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News cameras became ubiquitous in the days following the assassination - even capturing the shooting by Jack Ruby of the JFK killing suspect Lee Harvey Oswald, seen above centre. AP Photo via Press Association

How JFK killing put TV at centre of homes

The assassination 50 years ago unfolded in real time in people’s homes as coverage went on uninterrupted for days.

TELEVISION TOOK ITS central role in the American home after President John F Kennedy’s assassination, a national trauma that unfolded in real time and was uniquely suited to the emerging medium.

Coverage of the tragedy and its aftermath saw television programming and news broadcasts that went on uninterrupted for days, innovations never before seen on the young device.

In another first, it also captured the fatal shooting of accused Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald while cameras rolled.

Being catapulted into the limelight brought with it a newfound sense of weight and importance, according to television journalists who covered the tragedy.

“We realised, even on that day, that we had more responsibility on our hands than we had ever had before – we in television in particular,” Bob Huffaker, a former reporter at Dallas station KRLD, told AFP, as America marks 50 years since Kennedy was slain.

“TV came of age that weekend”

“Three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade in downtown Dallas” read a dispatch by US news agency UPI, at around 12:34pm on 22 November, 1963.

At 12:40pm, CBS television made what was considered at the time the radical decision to interrupt one of its most popular programmes, the soap opera As The World Turns, to inform Americans of the news.

It was the nation’s avuncular television newsman Walter Cronkite who broke the news of Kennedy’s shooting. See at 3:20 as he confirms the last rites have been carried out on JFK:

via Max Power/Youtube

It was a sombre Cronkite, in shirt sleeves. He removed his glasses (see 5:00) and made the announcement that the dashing young president was dead – a moment that has become seared into the American consciousness.

“It’s one of those images that people who witnessed it will never forget,” said Cathy Trost, vice president of The Newseum in Washington, DC dedicated to newsmaking and gathering.

“TV came of age that weekend,” she said. “TV surpassed newspapers as the leading source of news for Americans.”

Pierce Allman, who at the time was the director of programming at WFAA in Dallas, said television station managers “scrapped all the regular programming for three days and three nights” to fill the grieving nation’s insatiable hunger for information.

The rapid unfolding of events marked America’s transition from a print news culture to a television society.

Americans were transfixed by a succession of televised images: the return of the president’s casket from Dallas to Washington; the swearing in of new president Lyndon Johnson; the arrival of shooting suspect Oswald at a Dallas police station.

via HelmerReenberg/Youtube

The Nielsen rating agency said 45 per cent of American television sets had tuned in for news about the president’s wellbeing. More than eight sets in 10 tuned in for Kennedy’s funeral the following Monday.

Even today, Americans recall having been unable to take their eyes from the unfolding tragedy.

“We just stayed in home, we had to know, we had to be in contact with the TV, that was our source of information,” said Martha Prince Michals, 89, a nursing home resident in Dallas.

David Greenberg, a journalism professor at Rutgers University in the northeastern US state of New Jersey, said that with the coverage of the Kennedy tragedy, television forged a role as a serious news media and showed it had a unique role to play:

The assassination mattered because it firmed up…the ‘cultural authority’ of the press, especially of television.

The medium “became the place we turned to in times of crisis, to explain, to comfort, to bind us to our fellow citizens.”

Television, the “window of the world”

The four tumultuous days that followed the shooting were like none other ever experienced in the United States, and television, news professionals said, rose to the occasion.

“Television had actually become the window of the world so many had hoped it might be one day,” said ABC news presenter Ron Cochran,

In its new role filming dramatic events as they unfolded, television captured the assassination of Kennedy’s killer.

With cameras rolling, as a throng of journalists shouted questions at him, a man emerged from the crowd, pointed a gun, and fired. Jack Ruby had just assassinated the president’s killer, another chilling first, captured on TV.

via CNN/Youtube

Trost said the coverage of the Kennedy killing and its aftermath since then has been matched only by the blanket television coverage of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

And, Trost noted, even though the medium television long ago cemented its place in society, America’s media landscape continues to evolve.

“Today it would be very likely that news would break on social networks,” she said.

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