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
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. 1
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