In life and especially in death, John F. Kennedy changed television forever

By Frazier Moore

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Oct. 19 2013 12:29 p.m. MDT

Johnson's demeanor was first on display just hours after the assassination as he arrived from Dallas at Andrews Air Force Base in Washington on Air Force One, accompanying the casket and Mrs. Kennedy, still in her bloodstained pink suit.

Clustered nearby were some 50 members of the media, including NBC News correspondent Robert Abernethy, whose primary memory is how "eerily quiet" it was as they waited.

"The reporters and crews, nobody said much — or could say much," recalls Abernethy, now 85 and still busy as the host of "Religion & Ethics Newsweekly" on PBS.

He and his counterparts from the other networks offered spare commentary on the sad scene as the newly-sworn-in Johnson stepped to the forest of microphones and, striking just the right blend of resolve and humility, told the nation, "I will do my best. That is all I can do. I ask for your help, and God's."

This was one of so many unforgettable moments that had begun, for many viewers, with the stark on-screen message "CBS News Bulletin" as the voice of anchor Walter Cronkite had cut into the lunch-hour soap "As the World Turns."

"President Kennedy has been the victim of an assassin's bullet in Dallas, Texas," Cronkite reported. "It is not known as yet whether the president survived ..."

All too soon, Cronkite, by then on camera with his eyes moist and voice choking, made his memorable pronouncement that Kennedy had died.

"We began dispatching people in all directions," CBS News Washington bureau chief William Small says. "We sent one remote to the White House, one to the Hill. We didn't have a third, so we improvised: We took a Greenbrier station wagon and put the guts of a remote (a camera and other equipment) in it and headed it toward Lyndon Johnson's house."

Like many others in command roles, Small didn't leave the bureau for the next four days, "from the shooting to the burial."

"When I finally got home," he said, "I asked my wife, 'What was it like?' She said, 'There was no one on the streets. Everyone was watching television.'"

Never before had the public been privy to such a seismic event beyond their own experience delivered with such you-are-there thoroughness and immediacy.

The three networks threw out regular programming and suspended commercials for blanket coverage of unfolding events in Dallas, Washington and elsewhere from Friday through Monday, a span of consecutive TV coverage not exceeded until September 2001.

And the nation was transfixed. Following the White House confirmation of Kennedy's death, nearly half of all the country's TV homes were in use. A few hours later, nearly two-thirds of all TV homes were tuned in. And on Monday afternoon, during the funeral coverage, viewers in 81 percent of the nation's homes had their eyes glued to the screen, according to Nielsen.

This upended a world where people still got most of their news from print, when newsreels still accompanied the features at movie theaters.

"It was the coming of age of television news," says Dan Rather, who was in Dallas to coordinate CBS' coverage of a political visit by the president that was expected to produce little actual news.

At the instant Kennedy was shot, Rather was standing nearby on what was meant to be the presidential motorcade route's last stop, where cameramen would hand off film for Rather to rush to the lab for processing.

Though he didn't witness the shooting, the future CBS anchor saw the president's limousine rush by and it "seemed to be heading in the wrong direction," Rather says. "When I got over the overpass to the grassy knoll, I knew what had happened was really bad. That scene of chaos, confusion and fear in front of the textbook depository is as vivid to me today as the day I experienced it."

ABC News' Bob Clark was riding in the press car of the motorcade as one of the pool reporters.

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