How JFK’s assassination changed TV news and the journalists who covered it 60 years ago

(CBS Photo Archive/CBS Photo Archive via Getty Imag)

How JFK’s assassination changed TV news and the journalists who covered it 60 years ago

Stephen Battaglio

November 14, 2023

On November 22, 1963, CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite struggled to control his emotions as he read a message.


telegraph report and looked at the clock in a New York studio

to the

he announced


President Kennedy


“died at 1:00 PM Central Standard Time.”

On NBC News, anchors Chet Huntley and Frank McGee listened as correspondent Robert MacNeil, via a muddy payphone connection from Dallas, provided the stunning details describing how Kennedy was shot while riding in a motorcade through the city’s downtown.

The moments marked the beginning of a new era in media as the three television networks


that possessed the public 60 years ago remained on the air


four days to report live and continuously on a national crisis for the first time.

The marathon broadcasts set the template for the decades that followed, as viewers became accustomed to seeing military invasions, revolutionary uprisings and terrorist attacks unfold in real time with the advent of 24-hour cable news and the Internet.

Unlike today’s media landscape, where consumers have dozens of on-demand channels to stay informed, everyone was watching the JFK tragedy and its aftermath at the same time.

“The only thing on television anywhere in the country was the Kennedy assassination,” said former CBS News anchor Dan Rather.

Footage from the network and local TV coverage can be found on YouTube and appears in new documentaries and re-examinations that continue to be published


turned out for every important birthday.

Film director Rob Reiner recently teamed up with journalist Soledad O’Brien on a new iHeart podcast, “Who Killed JFK?”

which that

casts doubt on whether Kennedy is the attacker


Lee Harvey Oswald


had acted alone.

Reiner remembers being sent home from science class at Beverly Hills High School after the news broke and spending the weekend enthralled by the extensive coverage.

“I’ve been studying it for sixty years, and every time I look at it I keep hoping that it’s not going to happen, and then it’s


Oh my God,’” Reiner said. “For those of us who were there at the time, it just never leaves you.”

O’Brien, a former CNN anchor who

It’s a seesaw

more than her share of on-screen ‘breaking news’ banners, was struck by the restraint of the journalists involved.

“There’s not the over-the-top reporting we’re used to today,” O’Brien said. “Nobody says anything they’re not sure about.”

When Kennedy died of the

gunshots while F



Ady Jacqueline Kennedy watched in horror, not a single TV or newspaper photographer recorded the moment of impact.

The now-historic images of that horrific day were captured by snapshots and home video camera footage taken by people in the crowd, including the 26-second

eight millimeters 8 mm

film created by Dallas clothier Abraham Zapruder. They were a forerunner of


mobile devices included

citizens people

used to document groundbreaking news events in later years, such as the police


of George Floyd in 2020.

The scanned visual documentation of the Kennedy assassination


contributed to public skepticism and generated conspiracy theories about what exactly happened and who was responsible.

“When I show the footage of the assassination to my students, they immediately say, ‘Oh God, if it happened in another era, we would definitely know who shot Kennedy because we would all have our iPhones that would have shot it. had included,” said Larry. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “You would cover every possible angle.”

The young, vibrant Kennedy was the first president to embrace television and welcome cameras

press news

conferences and the White House, where the glamorous first lady gave a live tour in 1962 that aired on CBS, NBC and ABC.

Yet the country was still dependent on newspapers and radio


primary news sources. Network TV coverage was limited to evening news broadcasts that were not instantaneous


or comprehensive. (The multi

The cable universe that gave the public 24-hour coverage on CNN continued for another seventeen years.)

The stories were shot on film and shipped to New York, where they were edited for NBC’s “Huntley-Brinkley Report” and


“CBS Evening News,” runs through September


In 1963, both lasted only 15 minutes. Continuous live coverage was limited to scheduled major events such as election nights, political conferences and British royal coronations.

But with the drama unfolding so quickly in Dallas, a shocked nation consumed the raw video feeds that left out all regular TV programming and canceled $19 million in advertising time (equivalent to $191 million today, adjusted for inflation).

Viewers saw every moment of the aftermath of the shooting in real time, including the shocking moments

murder NOTE: Jack Ruby was convicted of murder, but it was overturned and he died before he could be retried

of Kennedy’s accused assassin, Oswald, in the basement garage of the Dallas police station. NBC broadcast it live.

At times, the images on screen resembled a noir crime drama. Anus


owner Jack Ruby was identified as Oswald’s killer, the ABC station in Dallas showed in-studio interviews with strippers and dancers who worked for him.

On the fourth day, the networks helped a devastated country mourn with the first presidential funeral on live television.

“The medium became a living room town hall for Americans trying to cope with a terrible tragedy,” Sabato said.


The journalists on the ground saw their careers boosted by the experience. Five later became network TV anchors Bob Schieffer and Liever at CBS, MacNeil and Jim Lehrer at PBS and ABC’s Peter Jennings, a 23-year-old correspondent for Canada’s CTV when he reported the story.

At the time,

Previously, the bureau chief was in New Orleans

at the time

for CBS, after joining the network the year before. Most of the time had been spent covering


Civil rights


out of town, such as CBS affiliates in Atlanta and Jackson,


refused to help the network cover it

Dr. the movement led by Rev.

Martin Luther King

Jr.’s movement


“I was surprised that they called me and said, ‘


I want you to wave away and set up this coverage for President Kennedy’s trip to Texas,” the now 92-year-old recalled. “It was seen as a very routine pre-campaign presidential trip.”

The young Rather still aspired to be worthy of CBS News veterans like Charles Collingwood and Eric Sevareid, who made their names as radio correspondents during World War II and continued to play a major role in the division.

“Before the Kennedy assassination, I was considered a ‘maybe’ because I stuck it out and made a career at CBS News,” Liever said. “Keep in mind that I walked among legends.”

Although much of Cronkite’s legacy is tied to his dramatic announcement of Kennedy’s death, it was previously who first reported on CBS that the president


died, before White House confirmation.

Rather was a mainstay throughout the weekend, with hours of anchoring and reporting on location in Dallas, putting him on track to become Cronkite’s successor at the “CBS Evening News.” (

He remained at CBS until 2006, when he was forced to leave due to a controversial “60 Minutes” report on President George W. Bush’s military service.)

“I never had a script in front of me,” Liever said. “It was a deadline every nanosecond.”

At the time, Schieffer was a 26-year-old police reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Those days in Dallas made him a star at the paper, eventually leading to a fifty-year career at CBS, including a stint as chairman of the evening news anchor and twenty years as moderator of the

current news program

“Look at the nation.”

Schieffer wasn’t even assigned to cover the president’s visit. While the other Star-Telegram reporters had been dispatched to the scene, he was answering the phone at the newspaper’s rewriting desk when a call came in from a woman asking for a ride to the Dallas police station.

Schieffer, 86, recalls

how he told it

“Here lady, this is not a taxi service and besides, the president has been shot.”

Yes, I heard it on the radio,” the woman replied. “I think the person they arrested is my son.

The voice on the line was Marguerite Oswald, the accused assassin’s mother. Where do you live? Schieffer asked.

Schieffer and another reporter took her to Dallas. He scored an exclusive interview and almost met Lee Harvey Oswald himself, until an FBI agent realized he was a reporter and not a cop (Schiefer wore a black snap-brimmed hat to pass as a detective at crime scenes).

In 1963, journalism organizations had no internal guidance to help reporters deal with the trauma of covering a story. They went to the bar or just did it themselves.

“It was less acceptable to seek psychological help at that time,” Rather says. “I believe in the power of prayer. I prayed.”

Schieffer recalled how the events he witnessed 60 years ago changed him.

“I went from law enforcement back to my day job,” he said. “We investigated many wrecks at that time. There was a family who died in a gruesome manner. Their car crashed into the back of a truck with pipes. We stood there with a few police officers waiting for the justice of the peace to arrive and I realized that I had no feeling at all, it took a long time for it to return.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here


Hot Topics

Related Articles