Tuned In

Reporting JFK’s Death: News, Tragedy, and Confusion, Decades Before Twitter

Real-time footage from Nov. 22, 1963 shows the fog of breaking news is no recent invention.

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NBC NewsWire / NBC / Getty Images

President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy shown in photographs during news coverage on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963

Tragedy strikes, chaos breaks out, a shocked public waits for the story. An electronic medium crackles awake to tell them what happened—and along the way, some things that turned out not to have happened too.

This reel of coverage of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination edited by TIME’s video staff, below, is both stunning and familiar. It’s wrenching to see—whether for the first time or the hundredth—Walter Cronkite take off his glasses, voice cracking as he announces the President’s death. It’s curious, in hindsight, to see reporters wrestling the technology of a previous era into the service of TV—one rigging a “gadget” to a telephone earpiece to serve as a speaker.

But there’s also something eternally familiar: mingled with what we know to have actually happened, a string of hearsay, ultimately false reports rising and ebbing as journalists felt their way toward the ultimate, sad news. “A youngster said that he saw a colored man fire three times from the window of that building.” “The attempted assassins—we now hear that it was a man and a woman…”

So it is today—on cable news, Twitter, and Reddit—when a bomb goes off at the Boston Marathon or a shooter opens fire at LAX. So it was then on broadcast news. A new medium (TV, in 1963, had been common in living rooms only about 15 years or so) is able to bring reports direct and live to millions, immediate and unfiltered. The technology is new, but the means of finding out who has seen what, who is alive or dead, is the same as ever.

It is, at least, something to think about before damning or overpraising any new medium in the confusion over a breaking news story. It may be easier now to spread mistakes, and to correct them. But technology doesn’t make us misuse it, nor was there some mythical time when reporters dispassionately ignored the crush of news to dot every i and cross every t. (Even Cronkite passes on an early report of the President’s death, though “that cannot be confirmed.”) Yesterday’s icons were people, and they wrestled with uncertainty on a day of heartbreak the same as anyone.

Today, the audience may be carrying the cameras. The delivery systems may change, from printing press to rabbit ears to iPhone. But the back-end infrastructure stays the same: human beings. Frightened eyes in a crowd, unsure what they’ve just seen. A priest emerging from a room, having anointed the dying. A strained, cracking voice, telling us what we were impatient to know and never wanted to hear: “From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official: President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time…”

 

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