by Paula Bosse
The assassination of President John F. Kennedy was not only one of the most sobering moments in American history, it was also a turning point for broadcast journalism, particularly in the way television covers breaking news.
The Kennedy assassination and the later captured-live-on-television shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby put broadcast journalists to the test as never before. News coverage was a solid days-long block — with NBC devoting almost 72 straight hours to the assassination and its aftermath. The immediacy of live television and the ability to learn of breaking-at-this-minute news was something that had never been experienced by Americans before — and something which pushed radio and television news reporting to new heights. It was reported that CBS alone used 80 newsmen to cover the story. The Nielsen ratings estimated that an unbelievable 93% of American households with televisions were tuned in to watch live coverage of the President’s funeral procession.
Perhaps the grisliest “first” of this new era of TV news was that millions of Americans watched a murder happen live as they watched from their living rooms: when Jack Ruby lunged from the phalanx of reporters gathered in the parking lot beneath the Municipal Building to shoot Lee Harvey Oswald as he was walking to an armored vehicle to be transported to the county jail, millions witnessed the shooting as it happened, stunned. NBC was the lone network to have broadcast live coverage of this unforgettable moment of 20th-century American history. The other networks followed soon after with recorded footage, but NBC got the scoop.
Broadcasting — an industry trade magazine — devoted an entire 25-page “Special Report” on how television had covered — and shaped — JFK’s presidency and his assassination. Below is the article which specifically focused on the wall-to-wall broadcast news coverage, post-Nov. 22.
OSWALD SHOOTING A FIRST IN TELEVISION HISTORY
For the first time in the history of television, a real-life homicide was carried nationally on live TV when millions of NBC-TV viewers saw the Nov. 24 fatal shooting in Dallas of the man accused of assassinating President John F. Kennedy two days earlier.
Less than a minute after the shooting occurred, CBS-TV telecast the episode on tape, which was made as the homicide took place. Network executives in New York viewed the tape and officially directed that it be placed on network immediately.
The setting for the live NBC-TV coverage of the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald, the accused assassin who died a short time later, was this: Oswald, flanked by detectives, stepped onto a garage ramp in the basement of the Dallas city jail and was taken toward an armored truck that was to take him to the county jail. Suddenly, out of the lower right corner of the TV screen, came the back of a man. A shot rang out and Oswald gasped as he started to fall, clutching his side.
NBC News correspondent Tom Pettit, at the scene, exclaimed in disbelief: “He’s been shot! He’s been shot! Lee Oswald has been shot!”
The TV screen showed shock on the faces of police officers as they swarmed over the back of the assailant, Jack Ruby, a Dallas night club operator. The coverage showed Ruby hustled away by policemen and Oswald being sped to the Parkland Hospital in Dallas, the same hospital to which President Kennedy had been taken.
CBS-TV’s coverage of the sudden shooting, relayed a minute after the episode, was reported by Robert Huffaker, staff newsman of KRLD-TV Dallas, the network affiliate. Mr. Huffaker cried: “He’s been shot! Oswald’s been shot!”
ABC-TV did not have live cameras at the scene, having moved them to the Dallas county jail in preparation for Oswald’s planned arrival there. But ABC newsman Jack Lord reported the news flash of the Oswald shooting. The episode also was recorded by film cameras and was telecast subsequently on the network.
Broadcasters were certain the episode marked the first time in 15 years of global television that a homicide was telecast as it happened. It was recalled that in October 1960 Inejiro Asanuma, a Japanese political leader, was knifed on a public stage in Tokyo. Tape recordings of this incident were played back on Japanese TV stations 10 minutes later.
The capturing by TV of the Oswald homicide was one indication of the extensive, though quick, preparations by the networks for coverage of the disaster. Networks had made arrangements for quick switching to Dallas, as well as other focal points of the developing story, and were able to pick up the homicide episode once they had been alerted that Oswald was being ushered out to the garage ramp. (Broadcasting magazine, Dec 2, 1963)
NBC was the only network to carry Ruby’s shooting of Oswald on live TV. The footage — as it was aired — can be watched in the video below (the Dallas footage begins at about the 5:00 mark).
KRLD, the local CBS affiliate, captured the shooting live, but it was not broadcast live. Here is the KRLD footage, helmed by Bob Huffaker (the shooting takes place near the 13:00 mark).
In 2007, Bob Huffaker, Bill Mercer, Wes Wise, and George Phenix — reporters for CBS-affiliate KRLD-TV news — recalled the blur of days on the beat following the assassination in their book When the News Went Live: Dallas 1963. Watch a panel discussion on those days, below, recorded at the Sixth Floor Museum in 2008. (I found Wise’s recollections, beginning at the 39:00 mark to be most interesting.) (RIP, Bob Huffaker, who died June 25, 2018.)
ABC came in late, with reports from affiliate WFAA-Ch. 8 (about the 7:20 mark), but their coverage was certainly no less exciting — in fact, this might be my favorite reporting by local broadcast journalists that day.
Another “first” in these days immediately following that awful day in Dallas was the very first showing of 8mm home-movie footage showing the assassination of the president. The film was shot by Dallasite Marie Muchmore, who reportedly sold the footage — sight unseen (it hadn’t even been developed) — to UPI for $1,000 (roughly about $8,000 in today’s money); the film was then shown on WNEW-TV in New York on Nov. 26. (The short footage, restored in recent years, can be watched on the Associated Press Archive site, here.)
Sources & Notes
A “Special Report” on the broadcast coverage of the Kennedy assassination and the shooting of Oswald by Ruby appeared in the Dec. 2, 1963 trade magazine Broadcasting; the issue may be read in its entirety here (pp. 36-61); the photo at the top of this post (showing Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald) is from that issue.
More Flashback Dallas posts on the Kennedy assassination can be found here.
Copyright © 2018 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.