October 19, 2016

History in the making - RFK, June 5, 1968

Source: RFK: A Photographer’s Journal by Harry Benson, published by powerHouse Books. Copyright © 2008 by Harry Benson
Although this piece is about television footage that is unquestionably a part of political history, it's not because of the current campaign that I'm writing it - the timing is completely coincidental, as I ran across the accompanying footage just a couple of weeks ago. It's ABC's coverage of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy on June 5, 1968 (technically, it's actually coverage of his shooting, since Kennedy didn't die until the next morning, but you know what I mean), and it strikes me as a remarkable bit of television history as well. I wrote about that event a couple of years ago, but watching this stunning coverage of the first report adds another dimension to it.

Certainly this isn't the first major news story covered on television; the assassination of JFK unfolded dramatically on television just five years prior. It isn't even the only assassination that year, as Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot and killed just a month beforehand. And the mass murder by sniper Charles Whitman on August 1, 1966 at the University of Texas is considered the first time television had actually provided live coverage of a breaking story as it happened (as opposed to reading wire service reports from the studio).

What, then, makes this footage special, at least to me? For one thing, it's a stunning look at what a breaking story looks like in the studio, as people go from a state of unawareness of a major story to hearing about it to trying to gather as much information on it as possible. This usually happens in the background, but thanks to the particular circumstances involved here, we get to see it right on camera.

Perhaps before we go any farther, I should show you the clip, and we can discuss it afterward. We'll begin with discussions of the vote as it comes in, followed by Senator Kennedy's victory speech, and ABC anchor Howard K. Smith preparing to sign off. It's all captured in context rather than through highlights, but if you're pinched for time and want to skip straight to the relevant part, go to about 37:30 in, as Smith is summarizing.

You'll notice that Smith has already removed his earpiece and microphone and unbuttoned his coat which his head whips around at 19:12, and he goes to put his mic back on. ABC political analyst Bill Lawrence, sitting on the lower right hand side, is looking off-screen as well; clearly, something has happened. By 19:29 Lawrence is on the phone, probably an internal phone to the control room, and Smith joins in a few seconds later. As things unfold, you can see more activity in the background, as staffers are drawn to the teletype machines printing out wire service reports. All the while, ABC's campaign theme music plays in the background, until there is a long moment of silence before an announcer's voice comes on at 20:12 with "Please stand by." In the meantime, Smith and Lawrence have prepared themselves to go back on the air, with Smith particularly looking ready to go at any time. The theme music recycles, things become more animated,and the announcer repeats at 21:14, "Please stand by for a special report." Finally, as another round of music fills the dead space, you can see someone talking to Smith at 22:45, a director runs out on the floor, a staffer crouches down, appearing to be passing information to Smith, who bends over to talk with her. By now, all the staffers are standing around, waiting for what comes next. Controlled chaos. Finally, Smith confirms the camera that will be picking him up, puts down the phone after a quick conversation, and at 23:33 returns to the air with "an alarming report."

Now, I don't know about you, but although television remote controls did exist in 1968, I know our home didn't have one, and I suspect most households didn't, either. And so after Smith signs off and there's one final plug for the sponsor (BFGoodrich), the average viewer would have had to get up and walk across the room to turn off the TV. If he didn't do that right away (and keep in mind this is all happening around 12:15 a.m. Pacific time, which makes it 3:15 a.m. on the East Coast), he might have had the chance to wonder why the music kept playing, and he surely would have been curious after that "Please stand by" announcement. Whatever it is, it's clear something has happened. My wife pointed out it didn't necessarily mean that whatever it was was bad; it could have been as innocuous as ABC projecting that Kennedy would, indeed, be the winner. It's impossible to really know what people were thinking at the time, because we have the benefit of hindsight, but the longer the wait goes on, the more you might think the viewer's anxiety will grow. At this point you'd be a fool to turn off the television.

The same person who posted this video has shared with us coverage from CBS and NBC; unfortunately, neither captures the exact moment when news of the shooting is first aired. In the comments section, one person speculates that CBS may have signed off earlier, having been able to already project Kennedy as the winner due to their own key precinct data, and NBC may have been off the air as well. Therefore, we're left with ABC's coverage, fortunately anchored by a steady hand of a veteran newsman like Howard K. Smith.

Much like the video of CBS breaking into As the World Turns with the first bulletin of JFK's shooting, this footage really gives you a "see it now" feeling of what must have been awful, sickening news. As the coverage continues (I think YouTube has nearly seven hours just from ABC alone), we begin to see still photos of Kennedy: lying sprawled on the floor after being shot, being tended to by bystanders, being lifted into an ambulance with an oxygen mask on. Regardless of how one feels about Robert Kennedy (and there were ample reasons one could dislike him), the juxtaposition of the young, vital, alive man who claimed victory in California and vowed, "Now it's on to Chicago," and the dying victim lapsing into unconsciousness after asking whether everyone was all right, is shocking.

In terms of news as it happens, coverage of the assassination of Robert Kennedy occupies a kind of middle ground between the frontiers broken by TV during the JFK assassination and the later ability of networks to smother us with coverage of breaking events as they unfold. If for no other reason, this remains an extraordinary artifact of American history, and the chance to see it exactly as the viewer saw it then is fascinating.

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