, Alyea managed to toss his film out the window to another WFAAer who ran the film back to the studio where it was quickly developed and broadcast. Neither CBS nor NBC had access to footage like this.
Yet another WFAA newsman, Ron Reiland, got inside the Texas Theater as police searched for Lee Harvey Oswald, hiding inside. Unfortunately, in the excitement, Reiland adjusted his film camera for outside filming rather than interior filming and thus ruined what could have been spectacular footage of Oswald scuffling with police before his arrest.
ABC quickly made a decision to turn over large amounts of its network coverage to WFAA. And while fewer viewers around the nation were watching the third network, those who were saw the future of television news. They also got the best and most comprehensive coverage of that day’s awful events.
It’s lamentable that the story of WFAA’s coverage of the day of the assassination isn’t better known, but then again ABC didn’t have the clout of its rivals in the 1960s. CBS seems to have made a concerted effort over the decades to brand itself and its anchor as the sole bearer of the news of Kennedy assassination to the nation. In the recent 2013 Emmy Awards, the television industry ballyhooed its importance in 1963 with only CBS material. In the avalanche of programming commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination, PBS wraps an entire program about TV news coverage, JFK: One PM Central Standard Time, around Cronkite. A New York Times review of the documentary notes that it “strives mightily to reinforce the perception that Walter Cronkite was the only journalist working that day.”[iv]
The most impressive TV journalists working that day were far away from Cronkite’s New York studio. They are the largely unheralded and unknown news personnel of WFAA-TV in Dallas.
[i] Joseph Campbell, Getting it Wrong (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2010).
[ii] Philip Rosen, “Document and Documentary: On the Persistence of Historical Concepts,” In Theorizing Documentary, Michael Renov, ed. (New York: Routledge, 1993).
[iv] Neil Genzlinger, “50 Years Ago, That’s the Way It Was,” New York Times (Oct. 31, 2013)