Sunday, November 17, 2013

How JFK's Assassination Changed Media and the SIXTIEs Generation

This week marks the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination, and while there already exists a plethora of sites dedicated to this American/World tragedy (some of which I will include below).

For our kids and students to fully comprehend the impact of the assassination and how it was reported, they also have to understand life as it was in the early 1960's. I hope this post empowers parents and teachers to do just that.

While there are posts and programs galore relating to this tragedy, most young viewers will be bombarded with images of bereavement, blood, and simulated events.  What they may not understand is that, as  Alessandra Stanley (NYTimes Weekend ArtsI Friday, 11/15/2003 pp.1, 12) notes...

"Modern television was born on the day John F. Kennedy died" 

...or as CBS anchor Bob Scheiffer (who was a local reporter in Dallas in 1963) described on "Face the Nation" in October, noted November 22nd:

"...was the weekend America lost its innocence."

These are wonderful quotes and well-worth a discussion, and to help parents and teachers, here are some things to keep in mind when discussing the assassination, its media coverage, and the impact the coverage had on Americans:
  • In the early 1960's most families had one television which the family watched (typically in their living rooms) together.
  • In the early 1960's most televisions (90%) were in black and white.  Color televisions, while introduces in the 1950's were frightfully expensive and it wasn't until  the mid-1960's that color sets were sold in large numbers (as most shows were still filmed and broadcast in black-and-white).
  • Popular songs were sung on live variety television shows such as The Ed Sullivan Show or American Bandstand."  There were no YouTube or web streamed music (or any type of) videos.
  • The FIRST animated weekly cartoon show aired in 1961 (The Flintstones) and the shows aired were 'good clean entertainment" whether they reflected "typical" (white) families or the wild West - there was little to no mention of social or cultural controversies.
  • In November, 1960 the FIRST Presidential debates were broadcast (and one clearly sees the charisma of the young Mr. Kennedy versus the older statesman Mr. Nixon. While Kennedy understood the impact of the visual image -at his inauguration he did not wear a coat as he wanted to appear young, strong, and virile), Mr, Nixon did not (and is seen sweating and stammering on the nationally broadcast debates).
  • JFK delivered 19 speeches in his nearly three years in office; was the first president to have his news conferences broadcast live.
Most importantly, to understand the cultural and emotional impact of the assassination, it's important for the younger generations to recognize that until the assassination, news was not aired 24/7. When news events happened, after collecting the 'facts' television shows would be "interrupted" with news feeds.

Only a few months earlier, CBS inaugurated the first half-hour evening network newscast (up from 15 minutes) with Walter Cronkite. Cronkite was the FIRST anchor present to announce the assassination of President Kennedy. There had been no television cameras (and only one professional press photographer on the ground) in Dealey Plaza at the time of the shooting. The president was shot at 1:30 PM EST/ 12:30 PM Central Time and CBS's Walter Cronkite was the first to announce it (within 8 minutes).  It took NBC and ABC a little longer to air the events. Once television took over the reporting, families gathered, stunned and heartbroken, in their living rooms, staying "glued to the television screen." The assassination took place on a Friday, Monday was proclaimed an national day of moruning, and Americans were captive audiences.  According to Nielson, 93% of the US homes watched the news coverage over the weekend, and more than half of them for 13 or more straight hours. From recapping Kennedy's shooting, to scenes at the hospital, the trip back to Washington, the lines of mourners coming to pay last respects, to the shooting of Oswald, the news did not stop.

Furthermore, the assassination was the FIRST national (or international) event that received continuous coverage. It also served as a vehicle for uniting all the bereaving.

News coverage from the assassination changed, setting new standards to how breaking news was reported.

Resources for studying JFK's Life and his Assassination :

A Guide to Television coverage of the Kennedy Assassination 50 years later (Note: some have already been aired but I include them nevertheless):
  •  ‘The Final Hours’’ (National Geographic Channel, Friday at 8 p.m. EST) - tracks the events 50 years ago, narrated by actor Bill Paxton, a native Texan who was in the crowds as a child and was there to hear the president speak.
  • ‘‘American Experience: JFK’’ (PBS, Nov. 11 and Nov. 12 at 9 p.m. EST) - a four-hour, two-part special about the life of JFK.
  • "Secrets of the Dead’: JFK: One PM Central Standard Time’’ (PBS, Nov. 13 at 10 p.m. EST) relaying the final hours and assassination as well as the impact of Cronkite's reporting.
  • ‘‘NOVA: Cold Case’’ (PBS, Nov. 13 at 9 p.m. EST) applies modern forensics to the lingering mysteries of the assassination.
  • ‘The Assassination of JFK (1963)’’ (CNN, Nov. 14 at 9 p.m. EST) - part of ‘‘The Sixties,’’  10-part documentary series co-produced with Tom Hanks. This first edition will explore the key conclusions of the Warren Commission.
  • ‘‘As It Happened: John F. Kennedy 50 Years’’ (CBS, Nov. 16 at 9 p.m. EST) - anchored by Bob Schieffer who covered the story in Dallas in 1963.
  • ‘‘The Day Kennedy Died’’ (Smithsonian Channel, Nov. 17 at 9 p.m. EST)
  • ‘Letters to Jackie’’ (TLC, Nov. 17 at 9 p.m. EST) -a roster of celebrities to read a selection of the over 800,000 condolence letters sent to first lady Jacqueline Kennedy and her family in the two months following the assassination.
  •  ‘‘JFK: The Lost Tapes’’ (Discovery, Nov. 21 at 7 p.m. EST) - supplements archived tapes with newly released recordings from Air Force One and other remastered sources.
  • "Lee Harvey Oswald: 48 Hours to Live’’ (History, Nov. 22 at 10 p.m. EST).
  • ‘‘JFK Assassination: The Definitive Guide’’ (History, Nov. 22 at 8 p.m. EST) - polling results of thousands of Americans regarding what they do and do not believe today regarding the shooting and who was responsible.
  • ‘‘Where Were You?’’ (NBC, Nov. 22 at 9 p.m. EST) - anchored by Tom Brokaw, combines archival footage with first-person accounts of those (including famous Americans and ordinary citizens) who lived through it

As always, thank you for your visit.

Please leave your memories of this tragic event or of its coverage or even the times in the comments.


  1. Thank you for this look back. I was six years old at the time of this tragic event and remember watching it over and over again with my dad. Although I am sure at that age I did not yet recognize the impact of this event I did understand that the world as I new it was no longer.

  2. Ah, yes. I'm writing about it on Friday. I remember it too well.

  3. Oh, the CBS Sunday Morning was HEAVILY about JFK on Nov 17

  4. This is a great post to let younger people know how this senseless act changed our world immensely.

    abcw team

  5. Now I know why news cameras follow anyone who is someone around. They hope that disaster will befall them, and they will be the first on the scene to report it.

    I wasn't yet born when JFK was assassinated, but my husband remembers it. It was a tragic loss. The world might have been different now if we had kept him. My husband has his speculations on it.

  6. I remember an announcement over the PA - I was in gr. 5 in Totonto. I remember rushing home and watching the events unfold over the weekend. 11 years later my father would die on Nov. 22.

    1. Oh, I am so sorry for your loss - even though it's been so many years, it must have been horrible. Thank you so much for sharing and commenting here.

  7. The Cronkite clip is a powerful piece of television. The BBC is clearing three hours on its most popular radio station (radio 2) to re-enact minute by minute the event from half an hour before the trigger was pulled onwards.

  8. Very interesting post. Although I was only in first grade when President Kennedy was assassinated I remember it well. Carver, ABC Wed. Team

  9. I was younger, but remember well yhis tragic event.