In life and especially in death, John F. Kennedy changed television forever
"Oswald was shooting directly over the press car. We heard the shots," Clark recalls. "Then our car raced off, following the president's car to the hospital, not having any idea what was going on."
At Parkland Memorial Hospital, it was immediately clear Kennedy had been gravely injured.
"The president was lying in the backseat of the limousine," Clark reported in his first phone dispatch, "his head cradled in the first lady's lap. At this stage there was no official word as to whether Mr. Kennedy was still alive. But he lay motionless on the backseat of the car for some two minutes while a stretcher was wheeled out from the hospital."
The visual that viewers saw during Clark's account wasn't Clark, but the seal of the president of the United States. This, of course, was an age before digital technology, portable video and all but the most cursory satellite transmission. The relative primitiveness of the available tools becomes a further testament to the networks' achievement.
For example, the cameras used for live transmission were full-size rigs, "and we only had a limited number of them," says Small. This posed a particular challenge in covering Monday's funeral procession in Washington.
After the funeral at St. Matthew's Cathedral, Kennedy's flag-draped coffin was carried on a horse-drawn caisson the several miles to Arlington National Cemetery, where he would be buried. TV covered the somber passage every foot of the way.
"We enlisted every correspondent we had," Small recalls. And as the caisson moved past each camera position, that camera crew would leapfrog down the line beyond the next camera. "Some cameras were in four positions during the day," Small says.
TV's funeral coverage, even viewed today, seems perfectly suited to the occasion. It was meditative and dignified. Telecast in black-and-white (as most TV still was), the somber monochrome seems fitting as it captured Kennedy's flag-draped coffin in the Capitol Rotunda, the riderless horse, the veiled widow with her 3-year-old son in a salute, the eternal flame at the gravesite.
These sights gave the viewer a chance to absorb, and mourn, the enormity of what had taken place.
And yet, they came just a day after an awful counterpoint: Oswald's on-screen shooting.
It occurred during a photo op where the media could glimpse the accused assassin as he was transferred from city police custody to the county jail. NBC was on the air live when nightclub owner Jack Ruby lunged for Oswald, who, flanked by deputies, was cut down at point-blank range.
Never before had a real-life homicide aired live on TV.
"He's been shot, Lee Oswald has been shot!" NBC correspondent Tom Pettit erupted. "It's absolute panic here in the basement of Dallas Police headquarters."
The other two networks had missed airing the murder live, but CBS brought a pioneering dimension to the murder scene. Within two hours, it had engineered what was likely a first for TV news: a film playback of the shooting in slow motion and freeze-frame.
Kennedy's shooting two days earlier had not been aired live. But it was captured on film by a spectator, Abraham Zapruder, with his 8mm movie camera.
Then, amazingly, this unique visual record did not air for more than a decade. In 1963, the images seemed too disturbing for the public to behold — and 50 years later, the 486 frames continue to horrify, even as they have fueled conflicting theories of who, and how many, fired the shots.
Nowadays, the idea that the president's every public minute could evade documenting by professional media — not to mention scores of ordinary onlookers and self-styled citizen journalists — seems inconceivable.
"In today's world," says Rather, "you would have had cameras all over the place, and it would have been very difficult not to have pictures of the limousine with the president slumped over" — that is, video from every angle showing the killing in high-def detail, repeatedly broadcast and viewable on YouTube.
Rather draws a cautionary picture of such a murder covered in today's hopped-up media environment, with many rival channels digging for details while voicing on-the-fly theories of what had happened and who might be behind it.
The atmosphere of necessary restraint 50 years ago "may have worked to the country's advantage," Rather says. "The information the nation needed came in due course as it made its peaceful transition of power at the top."
To argue for restraint can be heresy in journalistic circles, but even that weekend traumatized Americans were conflicted about the information coming to them via TV.
"The viewing ordeal was almost uncannily strange," wrote The New York Times' TV writer Jack Gould, describing "a battle within one's self not to hear more and an uncontrollable hunger to obtain additional information." Meanwhile, both viewers and broadcasters grappled with "an inclination to think about what the future may hold and an embarrassed realization that it was much too soon to do so."
A half-century later, this is a struggle that TV, along with its audience, still grapples with.
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