Coverage of JFK's assassination was, as Newton Minow said at the time, when "broadcasting grew up." TV was ill-prepared for a story of that magnitude, but it quickly got its act together and showed that it was the new force in breaking news. And despite advances in technology and the introduction of new media, nothing has fundamentally changed in the past 50 years. You can't beat broadcasting's network-affiliate partnership.
50 Years Later, TV Still No. 1 In Breaking News
America today is commemorating the Kennedy assassination that stunned the nation 50 years ago and plunged it into a prolonged collective mourning.
For television, it was a dramatic and pivotal event. The broadcast networks and their affiliates, particularly those in Dallas, picked up the story shortly after the shots were fired and stuck with it for four days.
They poured all their resources into the coverage and blew out all their commercials. It was pure public service. According to Broadcasting magazine, the cost of the extra production and lost revenue amounted to $32 million. That’s more than a quarter of a billion dollars in 2013 dollars.
With the coverage, TV broadcasters tacitly announced that they were the new force in breaking news. Newspapers didn’t have the immediacy. Radio didn’t have the pictures.
It was apparent to all, even some of TVs most vocal critics, who had scolded the medium for what they felt was insipid entertainment and marginalized news and public affairs.
“Not only was the coverage dignified and in immaculate taste, it was remarkably competent and frequently soared with imaginative, if tragic, beauty,” Sen. William Proxmire of Wisconsin said.
Even Newton Minow, the former FCC chairman who had dismissed television as a “vast wasteland” just two years earlier, lauded TV’s effort. “Broadcasting grew up,” he said. “It is the turning point for television. Broadcasters have made their finest contribution.”
Thanks to YouTube, I have been able to revisit some of TV’s coverage that tragic day.
I was stuck first by how ill-prepared TV was for a breaking story of that magnitude. NBC looked as if it were reporting from the paneled rec room of my neighbor’s basement. For news from Dallas, the anchors had to hold the ear pieces of telephones up to microphones or simply repeat from what they were hearing from reporters on the phone into a mic. Not exactly high tech.
CBS had the most polished and coherent broadcast, and it’s the one that’s remembered best, mostly because anchor Walter Cronkite choked up in making the official announcement of Kennedy’s death. CBS had been the first to move from a 15-minute to 30-minute evening newscast with Cronkite just two months earlier — a strong signal of the network’s interest in news.
But all the broadcasters soon pulled it together to cover the other extraordinary events of the four days. NBC captured live Jack Ruby’s shooting of the shooter. You can’t get any closer to the story than that.
My takeaway from all the YouTube watching is that nothing has fundamentally changed in the coverage of major domestic breaking news in the 50 years since Dallas. Broadcast TV is still No. 1.
That’s quite a bold statement, isn’t it? In the last half century, we have seen an explosion of technology and services that have had a major impact on the news media in many ways — communications satellites, ubiquitous cable TV, camcorders, microwave trucks, CNN and the other 24/7 news networks, video recorders in every home, the Internet, email, countless websites, blogs, mobile phones, mobile phones with cameras, mobile phones that are computers, iPads, Facebook and Twitter. It never ends.
Yet, just as on Nov. 22, 1963, the broadcast networks and their affiliates still dominate the big stories — and in much the same fashion.
Check out this video. It’s a record of what Belo’s WFAA Dallas did as the story broke, and it demonstrates in rudimentary form the give-and-take between the affiliate and the network, in WFAA’s case ABC, that still characterizes how the broadcasters cooperate and makes them must viewing when things go bad in a hurry.
In the early going, as reports dribbled in from Parkland Hospital, WFAA accumulated the facts, interviewed eyewitnesses, rolled film shot earlier of the president’s arrival at Love Field, aired film shot outside the hospital just as it came out of the soup and, when it thought it appropriate, cut to the network that had anchor Ron Cochran and others in New York and Edward P. Morgan in Washington.
So what’s changed? Not much.
Think of all the coverage we saw last spring of the Boston Marathon bombings and the manhunt that followed. Again, it was the affiliates (or O&Os) and the networks, working together, to tell the story like no one else could — WCVB and ABC, WHDH and NBC, WBZ and CBS and WFXT and Fox.
The station’s leverage their intimiate knowledge of the city and their relationship with the authorities to stay on top of the story. The network provided national perspective and packaged it all for national consumption.
Frankly, when the story was the hottest — immediately after the bombings and as the police closed in on the surviving suspect — the networks weren’t adding much to a story. On occasion, they simply got in the way. A report from the White House said staffers followed the action by watching the local outlets, bypassing the networks. I wish I could have done the same.
The affiliates and O&Os are the backbone these big stories — be they bombings, shootings, tornadoes, hurricanes or wild fires. They are all essentially local stories that just happen to be of national interest.
The importance of the local partner was apparent during the Kennedy assassination. While ABC repeated itself (you can also watch the network’s coverage on YouTube), WFAA scrambled to get to the bottom of what was happening and explain it to viewers.
At one point, the producers came up with a chalk board on an easel. On it, they drew a crude map of the Dealey Plaza area and where Kennedy’s car was when the shots were fires. The map got better as the newscast went on.
Just like today’s broadcasters, those at WFAA in 1963 sometimes screwed up. Based on one eyewitness account, they reported that the shots may have come from the railroad overpass in front of the car rather than the school book depository behind the car and they reported that a Secret Service agent had also been shot.
I’ve been careful to say that broadcasters are still tops on domestic stories. On stories that break overseas, CNN may get the best of them simply because it has more resources around the world that it can mobilize. That certainly was the case at the start of the Gulf War when CNN was in position to capture the U.S.’s opening barrage on Bagdad.
The day may come when some Internet-based news organization amasses the news gathering resources and expertise to usurp television’s role as the go-to medium in times of domestic crisis. But I don’t see it any time soon. Those resources and expertise are just too difficult and costly to duplicate.
All broadcast news pros should be proud of themselves today — not for what their predecessors did 50 years ago, but for what they can do today.