The Assassination of John F. Kennedy Day 1, November 22, 1963

Written By: Greg Howell - Feb• 21•14

Ask people what they were doing the morning of November 22, 1963, and despite their varying responses, many would recall preparation for Thanksgiving the following week and convey a sense of excitement for the nearing holidays. The season was in the air.

Only days before, on November 18, Kennedy presided over the nation’s first presidential turkey photo-op at the White House; thus, the first “pardon” for a turkey; thereby, he stated, “I do not plan to eat the bird.” The press dubbed it “pardon” in papers the following morning.

This cool fall morning, mothers were plotting the grocery shopping, one of their last free days before children were out for the holidays. Arriving at work, certainly some men were whispering about the previous night’s episode of Dr. Kildare, a cliff-hanging episode about a botched teenage abortion; or, for the gentleman, perhaps a mention of Hazel’s charity benefit for poor children was better discussion.

At homes and in local restaurants, TV sets were tuned, many to CBS’s As the World Turns as lunch time arrived, overhearing, probably drowning out, the characters’ droning babble about upcoming Thanksgiving dinner. Whether near a television or busy shopping, working, or studying, events were unfolding that would forever change the world and the business of television news.

Just minutes into the live broadcast, Walter Cronkite interrupted the soap. As the World Turns’ cast and crew, however, in New York, continued. They had no idea that Cronkite was about to make this announcement:

Here is a bulletin from CBS News. In Dallas, Texas, three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade in downtown Dallas. The first reports say that President Kennedy has been seriously wounded by this shooting.

News of the bulletin spread quickly. On some broadcasts, as stations continued to interrupt programming, viewers could actually hear other reporters and news staff reverberating the same questions reverberating around them, “the President was shot? He was shot?” The entire nation, from reporters, network executives, to politicians, housewives, businessmen, college and school kids, were all hearing reports at the same time, all seeking answers in dazed disbelief. For the first time, the news televised the process of receiving live incoming information of paramount breaking news. TV stations, local and network, showed reporters on phones conveying the latest bits of incoming news live, to anchors and the audiences simultaneously. TV anchormen had little time for composure, and the emotional nation was truly one body, one entity, one organism, collectively hearing, seeing, and weeping from one disturbing revelation after another.

By the time Walter Cronkite verified the rumors of Kennedy’s death officially, the audience had heard the speculation of the President’s passing for an half-hour as journalists surmised, “the reports we have is that the President is dead, but this is unconfirmed” and “we have been told that the president has received his last rites.” At 2:30 pm eastern, as a stoic but visibly shaken Cronkite reported, “from Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official, President Kennedy died at 1 pm central standard time, 2 o’clock eastern standard time, some 38 minutes ago,” People had gathered around television sets across the nation, ultimately totalling 180 million. The instantaneous collective-conscious of the United States was born.

Together, the nation sat transfixed to the tube as the tragedy unfolded. The initial reports were of a man and a woman assassin team seen firing at the President from the underpass; then, a witness claimed a black man fired 3 shots from a top floor building. From the outset, it was reported and confirmed that a secret serviceman guarding Kennedy was killed, and it was reported that Vice President Johnson had been wounded in the arm. Soon their reports of a single 25 year-old gunman was changed to a 30 year-old man, his physical description, and his name, Lee Harvey Oswald. The audience feared for the lives of government officials, including Governor Connelly, whom had been seriously injured. Bit by bit, more questions arose than were answered. The nation feared the worse. Were there others? Was another nation involved? Was the United States soon at war with Russia, or Cuba? Did the assailant act alone?

ABC was first with news footage of Kennedy in Texas earlier that morning. The viewers saw an enthusiastic Kennedy, waving to crowds numbering in the thousands. As other networks began broadcasting live telecasts from Texas and Washington, crews and reporters scrambled to shed light on the rapid fire succession of the day’s events. As TV Guide documented, The TV screens:

…showed the smiling President, alive and vibrant, moving through a sea of outstretched hands which wanted only to touch him. ABC was to follow this later with an interview with James C. Hagerty, in which the onetime Eisenhower Presidential press secretary, now a broadcasting executive, illuminated the nature of the security problem.

“This is the President’s way of saying thank you to the people,” Hagerty declared, referring to the scenes at the airport. “How can you stop it? I don’t think you want to stop it . . . It’s rather difficult, while guarding the President, to argue that you can’t shake hands with the American people or ride in an open car where the people can see you. . .

American’s witnessed via television each gruesome and macabre moment, from the motorcade ride to Parkland Hospital to the President’s casket being removed from the hospital, Mrs. Kennedy by his side. At first, the earliest reports seemed more like radio coverage than television news; but, as the tragedy unfolded, television journalism found its voice – and image – and the two elements began working in conjunction with each other. No longer two components struggling to function, but now each working harmoniously together. As the afternoon darkened into night, all regular television programming had subsided. For the next three days, every station held diligent vigil with the shattered country, as TV journalism improvised a new, pioneering method for broadcasting the news.

By the end of the hour, cardboard News Bulletin flashes were replaced by somber faces wiping tears from the corner of their eyes. Breaking news and tearful goodbyes hinged on unsettling fears, all for the nation to witness and share collectively. It was a first, but certainly, not the last; alas, not the last time in the next 30 years, and not even the last collective heartbreak in the coming three days.

Note:  Article written ©Monday, October 19, 2009, Greg Howell

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