1963-64 in Television: Interesting moments from NBC’s Nov. 22 JFK coverage

Bill Ryan (right, with Frank McGee) at the NBC...

Bill Ryan (right, with Frank McGee) at the NBC Newsroom in New York on November 22, 1963.

A nice crowd gathered in Chicago Friday for the  Museum of Broadcast Communications presentation of the first five hours of NBC News’ Nov. 22, 1963 coverage of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Looking around, there were many who would have remembered where they were that day, along with quite a few schoolchildren and college students.

Museum Founder Bruce DuMont gave a brief introduction, and then at 12:53 — the moment when NBC cut into local programming to bring the first bulletins, the video footage began, taken from the 1988 A&E special “The JFK Assassination: As It Happened.” 1

Some random observations:

  • NBC newsmen Frank McGee, Martin Agronsky, David Brinkley and Edwin Newman were certainly emotional — not in an overly dramatic way — but enough to let people understand that they were as shocked as anyone.

In his 1991 autobiography, Reuven Frank, then executive producer of “The Huntley-Brinkley Report,” recalled being proud of the fact that none of NBC’s on-air personnel cried during that long day, unlike Walter Cronkite of CBS, who famously shed a tear when he reported that the president had died.2

Early on, when Agronsky reported from Washington that he tried to talk to Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s secretary, but she was sobbing too hard to be understood, you could see the pain on his face and hear it in his voice. He was the first person during the network’s marathon coverage to refer to the horrifying fate of such a “vital” young president.

Not long before the network signed off for the day, David Brinkley remarked that it was all “too fast and too ugly” for the senses, comparing the swiftness of the events to death of President Franklin Roosevelt in 1945. “Roosevelt’s body came back to Washington on a train, draped in black crepe,” he said, giving the nation a few days to let reality sink in and come to terms with its grief. Kennedy’s body was flown back to Andrews Air Force Base near Washington within a few hours.

Newman echoed remarks of Chet Huntley made during a special 90-minute version of “Huntley-Brinkley,” blaming the culture of violence that seemed to mark the U.S. as an immature nation.

  • Several times, McGee, Brinkley and others said that President Johnson would serve out  the remainder of Kennedy’s term, which would end in January 1964, rather than ’65. Brinkley even repeated the mistake after he estimated that the term would expire “about a year and a half from now.”

This is certainly not meant in harsh judgment, especially given the circumstances of that afternoon. But clearly the election of November 1964 would determine who would take the oath on Jan. 20, 1965. It seems odd that a producer somewhere (which would have been Frank from 6:30 Eastern) wouldn’t have corrected this.

  • In my last post, I was guilty of assuming that the NBC broadcast did not include a woman reporter; I was wrong.

When LBJ and the late president’s body returned to Andrews Air Force base in the darkness of late afternoon, just after 5 p.m. Eastern, NBC’s Ray Scherer was completely overshadowed by a woman’s voice, who was also reporting on the scene. The camera never shows her, but my first thought was that this must have been Nancy Dickerson,  the pioneering broadcast journalist who worked for NBC from 1963 to 1970, and that was indeed Dickerson. She was very good, describing details at times that the camera hadn’t focused upon yet, like the fact that there were men “struggling with the president’s casket” aboard Air Force One as they prepared to remove it from the plane. The camera quickly panned to catch up with her commentary.

An African-American reporter from another outlet is seen during footage of former President Dwight Eisenhower’s reaction to the assassination. It wasn’t Mal Goode, so I would have to do further research to figure out who it was.

  • The early reaction from people gathered in New York and San Francisco that day was that the murder must have been perpetrated by an “ultra right-wing group” or white supremacists.

A woman who might have been of mixed race was interviewed in New York, and said it was probably white supremacists, who had “set the whole thing up.” A bearded San Francisco man said he hopes that something is done about such “hate groups,” as they are going to “destroy the South.”

This reaction certainly owed something to the heavy television coverage of the civil rights movement, which had risen to a crescendo that summer with the horrible events in Birmingham in June and the March On Washington For Jobs and Freedom in August, which precipitated a round of documentaries, including NBC’s mammoth three-hour “The American Revolution of ’63” on Sept. 2.

  •  There were more WBAP Technicolor cut-ins than I had remembered.    

Early on, the network, broadcasting in black-and-white, throws to Dallas affiliate WBAP-TV(now KXAS), which utilizes its color camera for several cut-ins before reportedly being persuaded by annoyed NBC News officials to transmit in traditional monochrome. I only remembered perhaps two of these color transmissions, but there were at least four. Certainly very few people aside from network executives and appliance store owners had color TV sets at that time, but it’s so fascinating to see the contrast. I looked around the crowd at the museum to see if anyone was whispering to each other about it, but the people I saw seemed unimpressed.

WBAP technicians seemed to have refined that color picture after a first, aborted try at a cut-in that had no sound. Newsman Tom Murphy’s face was a bright pink in that first transmission; subsequently he and a colleague have a more normal appearance.

  • The glitches — in a telephoned report from Robert MacNeil and switches to various bureaus — were handled very smoothly.

I could speculate that, in such an early stage for the medium, technical problems were more common than they are today and that anchors were accordingly more accustomed to patiently enduring them and explaining the problem to viewers, but it was still professional. “As you can well imagine, there’s a certain amount of control room panic,” Bill Ryan said after the first attempt to throw to WBAP failed.

  • It’s staggering to think of what was lost when most of the news broadcasts of this era were erased.

Most of the important events of the ’50s and ’60s — especially the ’60s — were televised, often in as expert a fashion as NBC News managed here. And most of that coverage is lost forever, barring some astounding discovery. What a terrible waste.

— David B. Wilkerson

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