November 22, 2013

Around the dial - JFK edition

L-R, Frank McGee, Chet Huntley and Bill Ryan report the news on NBC. (NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)
I think I may finally have started to understand this fascination I have with the JFK assassination.  It occurs to me that a great deal of it has to do with viewing how people deal with the unexpected.  The attraction of the original network broadcast footage, for example, lies with technicians struggling to achieve connections between New York, Washington and Dallas; newscasters struggling not only with a lack of information but with their own emotions as they report the news they badly want to not believe; the scenes of chaos - "controlled panic," NBC's Bill Ryan called it, unfolding before the cameras.  On CBS you can see staffers yanking sheets of paper off the teletype and handing it to Walter Cronkite as quickly as possible, while on ABC stagehands frantically try to assemble a makeshift studio for Ron Cochran to broadcast from.

And then there's the attraction of seeing news "as it happens," and not subject to retrospective filtering. Regardless of your thoughts on who killed Kennedy, it's fascinating to see the story unfold on live television, as pieces are assembled, incorrect information is passed along, and the larger story takes shape.  Someone wrote that the event was a conversion of the past, present and future of journalism: the past being the radio-like way in which the dearth of remote coverage forced television networks to resemble the old days of radio*; the present, in that much of the early information came courtesy of wire services and newspapermen; and the future, that being the emergence of television as the dominant form of news delivery. The widespread instant reaction that Kennedy's death was due to right-wing extremists, and the confusion when it's discovered that the prime suspect was actually a Communist who hated America, is a most interesting experience, and it's that combination of retrospective (knowing what comes next) and living "in the moment" (thinking of the fear and uncertainty everyone was experiencing) that makes it all uniquely interactive.

*Listening to radio broadcasts of the assassinations of both JFK and RFK are a particularly interesting experience, as these disembodied voices paint an image of events occurring in some distant place, leaving the listener to imagine what must be going on.  It's both engrossing and frightening, as the imagination often is.

There are a number of links this week that emphasize different aspects of this. This excellent article in The Atlantic provides the newcomer with tips on how to watch the original coverage. (Although you can get this and a lot more in Marc Ryan's book.) The LA Times website has some interesting photographs of how TV reacted to the news. The Downhold Project provides wire service copy of the story as it unfolded (and try to imagine you're in a newsroom reading it for the first time, and what your reaction might be). Pacific Standard magazine provides a look at what the news coverage meant to viewers, and how they formed a personal bond with the newscasters bringing it to them. And from my old home state, this story presents Todd Kosovich and his vast collection of assassination coverage.

There's plenty of it to be had out there, including CBS News' streaming video this weekend.  It leaves an impression that won't soon go away. TV  

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