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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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1963-64 in Television: CBS expands evening newscast to 30 minutes

Reveal Shot begins an examination of the 1963-64 television season, which of course began 50 years ago this month. It was a year that saw the medium make great strides in news and entertainment, and one in which several long-running programs distinguished themselves. 

Walter Cronkite.

As mentioned in our posts on network television coverage of the March On Washington For Jobs and Freedom, which had taken place days earlier (Read Parts I and II [now updated]), TV news was beginning to have real confidence in itself as a medium for news. On a nightly basis, it couldn’t offer depth, the way newspapers and magazines could, but the power of televised pictures coming into people’s living rooms — especially with the uniquely immediate look of live or videotaped footage, — had an impact nothing else could match, a kind of urgency that, in the right hands, could be a stunning force.

In his Feb. 6, 1963 column, UPI television critic Rick DuBrow lamented that several weekly documentary shows and other news and public affairs programs were either leaving the airwaves or being reduced to monthly broadcasts. He noted that CBS was canceling  “Eyewitness,” a round-up of the previous week’s events and a look ahead to items of note in coming days, while NBC was going to curtail “Chet Huntley Reporting” and “David Brinkley’s Journal” to once a month in the 1963-64 season.

Both moves were being made, DuBrow reported, because CBS, and then NBC, intended to expand their  nightly newscasts to 30 minutes from 15 minutes. “The expansion of the key daily news reports certainly is a fine thing,” the critic said, but he added: “Daily news reports, even expanded, are still pretty much outlines of top stories … When top informational programs are chopped, when programs like ‘Discovery ’63’ and ‘Calendar’ have a tough time staying on, something is wrong. Except for news and public affairs presentations, there is really very little to even justify the existence of television.”4

Undaunted by such a pessimistic view, the networks moved forward with their plans. Here we’ll see how CBS News President Dick Salant, network president Frank Stanton and founder William S. Paley were able to convince CBS stations around the country to go along with the decision to expand the 15-minute evening newscast to 30 minutes, starting on Sept. 2.

In this clip from the Archive of American Television’s 1999 interview with Walter Cronkite (1916-2009), the “most trusted man in America” explains why the “CBS Evening News” moved to a half hour (6:30-7 p.m. Eastern time), and the peeved reaction of CBS affiliates, which were accustomed to having that time for themselves. He also discusses the scoop he ended up with when he interviewed President John F. Kennedy on that Sept. 2 premiere.

There are two videos here:

 

Cronkite continues to explain the significance of President Kennedy’s remarks on the early days of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

 

Current “CBS Evening News” anchor Scott Pelley ended his own newscast Monday night with this look back at the first 30-minute newscast, offering further insight into the logistics, and consequences, of that evening.

 

NBC’s “Huntley-Brinkley Report” followed one week later, which Reveal Shot hopes to explore in more detail Sept. 9.

New York Times television critic Jack Gould, writing for that newspaper’s Sept. 22 edition, was cautious in his early assessments of the new half-hour news programs.

“What remains to be seen,” Gould said, “is whether the added time will be used fruitfully in explaining complex issues that require elucidation or will be given over only to light feature material.

“Random sampling of the programs thus far invites only inconclusive nitpicking and personal preference in the handling of individual stories; the balance sheet is extremely even.”5

 

— David B. Wilkerson

 

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Network television covers the March on Washington — Aug. 28, 1963 (Part I – A ‘Crucial Summer’)

By June 1963, the Civil Rights Movement was all over network television, and Sen. Strom Thurmond had seen just about enough. Now he was going to say something about it, two months ahead of what would become perhaps the Civil Rights era’s signature television moment, the March On Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

When the Senate held a hearing June 26-28 to consider legislation that would suspend, for the 1964 election cycle, Section 315 of the 1934 Communications Act, which called for equal time on radio (and later television) for all political parties who requested it, CBS President Frank Stanton testified in favor of such a suspension, as it would make it easier to have televised presidential debates between President John F. Kennedy and the GOP standard-bearer, Barry Goldwater. 6Thurmond (D-South Carolina), then 60, saw a chance to confront CBS, and by extension, all three of the New York-based TV networks that had the audacity to devote so much time and energy to the Negro cause.

Chicago Tribune ad for Part 4 of “Crucial Summer: The 1963 Civil Rights Crisis,” a five-part series on ABC’s “Close-Up” program.

A ‘Crucial Summer’

The Movement was by any definition a “hot” story, even if it was partly because many viewers were fearful of, or at least intrigued by, the thought of violence on the part of black militants — even when most of the race-based violence was coming from the other side. Covering the developing situation with anything approaching accuracy carried political risks, however, as the networks would be reminded by Thurmond.

By the time Birmingham, Ala. police bombed the home of A.D. King, Dr. Martin Luther King’s brother, on May 11, the networks had been paying particularly close attention to the Birmingham situation for weeks.  For a year, activists had been working to improve economic opportunities and desegregate schools, lunch counters, and other areas of the city, staging sit-ins and boycotting downtown businesses. Bull Connor, the bigot’s bigot who held the job of Commissioner of Public Safety, came up with an injunction barring these actions. When Martin Luther King decided to ignore the injunction, he was imprisoned on April 12. Rather than pay his bail, the SCLC took the opportunity to raise public awareness of King’s incarceration. NBC’s “Huntley-Brinkley Report” and the other evening news shows made nightly references to Birmingham, and after King was released on April 20, he specifically bolstered the confidence of fellow activists by telling them that their efforts were being seen across the nation on “Huntley-Brinkley.”

Television also found an ideal scenario in the Birmingham “Children’s Crusade.” More than 1,000 students stayed out of school and went to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the local movement’s headquarters. More than 600 students were arrested as they marched downtown. The situation could easily have backfired. Malcolm X derided the SCLC’s James Bevel and other organizers of the children’s participation, and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy questioned the wisdom of the tactic. All of this made for scintillating TV viewing, encouraging the networks to go further in their coverage of the Movement. The most despicable horror of Birmingham was still a few months away.

On June 11, Kennedy called out National Guard troops to the University of Alabama to provide safety for Vivian Malone and James Hood, young African Americans who wanted to enroll at the university. Malone and Hood had received death threats from segregationists, and of course, Alabama Governor George Wallace stood at the door of the university in physical defiance of the two students. That night, the president made a speech that was televised on all three networks, in which he called for legislation that would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964.7

When Medgar Evers, a Mississippi field secretary for the NAACP, was gunned down that night by white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith, the networks followed up with extensive coverage.

Other specials followed during the month, including the June 17 CBS special “Summer of Discontent” about the racial crisis in Harlem, and a June 24 program on the same network about the Harlem situation. CBS, among the three networks, seemed most determined to point out that racial strife was not just a Southern phenomenon, airing yet another Harlem-related “CBS Reports” in December.

Thurmond accused the television and radio networks of “following the NAACP line.”

“CBS and other networks slant news to favor Negroes, otherwise they’d have given some major play to [the] slaying of a white man in Lexington, N. C., as given to [the] assassination of Medger[sic]  Evers, Negro NAACP agent in Mississippi, [the] senator said,” reported Broadcasting magazine in its July 1 edition. “Dr. Stanton replied that CBS strives for [the] highest level of objectivity by hiring [the] finest professional newsmen, giving them [a] set of policies and [an] obligation to be fair, honest and accurate.”‘8

At one point, Thurmond inquired of Stanton: “Don’t you care about white people?”9

The networks were undaunted. They pressed on with coverage of the racial violence in Birmingham, Ala., where, despite an agreement to end segregation in that city, unrest continued throughout the summer. In July, ABC announced that it would air a five-part series that would air on Sunday nights, “Crucial Summer: The 1963 Civil Rights Crisis,” from Aug. 11 through Sept. 8, at 10:30 p.m. Eastern time.

On the first “Crucial Summer” installment, Gov. George Wallace of Alabama, William Hartsfield, former mayor of Atlanta, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gov. Orville Faubus of Arkansas  were featured. Later shows included Rosa Parks; U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy; Autherine Lucy, an African American woman who enrolled at the University of Alabama for three days in 1956 before being forced to withdraw; Daisy Bates, activist, newspaper publisher and mentor to the Little Rock Nine, the students who integrated the Arkansas city’s Central High School in 1957; and William Simmons of the white supremacist Citizen’s Council of Jackson, Miss.

CBS would offer an hour-long program on Aug. 21 called “The Press and The Race Issue,” in which it would try to directly confront the allegations made by Sen. Thurmond.

NBC News announced perhaps the biggest project of all — “The American Revolution of ’63,” which would preempt the network’s entire primetime lineup on Sept. 2, just days after the march.

Shows not seen that Monday night would include the highly lucrative “NBC Monday Night At the Movies,” “The Art Linkletter Show” and “David Brinkley’s Journal,” costing NBC ad sales worth an estimated $500,000 [equivalent to $3.82 million in 2013, according to the CPI Inflation Calculator]. The Chicago Tribune reported: “The program … will offer an analysis of how the civil rights issue has affected the American public. There also will be reports on foreign reaction to the issue and events in this country. The program will include discussion periods in which leaders of civil rights movements and their critics, the administration, congress, labor…will participate.”10

But the Sept. 2 special, and other programs slated for the 1963-64 season, would have to wait. The complaints of Thurmond, George Wallace and others were pushed aside as the networks prepared to cover the March On Washington.

Read Network television covers the March on Washington — Part II.

— David B. Wilkerson

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