As this year’s death-obsessed Emmy Awards broadcast took time to mention, Nov. 22 will mark 50 years since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
The remembrance traveled from Walter Cronkite’s announcement of the president’s death to a Carrie Underwood cover of the Beatles’ “Yesterday” to commemorate the band’s 1964 debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show”: “two emotionally charged events, forever linked in our memories,” said segment narrator Don Cheadle, who was born after both of them.
The assassination “was the moment when the television generation came of age,” Cheadle said.
It’s a statement that sounds meaningful without actually saying much. (Television generation? Came of age?) But the death of JFK was certainly the first traumatic national event the medium was called upon to make sense of, to put into order and carry to the people
It was the first major testing of the national mettle since the Second World War, which had been brought home by print, in newsreels and over the radio.
From that moment, it seemed as if anything could happen, at any time, and television news developed to accommodate that theory, into a round-the-clock enterprise lately enlarged (and in some ways diminished) by an auxiliary army of smartphones and Twitter feeds.
A change was already in the air. Only a couple of months earlier CBS had inaugurated the first half-hour evening network newscast, with a Walter Cronkite-Kennedy interview, followed a week later by NBC, with the tag team of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley also speaking with the president.
But what strikes one, looking back at the assassination coverage is how primitive it all looks.
The president was shot at 1:30 p.m. Eastern, and it wasn’t until about 2 that the networks were fully up and running, the cameras fired up and the anchors in place.
The initial reports, beginning about 10 minutes after the fact, were audio only, broadcast over “special bulletin” cards.
Some networks lacked the facilities for such emergency reporting, and cameras took time to warm up. There were hastily improvised sets, hand-drawn maps, dodgy connections, dead air.
The commentary, by reporters and anchors trained as writers, has a simple, quick-sketch eloquence.
Once the engine was running, television took over completely; the networks wiped their schedules clean to follow the story, step by slow step.
Although every network and its Dallas affiliate covered the story, progressing through rumor, unconfirmed report and confirmed report, it’s Cronkite who has come to stand for the day.
On the air for hours in his shirt sleeves — he never thought to put on his jacket, earning him an admonishing note from his boss, Frank Stanton — taking his glasses on and off depending on what he needed to read or see, he endured what he later described as a “running battle between my emotions and my news sense.”
His brief, quickly swallowed show of emotion as he delivered the news, finally confirmed, makes him seem at once one with his viewers and a trustworthy steward of their feelings.
There is something humble and unadorned about these reports that, even in their stumbling, fits the awfulness of the occasion better than would the cluttered, hyperactive graphics of modern TV news, which so often — especially in times of crisis, it can seem — runs to competitive vulgarity and exploitation. They are, in a way, not unlike Dealey Plaza itself, surprisingly ordinary for such a world-shattering event.
Television itself, which Marshall McLuhan had defined as a “low definition” medium that required the viewer to fill in details, is now something quite the opposite — a flood of details, in high-definition, with a surfeit of overlapping voices, fighting to be heard.
But more information does not necessarily equal more clarity. Walter Cronkite, putting on his glasses to read a bulletin and taking them off to tell a nation what it said, is sometimes all you need.