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Assassination altered TV news coverage

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Around the time of the assassination, CBS and NBC, the two major television networks of the time, had just switched from 15- to 30-minute nightly news broadcasts, according to journalism professor William Thorn. Still, television was regarded as a secondary source of news to the more preferred mediums of radio and newspapers, he said.

Television supports of the time were far from developed, requiring planning far in advance for live video shooting, Thorn said.

“Television had not really mastered going live,” Thorn said. “Television cameras in those days were monsters. The infrastructure for live television was just not developed.”

When Kennedy was shot while riding in a motorcade at about noon that Friday, television networks delivered news in a way the public had never seen.

“Television carried nothing but assassination-related coverage from the time they were on the air, usually at 7 (a.m.), to the time they shut down at 10 (p.m.),” Thorn said. “In that single moment television had arrived. Our ability to get immediate access to live coverage of live events was never the same after assassination.”

It was “probably the first time we had 24-hour coverage of anything,” journalism professor James Scotton said. “I think the television was probably devoted 100 percent to the assassination and the aftermath.”

The entire weekend, from the time Kennedy was assassinated on Friday and lasting after his internment at Arlington National Cemetery on the following Monday, people were gripped by the constant stream of images being displayed before them. It also included Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald, Kennedy’s assassin, while he was transported in police custody.

According to history professor Athan Theoharis, the televised images of all these events relayed the tragedy to the public with a realness and immediacy.

“These events became real-time events for Americans, as if it happend right next door to you,” Theoharis said. “I guess the issue is immediacy as opposed to coverage of a major story. Television sort of changed how we experience things we perceive.”

The television coverage, Scotton said, served as a unifying tool for the public, for it focused “the entire world on a single event.”

Thorn said virtually the entire country turned to television “as a vehicle for national mourning.”

“We shared the same images and the same sounds of the assassination, and the immediate post-assassination,” Thorn said. “We all mourned together. The whole nation shared in the tragedy. That was unprecedented.”

Thorn, who was a college student when Kennedy was assassinated, remembered returning home from college for the weekend and walking into the house to find his mother “in front of the television just weeping.”

Scotton recalled being in the library stacks at the University of Wisconsin-Madison when Kennedy was shot.

“The library was extremely quiet,” he said. When he walked out of the stacks, the checkout desks were deserted, as was the mall outside the library. Curious as to where everyone was, Scotton walked into the student union, where he found a mass gathering of people fixated on televisions.

“There was this enormous noise from about six televisions set up along the corridor,” Scotton said. “It was like coming back to the real world after being off in some strange deserted place.”

Some draw comparisons of Kennedy’s assassination coverage to the constant stream of coverage of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In both cases, the same images were played over and over again.

“In both cases you have people turning to television,” said Phillip Seib, Nieman Chair and professor of journalism. “Television exercised a national unifying force in the sense that people throughout the country could see the same images wherever they were in the country. The two dates will forever be seen as crucial dates in the history of television.”

Theoharis said the Kennedy assassination and 9/11 are similar “only to the extent that it was televised.”

However, television was still relatively young when Kennedy was shot, but had long established itself by the time 9/11 occurred.

“In 1963 this was a very dramatic change from what we are used to,” Scotton said.

With Kennedy’s assassination, television was able to offer a mourning nation an asthetic experience that could not be obtained through radio broadcasts or news articles: a common image. Subsequently, the tragedy catapulted television to the forefront of the news media, posing new challenges to newspapers in particular.

“It’s a watershed in the relationship between the American public and their news sources,” Thorn said. “It marked this transition from a print and radio-dominated news era to a television-dominated era. It led the then-new editor of the LA Times to say we will not be breaking many major news stories anymore.”

Seib said in times of national tragedy, the television media are able to have a calming effect on the public.

“One of the advantages of having good information available quickly is it snuffs out rumors before rumors can develop any momentum,” he said. “Despite what people say about the media, people trust them. Just having good information available has value in and of itself.”

Thorn suggests that the ongoing war in Iraq may represent the rise of Internet news sources as the dominant news medium.

“Quite honestly, when we look back in history, people may look at the war in Iraq as a transition to Web-based news,” Thorn said.

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