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How the JFK assassination transformed media coverage

Mourners look on during the burial and folding of the flag ceremony for former U.S. President John F. Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery
Mourners look on during the burial and folding of the flag ceremony for former U.S. President John F. Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery

By Jon Herskovitz

DALLAS (Reuters) - Six seconds in Dallas 50 years ago changed the way media worked for decades to come.

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, was a transformative live, global TV news event. It swept an industry without a playbook for covering a breaking story of such magnitude and utterly changed how people receive their news.

For four days, starting with gunfire in Dallas and ending with Kennedy's funeral procession in Washington, major U.S. TV networks went live with wall-to-wall coverage, suspending commercials.

Other live TV news events followed, and the next time networks devoted as much time to commercial-free news broadcasts came with the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

"The Kennedy assassination became the template for coverage," said Bob Schieffer, who 50 years ago covered the event for the Fort Worth Star Telegram and is now a veteran broadcaster with CBS.

"We were working in one of the worst moments of the nation's life back then and we didn't know what to make of it, much like what happened on 9/11," he told Reuters.

The technology was primitive in 1963, but the idea was born of broadcasting live from the scene, having an anchor for the coverage and letting the images do the talking when possible.

Some of the tasks were daunting, such as moving studio TV cameras that weighed hundreds of pounds into places such as Dallas police headquarters and stringing heavy cables up a wall and through the police chief's office.

By the time the White House confirmed Kennedy's death just after 1:30 that Friday, 45.4 percent of U.S. homes with a television had their sets in use, according to ratings agency Nielsen.

On Monday, soon after the caisson carrying Kennedy's coffin arrived at Arlington National Cemetery, 81 percent of U.S. homes with a television had their sets in use, one of the highest TV ratings in U.S. history, Nielsen said.

'TV NATION'

Mourning and a sense of loss were visceral, with a survey at the time saying about two-thirds of Americans watching the events fell ill or felt emotional distress.

Newspapers and radio were the main sources of news the day before the assassination, but the pendulum had swung.

"This is when America became a TV nation," said Patty Rhule, a senior manager of exhibits at the Newseum, a museum for the news industry in Washington.

In 1950 only 9 percent of U.S. households had television. By 1960 it was 90 percent, and the telegenic Kennedy family was part of the draw.

The look of TV changed as well as the technology. At the time of the assassination, NBC and ABC anchors broadcast from studios that slightly resembled living rooms.

Yet the enduring video image is of Walter Cronkite reporting on Kennedy's death for CBS, which moved its camera to the newsroom - a decision that seemed to increase the authority of its broadcasts and which others would follow.

Instant replay, a technology CBS planned to roll out a few weeks later for the Army-Navy college football game, made its national debut when Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby shot suspected assassin Lee Harvey Oswald dead in the basement of the Dallas police building.

Japan's first satellite TV broadcast carried news of the JFK assassination. The initial plan was to receive a prerecorded message from Kennedy. Instead, Japanese learned of his death.

CYNICISM IN A SMALLER WORLD

"The fact that the tragedy was brought live into people's houses made for compelling viewing, no matter where you were," said Gary Mack, curator of The Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, housed in the former Texas School Book Depository from which Oswald shot Kennedy.

"TV networks realized it was so much easier to connect to people and also that they now had to be prepared to cover everything," said Mack, whose museum is the main holder of documents and artifacts surrounding the assassination.

Reporters were given far more access than is imaginable today, walking up to the body of the president at Parkland Hospital, where he was taken.

They camped out with police, demanding Oswald be paraded before them. Much was caught on camera, surprising many viewers with the rawness of how news was put together.

After Ruby shot Oswald, the first murder broadcast nationally on U.S. television, Dallas police mostly ended the "perp walk" for cameras.

American officials generally started to keep the media at a greater distance, with many other governments following suit. Cynicism also grew in the public, with many asking if the official version of Oswald acting alone were true.

The Vietnam War, race riots in U.S. cities as well as the assassinations of JFK's brother and civil rights leader Martin Luther King further disillusioned many Americans in the 1960s.

"From that weekend, we began to question everything in the country," said Schieffer, "even things that we had taken for granted."

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Prudence Crowther)

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