It was the middle of the night when Robert F. Kennedy was shot following his victory in the California primary - arguably the biggest American news event ever to occur during the overnight hours. Kennedy gave his victory speech at a quarter past midnight PDT - after 3am on the East Coast - and in those wee hours of the early morning, many people would get their first news of the shooting not from television, but from radio.* In the days before 24/7 television, it's not hard to imagine people lying in bed with the radio on, unable to sleep, listening to a late-night music program when the news broke, and thereafter continuing to lay their in the stillness of the dark, listening to disembodied voices describing what had happened in far-away Los Angeles, unwilling or perhaps even afraid to turn on the lights, preferring the shelter of the night. I wonder how many were able to go back to sleep? I would have found it somewhat frightening to do so, myself.
*According to a contemporary poll, 56% first received the news on radio. And most people didn't even find out until they'd gotten up that morning - less than 20% had heard the news by 5am EDT.
|Frozen in time: the last image of Kennedy alive. (KTLA)|
*Those early reports had Kennedy being shot in the hip - I've never been sure if someone originally misunderstood "head" as "hip," or if they confused the wounds with those of one of the other bystanders who'd been shot.
As the primary results were close, television networks had stayed on the air far past their regular cutoff time, not calling the race for Kennedy until shortly before the senator's victory speech. According to various sources, CBS had already ended their coverage at the time of the shooting; at NBC, Frank McGee, having received rumors, vamped for a few minutes, keeping the studio coverage live until the report could be confirmed. ABC was in the process of signing off on their report in favor of Joey Bishop's show, when Howard K. Smith interrupted the closing credits to update people with the news.
|WPIX in New York broadcast the single word "Shame"|
for over two hours Wednesday morning while RFK
underwent surgery. (WPIX/Corbis Images)
It's a temptation to analyze coverage of RFK's assassination in light of that of his brother's five years ago, but there were significant differences. Whereas John's death followed shortly after his shooting, Robert clung to life for over 24 hours, and his passing, like the shooting itself, came in the middle of the night. Therefore, throughout Wednesday afternoon and evening, networks provided periodic medical bulletins and special reports, but not the saturation coverage that had accompanied the assassination of JFK. Networks maintained a semblance of their regular programming, albeit with subtle changes: ABC cancelled a planned repeat of the murder mystery Laura, and on Thursday substituted episodes of The Avengers and The Flying Nun* that were deemed "too violent" with less controversial stories. The Joey Bishop Show, like that morning's Cavett show, was devoted to commercial-free coverage of the story.
*The Flying Nun too violent? Perhaps - in the episode in question, "A secret meeting of mobsters blows sky high when Sr. Bertrille is forced down in their midst."
|Author Joe McGinniss claimed Ted Kennedy didn't write|
his memorable eulogy for Bobby, but it was obviously
heartfelt nonetheless. (ABC)
mentioned earlier that I'd be focusing on radio coverage as much as that of television. Although plenty of coverage exists on YouTube, an amazing treasure trove of radio coverage exists from CBS through their Minneapolis affiliate WCCO, and listening to hour after hour of this was something of a revelation to me.
I'm no stranger to the charms of radio, although the medium was certainly on the decline by the time of my birth. Still, for someone who was raised on television, this CBS radio coverage is fascinating, and to my thinking strangely appropriate. While television is a communal experience, radio tends to be much more personal, more one-on-one. Television reporters talk at you, their words providing a backdrop to the dominant pictures, while radio reporters talk to you, and the effect can be far more intimate.* And so, lacking the images that television could provide, radio reporters were forced to paint word pictures for their listeners, and these disembodied voices, speaking in that lonely darkness of Wednesday morning, create an unreal, almost surrealistic atmosphere. Again, imagine listening to the reports as you lay in bed during those small hours, your bedside alarm clock silently glowing. Perhaps you were agitated, you had to get up and walk around, slipping on your robe, trying to comprehend this latest horror in a year of horrors - as you looked out your window was the neighborhood shrouded in blackness, with only the radio voices breaking the dead night? Or did lights begin to snap on in houses up and down the block, as the news spread? Did you share your agitation with others, or was your agony a silent and solitary one?
*As any baseball fan can tell you.
|Leonard Bernstein conducts the Agagietto from Mahler's|
Fifth Symphony (Look Magazine/Paul Fusco)
In much the same way, radio coverage of Saturday's funeral and burial provides a dimension different from that of television. Without the fillers that TV pictures provide, the announcers were forced to describe the unfolding events, and during the many times when nothing at all was happening, their commentary provided nothing so much as an insight into their own hearts. During the funeral, covered on CBS radio by Douglas Edwards and Maury Robinson, the men struggle with the unfamiliar "new" liturgy of the Catholic Church (a hybrid between the old Latin Tridentine rite and the soon-to-be-revealed Vatican II Novus Ordo), all the while explaining the significance of the words and gestures occurring in front of them.
|Cameras on the funeral train capture a passenger train |
coming from the opposite direction, killing two people
lining the tracks in Elizabeth, NJ. (CBS/AP)
The funeral train taking Kennedy's body from New York to Washington was both a tribute and, in some respects, a fiasco. Two people were killed in Elizabeth, NJ by an express train travelling in the opposite direction. The train itself was almost five hours late, travelling slowly to afford the crowds, estimated at perhaps one million people, a better chance to view it. It had been expected that the burial would occur early Saturday evening, and Major League Baseball had rescheduled the day's games to the evening, to start after the ceremony. Instead, the first pitches were thrown as the train continued its slow progress; the actual burial didn't occur until after 10pm EDT. On television the black-and-white remote images showed the train pulling into Washington's Union Station; on radio, one hears only the lonely ringing of the train's bell. As the motorcade processes down Constitution Avenue to Arlington, a radio reporter apologizes for not being able to provide better coverage, but the darkness combined with the leafy canopy formed by the trees lining the street served to obscure her view. George Herman, anchoring CBS' radio coverage, mentions the Kennedy people asking CBS to pass along a request to those lining the funeral route and listening to transistor radios that they light a match as the cortege passes by.
|Hopelessly behind schedule and in near-total darkness,|
the casket is brought to the gravesite next to JFK at
Watching and listening to the events from that week (covered in fascinating detail in this issue of Broadcasting magazine) has provided an opportunity to reflect on everything that happened, and how it was broadcast. 1968 had already been an eventful, grim year: the Tet Offensive, Eugene McCarthy's challenge to President Johnson and LBJ's subsequent decision not to seek reelection, the assassination of Martin Luther King, race riots, war protests, and now this. Still to come was the tumultuous Democratic convention in Chicago and the election; one of the few bright spots was Apollo 8's memorable Christmas Eve trip around the moon.
As such, I think the American people were a more cynical lot, numbed somewhat to the events that seemed to cascade, one after another, throughout the year. Whereas JFK's assassination was truly shocking, if not incomprehensible, by June of 1968 the assassination of Robert Kennedy was all-too believable. And perhaps that's what made it such a deeply sad event for so many, for without the anesthesia of shock to cushion the blow, the emotions that had been rubbed raw were there for the taking. It was so stunning, so unexpected, so quick. I freely admit that I am not now and never have been a fan of the Kennedys; politically we're about as far apart as we could be. But the events of that week in June worked on so many levels - the political, the personal, the familial. And as the day drew to an end, and the country worried about what might come next, ABC's summary of the day - one of "stunning tragedy" and "unique, painful events" - combined the best of the elements we've discussed, picture and sound. It was, indeed, a painful week.