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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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Chicago journalism students to live-Tweet NBC News JFK assassination coverage of Nov. 22, 1963

NBC News’ coverage of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963 will offer an intriguing lesson for a group of journalism students at Columbia College in Chicago this Friday.

Chicago’s Museum of Broadcast Communications will offer one of the more unique 50th-anniversary remembrances of the JFK assassination, presenting the first five hours of NBC’s coverage, anchored by Frank McGee, Bill Ryan and Chet Huntley, beginning just after 12:30 p.m. Central Time as the events unfolded, and the Columbia College students will be Tweeting during the broadcast as if they were gathering the news in real-time.

Barbara K. Iverson, an associate professor at Columbia College, said in an interview that she came up with the idea and mentioned it to four other professors — Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin, Yolanda Joe, Teresa Puente and Jackie Spinner — during an open house at the school. They agreed that the experience would be valuable to students born in the 1990s. One advantage, Iverson said, is that the students can approach the events of Nov. 22 without necessarily bringing to them a lot of preconceived ideas about the implications of that Sunday’s murder of suspect Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby — or any other element of the countless conspiracy theories that have emerged over the last 50 years.

“This is an important aspect of what the museum is doing,” said Walter J. Podrazik, curator at the Museum of Broadcasting and the co-author of “Watching TV: Six Decades of American Television.” “To just focus on the fact that this was raw news, and we’re hearing it just as you’re hearing it. The media hadn’t done this before. World War II and the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt were radio events. So this showed how brodcasters could meet challenge of having to report on something like this with pictures.”

After seeing an excerpt of the NBC News coverage during a recent museum visit, Columbia College’s Iverson concluded that a number of things would stand out, if only in comparison to the way television handled an incident like this year’s Boston Marathon bombings. “I think they’ll be surprised at how much time was given to certain packages, or to people just standing there,” she said. “In the clip I saw, they were talking to a priest, and the priest says the president is dead, but we’re not confirming that. And it takes them a while to report his death. With all the rushing around and misinformation we see in modern coverage, it looks like that might have been a better system. So I think that will be something we’d like to look at with our students and make them talk about … if you’ve seen something in many Tweets, you might not be able to confirm definitively, but you probably want to say something is happening.”

NBC News took deliberate approach

Black-and-white publicity photo of American te...

NBC News anchor and correspondent Frank McGee (1921-1974).

During those frightening first hours, NBC anchors Frank McGee, Bill Ryan and Chet Huntley and various correspondents – including No. 2 White House correspondent Robert MacNeil (later co-founder of the “MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour”) who had accompanied the president to Dallas – try to sort out the news about the shooting itself; Oswald, Gov. John Connally of Texas, who was wounded in the attack; Vice-President Lyndon Johnson’s swearing-in, and, much more. Early on, the network, broadcasting in black-and-white, throws to Dallas affiliate WBAP-TV(now KXAS), which utilizes its color camera for a couple of cut-ins before reportedly being persuaded by annoyed NBC News officials to transmit in traditional monochrome.

NBC was last among the three TV networks to report that Kennedy had died; CBS had been first, using an unconfirmed report. In his 1991 autobiography, long-time NBC News executive Reuven Frank, who was then the executive producer of the network’s evening newscast, “The Huntley-Brinkley Report,” recalled that industry wags criticized the organization for being so far behind, and that network affiliates also complained “It was not my decision, but it sticks in my mind as the right one,” Frank wrote. 3

Frank further recalled that Robert “Shad” Northshield, then the third-ranking member of NBC News’ management, was trying to run the newsroom as best he could in those first moments while Bill McAndrew, the division’s president, was away from 30 Rock. At one point in the first half hour, Northshield said: “This is one G–damn time we’re not going to be edited by CBS!”

Podrazik explained that NBC, as the top-rated news network at that time, had a special motivation to be deliberate. “I think with that No. 1 ranking came an added sense of gravitas and responsibility, that they were the last word,” he said in an interview at the museum. “Not to say that others got it wrong, but they were going to make sure they got it right.”

To prevent a modern-day equivalent of the panic that resulted from Orson Welles’ 1938 “War Of The Worlds” radio broadcast, the Columbia College students will be asked not to put the words “president” or “prez” into their Tweets, lest anyone think President Obama has been shot. Faculty members also discussed the possibility of having each Tweet carry the hashtag “#fake.” At least one instructor will monitor the students’ output, Iverson said, “in case someone does cross a line, someone can explain what’s really going on.”

Iverson said there are other things she expects to discuss with the aspiring journalists about those first hours of NBC’s coverage. “I think there’ll be some unobtrusive things, like if we asked, how many reporters of color were there? How many women reporters were there? I would like that to be so obvious that I don’t even have to bring it up.” The answer to both questions is, quite typically for the period, zero. UPDATE: NBC’s Nancy Dickerson is prominently heard during the coverage when the plane carrying the president’s body arrives at Andrews Air Force Base just after 5 p.m. Eastern time. See follow-up post.

Admission to the Museum of Broadcast Communications, at 360 N. State St. in Chicago, will be free that afternoon. Viewers will have the closest possible sense of what it was like to see the live picture 50 years ago, as the footage is taken from a videotape master, rather than a fuzzy kinescope made by filming a television monitor.

Black-and-white videotape from this era, as seen on a handful of “Twilight Zone” episodes during the 1960-61 season, for example, has a unique quality that suggests both immediacy and a stylized effect, in a way quite different from black-and-white film. “The difference is that film is processed; what you’re seeing when you see black and white videotape is raw, unprocessed footage, and that’s why it feels more immediate,” Podrazik pointed out.

Reuven Frank was skeptical of praise for TV

In the immediate aftermath of Nov. 22-25, 1963, after two of television’s toughest critics, Jack Gould of the New York Times and former FCC Chairman Newton Minow – who had famously called TV a “vast wasteland” during a speech two years earlier, were among those who said television had come of age in its coverage of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Reuven Frank scoffed.

For Frank, then 42, there was a “patronizing smell” to such praise. NBC News had learned a great deal from its coverage of the African-American civil rights movement over the past year and a half (despite the lack of diversity in its ranks), culminating in its chronicle of the March On Washington For Jobs and Freedom in August. “Huntley-Brinkley” had expanded to 30 minutes each weeknight, from 15 minutes, on Sept. 9 — a week after CBS made a similar move, but only because NBC had devoted so many of its resources to a sprawling three-hour consideration of the civil rights struggle, “The American Revolution of ’63.” This was a network, and a medium, that was ready to handle this biggest of all breaking stories.

“I can see his point,” Podrazik said. “The expansion of the evening news to 30 minutes — if you could point to anything about the maturation of the medium, you could point to that. But they were already doing serious documentaries, and were getting better and better at doing the news. It wasn’t just rip and read. They had bureaus. The reason there was such good coverage of what happened in Dallas is that they had a bureau in Dallas.

“And was there a patronizing tone on the part of the newspaper people? I wouldn’t be surprised,” he continued. “Because that was still early enough in television’s ascendance for the newspaper people to have said, ‘This used to be our exclusive domain, and now, basically, you’re there ahead of us, and we can’t do anything about it.’ ”

— David B. Wilkerson

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Network television covers the March on Washington – Aug. 28, 1963 (Part II) (UPDATED)

(UPDATE: This post now includes the beginning of CBS News’ continuous coverage of the march, starting at 1:30 p.m. Eastern time  on that Aug. 28, as well as the very end, at about 4:30 p.m.)

Reveal Shot presents Part II of its look at Big Three network coverage of the March On Washington, 50 years ago next Wednesday. In this installment, two of the most fascinating broadcast elements that survive — the start of CBS’ continuous coverage of the march at 1:30 Eastern time, and the first half-hour of NBC’s 4:30 summary of the day’s events.

Read Part I here.

The Aug. 25, 1963 telecast of  NBC’s “Meet The Press” made plain the conventional fears many white Americans had about the March On Washington For Jobs and Freedom, coming up in three days. NAACP Executive Secretary Roy Wilkins and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were the guests that Sunday evening, and “Meet The Press” co-creator Lawrence Spivak began the questioning.

 

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Two things strike me about this excerpt from the beginning of the program.

1) Spivak’s reference to “10,000 militant negroes” and whether or not they could come together without rioting. Aside from the low estimate of a crowd that ended up exceeding 250,000, the notion that the entire contingent would be militant, and that it might be incapable of civilized behavior, is one that would be just as likely to be brought up today, especially on outlets like Fox News.

2) Wilkins, who is clearly aggravated by Spivak’s repeated questions about the “great risks” the march’s organizers are taking, makes it clear that he’s bemused by the turnout estimate, saying he doesn’t know if it’ll be “110,000, 145,000 or 190,000.” I’m sure he knew the number would be closer to the actual total.

The entire program,which was re-aired on many NBC stations on Sunday, is worth seeing, even if only to see how these distinguished black leaders control their anger when reporters question the wisdom of the march and the entire direction of The Movement. King is asked about the Communist ties of Bayard Rustin, deputy director of the March, forcing him into the uncomfortable position of  either having to speculate about Rustin’s affiliations or deflecting the question by pointing out its irrelevance. NBC News reporter Robert MacNeil, later the co-founder of the “MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour,”  irritates Wilkins by pressing him on the possibility of violence, as does Spivak when his turn comes up again. King is asked, inevitably, if it isn’t a better idea to proceed more slowly in the pursuit of civil rights for African Americans. 4

CBS, NBC and ABC present a special report: The March On Washington

The networks readied themselves for the events of Aug. 28, as the march, originally planned as a demand for better jobs and economic opportunity for African Americans, had evolved into a demonstration in support of the civil rights bill President Kennedy had proposed in June, legislation that ultimately became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Variety described it as, “logistically … a Cape Canaveral moon shot, an Inauguration Day and an Election Night bundled into one and topped off by a total measure of unpredictability.” 5

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