JFK: TV's defining moment

Television-frame grab of American broadcast journalist and anchorman, Walter Cronkite as he removes his glasses and prepares to announce the death of President John F Kennedy. Picture: CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

TELEVISION was central in the American home after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, a national trauma that unfolded in real time and was suited to the emerging medium.

Television programmes and news broadcasts about the tragedy went on uninterrupted for days. That was innovative.

TV also filmed the fatal shooting of accused Kennedy assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, live.

The centrality of TV brought with it a newfound importance, according to television journalists who covered the tragedy.

“We realised, even on that day, that we had more responsibility on our hands than we had ever had before — we in television, in particular,” Bob Huffaker, a former reporter at Dallas station KRLD, told AFP, as America marks 50 years since Kennedy was slain.

“Three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade in downtown Dallas,” read a dispatch by US news agency, UPI, at 12:34pm on Nov 22, 1963.

At 12:40pm, CBS television made the then radical decision to interrupt one of its most popular programs, the soap opera, As The World Turns, to inform Americans of the assassination.

It was the nation’s avuncular television newsman, Walter Cronkite, who broke the news.

A sombre Cronkite, in shirt sleeves, removed his glasses and announced that the dashing young president was dead — a moment now seared into the American consciousness.

“It’s one of those images that people who witnessed it will never forget,” said Cathy Trost, vice-president of The Newseum in Washington, DC, which is dedicated to newsmaking and gathering.

“TV came of age that weekend,” she said. “TV surpassed newspapers as the leading source of news for Americans.”

Pierce Allman, who at the time was the director of programming at WFAA in Dallas, said television station-managers “scrapped all the regular programming for three days and three nights” to fill the grieving nation’s insatiable hunger for information.

The rapid unfolding of events marked America’s transition from a print news culture to a television one.

Americans were transfixed by a succession of televised images: the return of the president’s casket from Dallas to Washington; the swearing-in of new president, Lyndon Johnson; the arrival of shooting suspect, Oswald, at a Dallas police station.

The Nielsen rating agency said 45% of American television sets had tuned in for news about the president’s well-being. More than eight sets in 10 tuned in for Kennedy’s funeral, the following Monday.

Even today, Americans recall having been unable to take their eyes from the unfolding tragedy.

“We just stayed in home, we had to know, we had to be in contact with the TV, that was our source of information,” said Martha Prince Michals, 89, a nursing home resident in Dallas.

David Greenberg, a journalism professor at Rutgers University in the northeastern US state of New Jersey, said that with the coverage of the Kennedy tragedy, television forged a role as a serious news media and showed it was unique.

“The assassination mattered because it firmed up...the ‘cultural authority’ of the press, especially of television,” Greenberg said.

The medium “became the place we turned to in times of crisis, to explain, to comfort, to bind us to our fellow citizens.”

The four tumultuous days that followed the shooting were like none other ever experienced in the United States, and television, news professionals said, rose to the occasion.

“Television had actually become the window of the world so many had hoped it might be one day,” said ABC news presenter, Ron Cochran,

In its new role, filming dramatic events as they unfolded, television captured the assassination of Kennedy’s killer.

With cameras rolling, as a throng of journalists shouted questions at Oswald, a man emerged from the crowd, pointed a gun, and fired.

Jack Ruby had just assassinated the president’s killer, another chilling first, captured on TV.

JFK: TV's defining moment

Lee Harvey Oswald winces as Dallas night club owner, Jack Ruby, foreground, shoots at him from point-blank range in a corridor of Dallas police headquarters. Picture: AP Photo/Dallas Times-Herald, Bob Jackson

Trost said the coverage of the Kennedy killing, and its aftermath, has been matched only by the blanket television coverage of the Sept 11, 2001 terror attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

Trost said even though television long ago cemented its place in society, America’s media landscape continues to evolve.

“Today, it would be very likely that the news would break on social networks,” she said.

No denying the news announced by Charles Mitchell

Many Irish people heard about JFK’s death in a news flash by the Teilifís Éireann newsreader, writes Ray Ryan

JFK: TV's defining moment

THE only television station available to most people in Ireland on the night President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated was Teilifís Éireann, and it was in black and white.

Yet, people who sat stunned in front of their sets around the country would later claim newsreader Charles Mitchell who came on the screen with a news flash looked ashen faced in the grey pictures that many of them received on fragile indoor aerials’ known as ‘rabbits’ ears’.

First, he announced Kennedy had been shot and wounded, and a short time later he told the nation in a voice shaking with emotion that the president was dead.

The first detailed account of what had happened in Dallas was given on the 9 o’clock news by the GAA and racing commentator Micheal Ó hEithir, who happened to be in New York with his wife Molly.

Ó hEithir had monitored the early television coverage in the US and was able at that early stage to give as clear an account as possible of the shooting that shocked the world.

Everybody knew where they were when they heard the news. Some were in pubs. Others were attending meetings. And many of them were watching television.

People disbelieved the news at first but eventually accepted it to be true when they heard the three minute report from Ó hEithir.

He went on to give a marathon five-hour commentary for Telefís Éireann on Kennedy’s funeral in Washington the following Monday.

But on that dreary Friday night, the world held its breath, not knowing who had killed Kennedy or what was behind such a dastardly deed. Some even feared the world was on the verge of a nuclear war.

Kennedy’s cousin, Mary Ryan, who had graciously welcomed him to his ancestral home in Dunganstown, Co Wexford, five months earlier, wiped tears from her eyes.

Over the following days, Word reached the family from the United States Embassy in Dublin that the Kennedys in America wanted their Irish cousins represented at the funeral in Washington.

Mary Ann Ryan, a nurse in Dublin, was at home in Dunganstown for the week, but was suddenly heading to Washington for the State funeral of her cousin.

Garda cars whisked her 135 miles to Shannon Airport and Pan American Airways diverting a flight from London the following morning to take her aboard.

She was rushed through Customs in New York and put aboard a twin engine plane that PAA had rented to fly her to Washington because there was no suitable connecting flight.

With a police motor cycle escort, she was taken by a limousine to St Mathew’s Cathedral. She arrived just in time for the Mass.

The Longest Day, the Daniel F Zanuck film on the 1944 D-Day Normandy landings, was coming to the end of a two-week run at the Ashe Memorial Hall in Tralee, Co Kerry. It was based on the best selling book of the same name by Dublin-born writer Cornelius Ryan, a friend of Kennedy.

They shared a common interest in history and had last met in the White House a few weeks earlier. Ryan recalled that meeting with Kennedy: “As we were talking, he walked across to the desk and picked up a volume bound with green. He showed it to me and said almost boyishly: ‘Isn’t that beautiful?’ I was presented with this by Lemass. Then he opened it and showed me the deed which granted, at some distant century in the past, some land to the Kennedys.”

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