October 17, 2018

Reliving the RFK assassination with CBS newsman Joseph Benti

Joseph Benti breaking the news of Robert F. Kennedy's shooting on June 5, 1968
If this was a perfect world, I would have published this in a more timely manner, perhaps in June or July. Of course, if this was a perfect world, I'd also be retired with something like a million dollars in the bank, so I wouldn't have to apologize for not publishing things in a more timely manner.

The topic is the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in June, 1968 (hence the wish for timeliness), and through the good fortunes of my friend Marc Ryan and the assistance of Jennifer Cooper at the University of Iowa School of Journalism and Mass Communication*, I was able to get in touch with former CBS newsman Joseph Benti to chat with him about his involvement in television coverage of the RFK assassination. At the time, Joseph Benti was anchor of the CBS Morning News, as well as a correspondent covering the campaign for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination. He was the first CBS man on the air with the shocking news of Kennedy's shooting, and if you go on YouTube and watch the videos of that coverage, you'll see that Benti is the lead anchor for that early coverage, even after he's joined in the studio by Walter Cronkite and Mike Wallace.

*I've talked with so many nice people from Iowa during the course of my TV writing, I may have to take back all the things Minnesotans typically say about Iowans. 

Having watched Benti on YouTube, and having been very impressed with the work he did, I felt compelled to contact him, to be able to talk to someone who had not only lived through it, but was in the rare position to know what it was actually like—not what we read after the fact, not what people remembered seeing on TV, but someone who was there. I suppose we're all born with that desire, somewhere inside us, to not just know but to understand.*

*This isn't the first time I've written fairly extensively about television's coverage of RFK's assassination; see here for a look at ABC's extraordinary breaking-news coverage, and here for a general look at the time.

I would turn eight in May of that year, and I was, thanks to my mother, already a political junkie, so so, as was the case with the earlier assassination of Martin Luther King, I knew something significant had happened. Still, I was only eight, and no matter how interested one might be, there's only so much of the adult word that an eight-year-old is going to be able to really get. I suppose that's part of why I'm interested in the news of that era (as well as classic TV in general); it's this urge to stretch my arm out, to actually touch and feel what was happening during the early years of my life, at a time when their comprehension was just out of my reach.

Even 50 years after the fact, Benti still remembered the evening well. The vote count in California had been very, very slow, and it wasn't until after midnight in California—3:00 a,m. in New York, where Benti was located for the morning news—that Kennedy made his way to the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel to claim victory before his cheering supporters; by that time, CBS had already signed off. "The CBS Morning News [of which Benti was anchor at the time] started at 7:00, and there was this bar across the street from the studio where I was having a waker-upper. It was called The Slate, and a bunch of us were there, and I was nursing a drink, staying awake essentially, until it was time for the news. Then there was someone saying, "Bobby's been shot," and we ran back to the studio and said we had to get back on the air."

Once on the air, Benti kept viewers apprised of what was going on, along with CBS reporter Terry Drinkwater, who was at the Ambassador. "It wasn't like it is today with 24-hour news channels," he said. "We had to update the story, always refresh it." Being that it was the middle of the night, people could be tuning in at any time. "We were reading stories off the teletype as they came in." After about a half-hour, he was joined on-air by Walter Cronkite and Mike Wallace. "Wallace was trying to take over the story!" Benti remembered, remembering how Wallace at one point practically forced his way into the picture. (above) Cronkite—"we called him 'iron-cast bladder' Cronkite," Benti said with a laugh—was asked if he wanted to take over the main anchor duties, but he declined. saying, "Joe's doing just fine.".

The initial reports on Kennedy were mixed; some were even hopeful. Was this just a case of wishful thinking? "No," Benti said. "It wasn't until after the surgery, when  he didn't get any better, that things just kept getting worse. Then we knew." Kennedy died at the Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles, where he'd been taken after initially being stabilized at Central Receiving Hospital, an emergency hospital where police gunshot wounds were often treated, and that fact led to another recollection. "For years I'd remembered it as St. Vincent's Hospital," Benti said. "And then I was talking recently to a reporter and he mentioned it was Good Samaritan, and here I'd remembered it wrong all these years."

Benti talking with John Hart from the hospital.
At the time we talked, Kennedy's son, Robert, Jr., had voiced his belief that Sirhan Sirhan was not his father's killer. Was that possible, I asked Benti. "No," he replied. "It's all acoustics." He could understand why someone like RFK Jr. might feel there had been more shots fired, or there had been a second gunman; nevertheless, "There's an echo, and people think they hear more shots than there were." It was the same, Benti felt, as what had happened in Dealey Plaza in Dallas when JFK had been assassinated. In each case, he asserted, there was only one gunman, and there was no conspiracy.

I asked Benti what the atmosphere in the country was like, with this coming only two months after Martin Luther King's assassination; did it make him wonder, if things were spiraling out of control, coming apart at the seams? Actually," Benti replied, "we were really amazed there wasn't more unrest than there was," he said. The King assassination was the bombshell, the act that rocked everyone. After that, it was as if everyone was waiting for the other shoe to drop.  "What happened to King took the edge off Bobby."

There was something else I was curious about; several times during the coverage, both he and Cronkite alluded to the principle of "innocent until proven guilty," and that even though a suspect was in custody, and they would continue to report on any developments regarding that suspect, such stories should not be construed as evidence of or a suggestion that said suspect was guilty. That had been a problem when Lee Harvey Oswald was charged with the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 (perhaps inciting Jack Ruby to murder Oswald; who knows?), and it seemed that this was the network's effort to prevent such problems this time around. It sounded, I thought, as if it had come from CBS's legal department. "No," Benti said, it was actually from CBS News president Richard Salant. "Salant was a lawyer, I think, before he came to CBS, and he was always around when there was a big story going on. I think, I'm pretty sure, that he was the one who wrote that and insisted we say it."

I was curious about other things. Over the years—perhaps starting even that night—there developed what I'd call a mythology that held as gospel the idea that Kennedy not been assassinated, he would have won the Democratic nomination and even the presidency. Things were different back then, though; in 1968, most national convention delegates were still chosen through a combination of state conventions, caucuses, and meetings controlled by party bosses; only fourteen states held primaries, of which California's winner-take-all on June 4 was by far the largest. (Humphrey didn't even enter the primaries, instead employing surrogate "favorite son" candidates in several states.) Even counting Kennedy's victory in California, CBS's delegate count gave Humphrey a significant lead; with 1,3,12 delegates needed for the nomination, Humphrey had 1,067½, compared to Kennedy's 622½, and McCarthy's 305. (The favorite sons had 492.) I asked Benti what the sense was back then among newsmen. Would Bobby have won the nomination had he lived? "No," he replied without hesitation. "Nixon and Hubert [Humphrey] were shoo-ins." At that point, the pollster Lou Harris had begun conducting vote profile analysis, in an effort to determine accurate data on voter activity. Bobby, Benti said, "generated excitement. He was a powerful force in our minds. But Humphrey had the party behind him."

We then went on to talk about other things, both past and current. For example, Benti talked about the 1965 Watts riots, which he had covered as a reporter and political editor at KCBS, Channel 2 in Los Angeles. "Pat Brown, the governor, was out of the country [in Athens, Greece*] when it started," Benti recalled. "I called the lieutenant governor's office, and I finally got through to his assistant, and I said 'look, this is a rebellion, not a riot.'" No wonder Kennedy's assassination seemed more like the other shoe dropping.

*Attending the World Congress of the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association, an important ethnic constituency for Brown.

We talked a bit about television in general, and here I owe Joe Benti a great deal for helping me to follow up on that idea of television as an intimate medium, one that requires and forms a special connection with a viewer, and the influence it can thereby have. In talking about that influence, Benti referenced commercials of the late '60s and '70s, ones that incorporated males and females of different races and ethnicities.* Is it not true, he said, that these commercials helped shape the thoughts of viewers, to incline them to be more accepting, more comfortable, with an integrated landscape? "It was a commercial choice," he said, and a "commercial powerhouse" like a Coke commercial produces an image that "gives visibility" to ideas like integration. And if viewers see something on television long enough, they're likely to become more accepting of it.

*Although I don't believe it was mentioned by name, I'm thinking here of something like that "I'd like to teach the world to sing" commercial by Coke, but for that matter, it could have been any commercial that showed blacks and whites interacting as if it were the most normal thing in the world.

In talking about television news, Benti pointed out that television is "a personal medium," one that requires personalities that can make that personal connection with the viewer. He thought that there were some "young, excellent, intelligent" journalists out there, and he was particularly bullish on Brian Williams of MSNBC, whom he thought at the gravitas and ability to communicate the news clearly and effectively. "It's important that we have a strong Fourth Estate," he said, but he was very concerned that too many journalists had ceded editorial control over their work, that in major ways "the value system is corrupted" by pressures both external (political) and internal (budgets, ratings, profitability).

On that topic, he concluded with a story about Dan Rather that I found both illuminating and informative. He said that he always had the feeling Rather was "sizing me up," looking to move in on Benti's position. Rather called Benti an "invisible man," and by that he meant that Benti refused to make himself a part of the story. He related a story about the 1968 Democratic Convention, one in which both Rather and Mike Wallace had been almost confrontational in their aggressiveness in pursuing their stories, inserting themselves into the drama, as when Rather was roughed up by security forces, and police removed Wallace from the convention floor (above). "That was fine for them, that's the way they operated," he said. "I felt it was important to be in the background. I was not the story."

I thanked Joseph Benti; he'd been very generous, at his age and given that we were talking in the morning, spending time with someone who was not a professional reporter, sharing his memories of something that had happened long ago. "Have a happy life," he said, and I'll be doing my best to accomplish just that. TV  

2 comments:

  1. Sometime in the distant past, I put in a comment about the RFK shooting and my high school graduation, which took place on the same day in 1968.
    Fifty years ago.
    A week or so ago, I happened to mention that I had gone to a Class Of '68 reunion of the OLCHS Spartans, who are all pushing 70 (and 70 is starting to push back).
    My decision to go was literally at the last minute; since I didn't order an advance ticket, I was spared the indignity of an ID badge with my class picture on it.
    As it was, my hopes that no one would recognize me on sight were dashed within minutes (I had no such similar luck with most of my classmates; fifty years had the expected effect on most of them).
    I didn't stay very long; I bypassed the dinner and "dance", and was out the door in little more than an hour ($120 down the drain).
    But I suppose what you'd like to know is what the Class of '68 (+50) had to recall about the RFK Incidents.
    Well … maybe somebody said something to somebody else after I left, but for the hour or so that I was there - nothing.
    Like the whole thing never happened.
    That's what fifty years will do to you, when you have a whole life to live.
    So take that for what it's worth …

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  2. This is a terrific piece. Thank you sir

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!