September 18, 2019

When news breaks

A few weeks ago, I mentioned how Smithsonian had become my go-to channel for those times when I feel like watching a little TV, but don't have anything particular in mind. Not everything on it captures my interest, but some shows are far more interesting than you might be prepared for, and before you know it you're 45 minutes into a program you were only going to have on for a minute or two before you started working on something, and that something is still sitting in front of you, unworked-on and giving you dirty looks that you don't notice because you're too interested in the TV.

At any rate, one of the series on the channel is called America in Color, and the title pretty much gives it away: rare home movies or colorized footage that gives you an idea of what a particular period in American history looked like to the people who lived through it. As far as colorization goes, I'm ambivalent about it: it should rarely, if ever, be done to movies, because it alters the artistic judgment of the director and often ruins the effectiveness of the movie. (Try watching a colorized noir movie, and you'll see what I mean.) There are times, though, when colorization can bring an entirely new dimension to a piece of footage, especially something of a historical nature. An excellent example of this is Peter Jackson's amazing documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, in which World War I film footage was colorized and restored to extraordinary effect.

But enough of the prologue; one particular episode was all about the 1960s, which included a segment, naturally, on the assassination of President Kennedy. Early in the segment, the narrator, Liev Schreiber, says that "for the first time ever, network television is interrupted" by the "three-shots-were-fired" bulletin. This just didn't sound right to me; networks had covered inaugurations, presidential speeches and press conferences, space shots, the March on Washington, and the like, and unfolding stories had been covered on morning and evening news shows, but these were, to varying degrees, planned events that TV was covering, even if they were interrupting regularly scheduled programming, rather than "breaking news" bulletin as we understand it. It's possible that the episode's writers meant that this was the first instance of continuous coverage of a news story, but it was hard to believe that until 1963, a television program had never been interrupted for an unscheduled, unplanned news bulletin.

In cases like this I look to my go-to news experts for guidance, and one of them, the redoubtable Jodie Peeler of Garroway at Large, came up with some fascinating information. You might remember that last year, Jodie had a terrific story about how The Today Show, in its first month on the air, was presented with the news of the death of Britain's King George VI, one hour before going on the air.*

*How long has Queen Elizabeth been on the throne? Put it this way: Dave Garroway was host of Today.

Well, she said that this claim about the JFK assassination didn't sound right to her either, and after doing some digging she produced this little gem of TV history, which I share with you courtesy of A.R. Hogan. It's an excerpt from an interview that Hogan conducted with former NBC News producer James W. Kitchell, and wouldn't you know it—the subject of news bulletins just happens to come up:

James W. Kitchell: I had been asked to go to Boston because William McAndrew had recently moved to New York, as a vice president and director of news, and I was in broadcast operations. And it was interesting that one of the reasons that took me into the news at NBC—I was a senior supervisor in the evenings of broadcast operation, and there was a rumor that Joseph Stalin had died. And I went to Bill McAndrew, and I said, “Bill, it seems to me that this story, if it’s true, is obvious! Why don't you pre-write the bulletin in the off-hours in the evenings and so forth, and I will be personally responsible for it to get it on the air if it is confirmed, and we get the bulletin that it has happened.” And he agreed. And after that, I never would have suggested that again to pre-write a bulletin! [??] As a result—it was 13 seconds from the time that the bulletin bells rang on the AP wire machine, until we had it on the air in primetime.

A.R. Hogan: That was probably a five-bell story, I would think.

JWK: Yes, it was. It was indeed.

ARH: Thirteen seconds!?

JWK: Yes.

ARH: Wow!

JWK: The bells rang down in the newsroom, and they called me, and we said, “Go!”

ARH: So, you put on a bulletin slide, because you wouldn't I guess have had a flash studio.

JWK: Yeah. It was in [NBC] Broadcast Operations, and there were some pre-arrangements made—I had a slide ready, and so we went. And as I said, the bulletin had been pre-written, so I had the copy. 

Wow, indeed! Joseph Stalin died in 1953, ten years before the JFK assassination, so if this is not the first national news bulletin to interrupt regular programming, at least it shows that the assassination was definitely not the first. And the Stalin bulletin was in primetime, no less.

Now, as I say, it could be that the program was talking about continuous network coverage, in which case the claim is probably right;* I think even the Cuban Missile Crisis was covered through periodic bulletins (you can imagine what it would be like today). The point is, words mean things, and we need to be precise when we use them, especially when we're making grand claims. The JFK story was big enough without having to embellish its historical significance.

*News history buffs will be reminded of the story of Kathy Fiscus, the three-year-old girl who fell down a well in 1949, and how KTLA provided live coverage of the attempted rescue. This was quite likely the first time such continuous coverage had ever been done anywhere, but although the story received national attention, the television coverage itself was local.

Ultimately, though, what I find far more interesting than this question of what was "first" was the story of how the bulletin of Stalin's death came to make it to our home televisions. You never know where a little investigating will take you. Thanks again to Jodie for the sleuthing, and to A.R. for allowing me to share it here. TV  


  1. Thank you much for the kind words, Mitchell - but I do have to give credit where it's due. That post about the death of King George VI that appeared on my site was the work of Brandon Hollingsworth, my trusted associate on all things Garroway.

    I'm happy to read this post, regardless. There's a lot of myths that get repeated, and as a trained historian it's always irksome when things like this get passed along without being checked out. After a while, good luck setting the record straight....

  2. I'm sure my grandmom was watching "Young Doctor Malone" the soap opera during the Cuban Missile Crisis and saw bulletins too.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!