It’s About TV: In the subtitle of your book you call JFK’s assassination “TV’s first global story.” Just how dramatic a change was this from any previous news story in the television era, and what kind of challenges did it create for this young medium of television?
Marc Ryan: It’s long been said most folks heard the news on the radio and went to the nearest TV, whether that was at home, at work, a barbershop, or department store. The figure I often see is that 175 million Americans watched at least some of the coverage – and that’s at a time when the U.S. population was less than 200 million. Transmitting TV by satellite slowly but surely became more common. It was coming anyway, but the JFK coverage showed a need, gave things a nudge. As I say in the book, the Relay satellite sent coverage around the world.
As the President was in Dallas, members of the Cabinet (including Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Commerce Luther Hodges) were on their way to Tokyo for meetings. I’ve never heard but I am convinced an item on the agenda was the need for coverage of the Tokyo Olympics. Sure enough, Syncom 3 (synchronous communication) was launched in August of 1964.
By the way, Winston Churchill’s funeral in 1965 was via satellite. Interestingly, a picture was available for only 15 minutes at a time; the satellite used was in orbit, not stationary.
Why do we still care about the assassination? And why does the “as it happened” television coverage still interest so many people?
MR: For the baby boomers, it is OUR first historical tragedy/news event. It’s not from history books; you felt a connection via TV. A large part of that is due to JFK’s appeal. He was so good on TV, he engaged young people (with the Peace Corps and more) in a way Truman or Eisenhower did, even if they couldn’t vote. (I should copyright this phrase:) JFK and Jackie were the first President and First Lady who didn’t look like Grandma and Grandpa.
When I was teaching, I saw how it was 9/11 for my students. Pearl Harbor was for my parents; Lincoln was from the history books. And it’s something that scared the WWII generation (how many people on feared this was the first episode of an attack?).
|Ron Cochran, ABC's lead anchor:|
"Government sources" report JFK dead
MR: There were some discussion panels and such. WFAA ran a panel with Bill Lord, Bob Clark Jay Watson. I think it was ABC who ran an eight-month old video of three reporters that ran about thirty minutes; it was three reporters interviewing LBJ in Spring, 1963 in kind of a Meet the Press or This Week setting, though I think it was recorded at the White House. You could see it was a “Well, it’s Friday night, LBJ’s in the White House so we have to kill time.”
ABC, CBS and NBC did run bios of JFK and later, Oswald. There were discussions of what kind of President LBJ would be. But you are right. These discussions were informed (most saying he’d pursue JFK’s agenda and maybe more successfully given his Capitol Hill background), and to the point. All three networks did sign off Friday night and resume sevenish Saturday. Sunday night, they had the overhead shot of the casket or the Capitol Dome shot I spoke about. For long stretches, they just stayed with either shot and didn’t talk unless a government person or celebrity had been in line.
Friday, they certainly reviewed film after it was developed, that was important and time consuming. Saturday and Sunday, a lot of coverage was who was coming to the White House or Sunday, flying into Dulles, dignitaries such as de Gaulle, Queen Frederika…
Thank goodness screen graphics were unsophisticated. Can you imagine the BREAKING NEWS icon, hours after the story broke and the theme music? “Kent Brockman here reporting on a crisis so serious it has its own name and theme music.”
Did the networks overdo it with their coverage? Former President Eisenhower, for example, thought that continuing with regular programming – minus commercials – and providing regular hourly updates might have been sufficient.
MR: There’s an unspoken reality when a big story breaks, it’s “all hands on deck” and you stay with it. There was no other way for TV to do the story. To have an hour network special and cut away for Twilight Zone or Burke’s Law would have been awful. Keep in mind, on that Friday night for instance, each network had symphony orchestras play to honor JFK and, to give newscasters a rest and ready more coverage. When any of them went to music, people changed the channel. They wanted information.
NBC stayed on the air all Sunday night into Monday morning, just showing people passing the bier in the Capitol Rotunda. Would any network other than C-SPAN allow the pictures to tell the story like that?
MR: No. Sadly, no.
Give us a bit of background on your television experience, your teaching, and your thoughts on television news today.
MR: My first job in TV news was with CNN in 1980, hired two weeks before we went on the air! The all hands on deck I spoke of earlier? The Democratic Convention in NYC, the hostages return from Iran in 1981, the attempt on President Reagan in March of 1981. I was in NY but as a production assistant, I was busy with researching Wall Street’s behavior at other assassination attempts on Presidents, things like that. I was at ESPN in the mid-eighties. One of my main duties was making sure of what games were on which satellites for our highlight needs. I had a nomadic TV career, which is the norm now, SportsChannel America in the late eighties, early 90’s and West Virginia Public TV in 1992, this time on the air, covering the state legislature.
I went into teaching to influence future newscasters. I had an epiphany to teach about mass communication. The way we use our media is fascinating. I always stressed it’s not “The Media” we are the media. We text, we blog, we tweet, we Facebook. For goodness sakes, twitter is used as a news source!
To say there is a “liberal media” gets my goat. AM radio is full of conservative politics; cable news tailors programs to reach an audience. We the audience decides what thrives on the airwaves. The 60 Minutes Benghazi disaster wasn’t a function of being anything but sloppy.
And mass media and culture? I always had fun showing my students for every Lady Gaga, there’s Madonna or Elton John or Liberace, for every Kate Upton, there’s Twiggy or Suzy Parker, for every Kardashian, there’s Dagmar (though Dagmar was in on the joke). It helps explain why Dancing with the Stars and amateur singing always get more viewers than American Masters on an opera.
Local TV news has its relevance but overall, it is superficial and follows the same formula. Like Mad Libs, change the names and it is the same. However, in times of crisis, local TV news can be excellent. I live in New England and coverage that I saw of the Boston Marathon bombing (mostly by WBZ-TV, the CBS affiliate) was excellent.
How did you research the book? You’ve got a remarkable amount of information on what each network was doing, as well as the local coverage from the Dallas stations.
MR: I started reading books more than a year ago - Death of a President by William Manchester, Four Days in November: the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy by Vincent Bugliosi, President Kennedy Has Been Shot, by the Newseum, When the News Went Live by Bob Huffaker and others. I cannot say how often I have read the Newseum and Huffaker books. I bought newsweeklies of December, 1963 on e-bay, looked at TV encyclopedias at the library, my own video collection from NBC coverage, DVDs of ABC and NBC coverage on Amazon, and David Von Pein’s YouTube page and “As it Happened” blog are truly a public service. There is lengthy video of the Oswald shooting on an NBC archive. It is amazing.
|For NBC: Frank McGee (left), Bill Ryan|
(right) hold up newspaper late editions
MR: Well, my father, Bill Ryan, was half the anchor team for WNBC’s Pressman-Ryan Report, the 6pm news on channel 4, New York. He also did on the hour updates for NBC Radio News; he had done some network stories as a reporter, the Freedom Rides in 1961, for instance.
On that Friday, he was in writing copy for the hourly radio news update when the story came over the wires. Some people were at lunch; it was a slow Friday. A colleague shouted for a reporter, so he stood up and asked “What do you need?” "Get back to TV right away!” the newshand said. “The president has been shot!" Chet Huntley and Frank McGee joined my father in studio 5 HN, a little wood panel room they called a “Flash” studio, getting its name from the wire service word for a HUGE breaking news story. Huntley was on set for maybe an hour. My father and Frank McGee, except for instances where coverage was from Washington (and later Dallas), were on the set until after midnight.
Was the assassination something that you talked about in the house afterward? It isn’t every day that a reporter has the chance to cover the biggest news event ever to hit television.
MR: I’ll tell you something: we didn’t talk about it around the house. It wasn’t ever declared off limits or anything like that, but we had all been watching.
He did get a call in 1983 from an NBC archivist who offered to make a VHS copy for him. Aside from a clip at the Smithsonian for a ten-year anniversary exhibit, he had not seen any video. For whatever reason, he never got the VHS. So the 1988 A&E [As It Happened] special was his first chance.
(Now, when he did NASA stuff, it was all I would ever talk about! Good thing he loved talking about that.)
How old were you when this all happened? And was it your father’s involvement that made you decide to write about it?
MR: I was five and watching with my brothers and sisters and mother. A colleague at Keene State College, a former newspaper investigative reporter, started to urge me to write a book on my father’s career. I said I would think of something for the fiftieth. It wasn’t until Labor Day I got it through my thick skull that the focus should be on the medium, not one man, that this was indeed the first global TV news story.
We’re 50 years from when this actually happened, and there are fewer and fewer people around who were actually there as it happened. Are there any myths about the television coverage, things people might think they saw or heard that you found out didn’t happen?
MR: Anyone who reads this blog knows to this day, there are people who think the JFK assassination was on LIVE television. The moment that endures is of Cronkite announcing JFK’s death. In more than one place, I have seen a Don Hewitt quote on viewers’ need for Cronkite: “Father Cronkite, help us.” Wow, that is overstated. Hewitt did a million great things in TV but that was WAY over the top. Cronkite was fantastic but he was later rotated with people like Charles Collingwood, Eric Sevareid and others. The Cronkite announcement endures because he was so good, so professional and it is a tidy forty seconds. But there is a long list of reporters and anchors that did fantastic work that weekend.
I’m glad you brought up Walter Cronkite - one thing that’s always interested me is that NBC, with Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, were number one in news at the time, and in fact NBC’s ratings for the weekend were higher than CBS and ABC combined, and yet there’s this kind of mythology that’s grown up, which actually is reinforced by a PBS documentary this week, that the entire nation’s eyes were glued to Cronkite the whole time. As you point out, Cronkite was indeed very good, but so were the men behind the desk at NBC (ABC – well, we’ll leave that for the moment), so how did this Cronkite phenomenon take place?
MR: That clip of Cronkite [making the announcement] is a great example of answering who what when where but not why, and it is 40 seconds. You know what is interesting? Eddie Barker [news director of Dallas station KRLD] reported from the Trade Mart that JFK was dead, saying “this, we cannot confirm,” a number of times thirty minutes earlier. Cronkite reported that JFK’s death was “only a rumor”.
MR: The most I can honestly say here is that my father’s overriding instinct (and not fear, but conviction) was to be correct. He told himself (on the set) not to speculate.
|Walter Cronkite of CBS: reporting|
MR: This sounds artificial, maybe you have a better phrase, but they were in the moment. Just about everything I’ve read, broadcasters just focused on the story and thought of their own feeling off the set.
The coverage was only beginning, of course, with the President’s assassination. On Sunday there was, arguably, an even more shocking story, with the murder of Lee Oswald. The three networks, despite having more time to get ready, all handled the shooting in different ways.
MR: ABC sent one WFAA crew to a church service to interview folks after services. ABC had Roger Sharp at the county facility for Oswald’s arrival, smart thinking that Jack Ruby spoiled. CBS had Roger Mudd live at the Capitol to explain what would happen Sunday and stayed with that too long. CBS had Nelson Benton and KRLD’s Bob Huffaker on the scene and just plain blew it. Huffaker recovered quickly and was fantastic. Tom Pettit for NBC was incredibly steady as a man was killed in front of him.
How did the story influence the way TV would cover future news stories? And conversely, how do you think the coverage would be different if today’s technology and style of news gathering existed back then?
MR: Those four days set the template for coverage of the likes of the murders of MLK, RFK, Apollo 11, the hostages return in 1981, and 9/11. A lot of the changes are Marshall McLuhan’s Technological Determinism. We higher education types love theory. Videotape replaced film, memory cards replace tape and a live shot is so much easier to arrange.
A modern day attempt on the President’s life would be live on the cable networks, picked up by ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX. But the follow up? You’d have the likes of the E! Channel and TMZ. In 1964, Dorothy Kilgallen and her ilk were in print. Today, we have Nancy Grace.
What, for you, is the most memorable moment of the coverage?
MR: There was a static shot Sunday night of the Capitol Dome. It’s beautiful and that night, and to use a word not in my vocabulary then, it was a poignant sight. That visual and the feelings I had inside, I’ve never forgotten. The drums and sound of the hooves Monday.
Conversely, is there one thing that maybe people aren’t aware of, some little moment that you’d really like to point out for viewers to watch for?
MR: The beauty of how television can communicate when no one speaks.
Was there anything you had to leave out because you didn’t have enough information? Where you wanted to say, “What were you thinking?” or “Why did you do this instead of that?”
MR: I would have loved to revisit the Library of Congress or visit the Sixth Floor Museum. I cannot be the only person over the last fifty years who wishes he could go back in time and tell the Dallas PD to not invite the media to cover the Oswald transfer.
Was there one “ah-ha” moment for you, something that really surprised you either in the information you learned, or the way it was presented on TV?
MR: Mistakes were made; the type of rifle used took a while to get right. It was thought that Officer Tippit was killed at the Texas Theatre and for a short while, it was thought LBJ was hurt because he was holding his arm when walking into Parkland. Turned out he was achy because Secret Service Agent Rufus Youngblood jumped atop him in the motorcade.
Two “ah-ha” thoughts: The Dallas PD wanted to cooperate with “the press”. They didn’t want to give the impression Oswald was being roughed up, they didn’t want anyone to get the idea law enforcement in Dallas was anything like what people who had never been south had seen the Birmingham PD six months earlier.
Also, TV didn’t bring in former FBI profilers to do a character sketch of what might/maybe/possibly/”could be”. They didn’t have e medical reporter explain what the President’s injuries might be/maybe/could mean. ABC, CBS and NBC were careful not to get ahead of themselves.
Oh, one more: as I report in the book, on Monday morning, there were still people in line at the Capitol Rotunda. Jack Lescoulie did no interviews, he thought it “would not be proper” to intrude. Never happen nowadays.
There are some clips on YouTube from 25th anniversary specials, ginned up with ominous music. Some stories speak for themselves and need no enhancements.
Last question - did CBS ever show people the rest of that “As the World Turns” storyline?
MR: What a good question! For all I know, Dr. Cassen and Bob Hughes are still at that restaurant!
Check out Marc's Three Shots Were Fired blog here.