Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Shadows of a Distant, Dark Weekend, Viewed Through a Box

I’ve spent this past weekend in a time machine. 

To mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, CBS News made the decision to stream all four days of its 1963 live coverage over the Internet, from the moment the network broke into its normal programming Friday afternoon, to the conclusion of the day of the funeral. I managed to catch moments over each of the last four days, breaking in occasionally to watch as the day would allow. I carried with me the memory of hearing my parents talk about watching it over that long weekend. 

It was said almost immediately that no single event in human history was ever experienced by mankind quite like the assassination of President Kennedy. When the television drama “Mad Men” depicted the Kennedy Assassination in its episode, “The Grown Ups,” the characters spent much of the weekend glued to their televisions, even as their own lives unravel. 

One of the (many) reasons that weekend is endlessly replayed on television is that it is the first truly major event that television was able to cover adequately as it was happening. Prior to the shooting in Dallas, Americans relied on print media – newspapers and magazines – to inform them. Television was less than 20 years old as a cultural institution when the first reports came from Dealey Plaza, but the way the event unfolded on the medium was the first indication that television news “had arrived.” Reporters had acquired enough seasoning, technology had learned how to employ satellite linkups, and the event itself was tailor-made for what television was able to capture. After Dallas, events would never again be allowed to slowly percolate and mature long enough for someone behind a typewriter to craft the words. Now pictures would largely tell the story, and at the moment they unfolded.  

The network that did the most to distinguish itself that day was CBS News. Its coverage did not begin auspiciously. The newsroom cameras were not turned on when news broke shortly after 12:30 p.m. from Dallas. It took about 20 minutes, once the cameras were turned on, for them to begin transmitting a picture. And so Walter Cronkite was forced to read the news from a radio booth over a title card reading “CBS News Bulletin.” The network broke into the popular soap opera “As The World Turns” to begin its coverage. 

At first, all Cronkite had to rely on were the initial Associated Press and United Press International bulletins from the scene. In Dallas, UPI’s Merriman Smith dictated an item to the wire service over a press pool car phone – “Three shots were fired today at President Kennedy’s motorcade in downtown Dallas.” – just as the press car was pulling into Parkland Memorial Hospital.  It moved at 12:34 p.m., and within five minutes, Smith dictated a flash from the hospital – “Kennedy seriously wounded perhaps seriously perhaps fatally by assassins bullet.” His source was Clint Hill, the Secret Service agent who climbed onto the back of the president’s car following the shots. “He’s dead,” Hill said, but Smith hedged his words, waiting for official confirmation. 

Cronkite’s first bulletin went on the air at 12:40 p.m. For the next 20 minutes, CBS waited for the cameras to become ready while Cronkite continued to gather details from the wires.  Only a few seconds into his broadcast, Cronkite relayed the news that Kennedy’s wounds “could be fatal.”
Journalism at its best is the transmission of objective truth about a particular event, person or time. At its worst, it is the spreading of unverified speculation or invention for notoriety’s sake. It is now possible, 50 years after the fact, to see that some of the theories that came about regarding the death of President Kennedy began in the first white hot moments after. Television made the assassination a communal event, uniting the nation in consuming the facts of the moment, raw and unnerving as it was. Not everyone grieved, but a great majority did, and all were spellbound by what a character in Oliver Stone’s JFK would call “the epic splendor” of an event that was “thought-numbing.” 

In those first few moments, Cronkite – as well as his colleagues and rivals at NBC and ABC – struggled to make sense of a story when news crews still relied largely on motion picture film shot live and then developed to be shown later. Live television broadcasts were possible, but the technology was still in its infancy. The funeral of JFK, as well as the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald two days later, would be broadcast as they happened, but the hardware necessary to do so was not yet in place in Dallas that afternoon, except when the networks, using local affiliates, went to the Dallas Trade Mart to show the banquet hall where the president had been expected to speak. 

And since most of those voices were in New York or Washington, they occasionally would repeat information that was speculative based on fragments from the scene. For example, early reports were that, as the shots rang out in Dealey Plaza, policeman began running up the hill that Cronkite first referred to as “the Grassy Knoll.” A man and a woman crouched on the hill when they heard gunfire and police ran past them. These facts were reported, but they were later construed to mean that the police believed a man and a woman on the knoll had shot Kennedy, and had subsequently been arrested. Eddie Barker, a Dallas newsman, later reported this as a man and a woman on the ledge of a building near the triple underpass at the plaza as being responsible. Cronkite, to his credit, simply said it was not known at the time positively if the shots came from that area. 

There were also early reports that a Secret Service agent had been killed at the scene as well. This was later reported as being confirmed by the Dallas Police. The record was corrected several hours later, but by that time, it was reported that Oswald had shot and killed a policeman in the Texas Theatre as he was being arrested. These jumbled bulletins gave the impression of a much larger, more chaotic story unfolding in the wake of the president’s death. And as is true today, a segment of the population will always believe the first news they hear from any event, accepting it as somehow more authentic than later, more clarifying information, that they assume is somehow an official, dishonestly arrived-at version invented to obscure or create an artificial narrative. 

In the first few minutes, it was also reported that Vice President Lyndon Johnson was perhaps wounded, based on eyewitness accounts that he came into the hospital walking and holding his arm. This, though, turned out to be Johnson’s reaction once he was let out of the car after one of his Secret Service detail had used his own body to shield the Vice President’s. 

There were also various reports on other networks of the shooter being, perhaps, a 25-year-old man, a 30-year-old, “a Negro,” or two men. Later reports, as the days unfolded, had speculation that Oswald had perhaps shot Texas Gov. John Connally because of frustration over his discharge from the Marine Corps, as Connally had formerly been Secretary of the Navy. There were many other instances of this. 

As an observer, it took a little while to get used to the cadences of television from that era. As I mentioned earlier, in 1963 news footage that wasn’t live was largely being shot on motion picture film without sound. When edited and shown later, it was common for studio personalities to either comment over the pictures, describing what the audience was seeing, or to read some kind of description or essay. There were also long stretches during the televised coverage when there was no commentary at all. This was more in evidence during the funeral portions of the coverage. Being used to modern television, where dead air is anathema, I was occasionally heartened not to have a voice superimposed over the action, telling me how I should feel about it. There were other times when I couldn’t help but long for such a voice. 

But I find myself a little disappointed now that the four days are over. At times, I would see the television news personalities and reporters that would have been familiar to viewers in 1963 and I wondered about their individual stories – not just in relation to the Kennedy assassination but beyond television and their careers. I wondered about the faces of people who watched the caisson roll down Pennsylvania Avenue to the sound of those relentless muffled drums, old and young, male and female. What unfolded in their lives beyond that weekend?  Of course, I know what happened to the nation, but how did they individually go on with their lives. Was this just a momentary brush with history, or did it have some kind of lasting effect on them individually? In the chilly air outside the Capitol, the masses that shuffled in spellbound lines to catch a glimpse of the flag-drapped coffin lived in an America that did not know yet that the Beatles existed, where Richard Nixon’s political career was considered over, and the idea of a black man ever being elected President seemed as distant as a phone you could carry in your pocket. 

L.P. Hartley’s famous observation – “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there…”  - came home to me several times watching television from 50 years ago. A studio full of newsmen discussing the biggest story of their lives and interviewing the leading newsmakers of the day, with all of them puffing away on cigarettes, sometimes gave me the feeling of watching a newscast given in a bar. The faces reading the news – and interviewed in gathering the news – were almost always white and male. One of the most poignant images was a black worker weeping at the Dallas luncheon Kennedy never arrived at. When a camera recorded the reaction of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., there was  a sense from the report that all of black America had been heard from and no further interview was necessary from that segment of the population.  

It was a different, more informal time, as well. There was a telling moment when Oswald was shot by Jack Ruby in the basement of the Dallas Police headquarters. The room is full of newsmen from all over the world, and television cameras carrying the action live. CBS relied on the local affiliate for coverage, and switched to Dallas at the moment just after Oswald was shot. Police begin scuffling with Ruby while Oswald is shuffled to another part of the building and an ambulance is called. Reporters begin interviewing each other and any policeman they can find who will confirm what happened or describe the action. The press of humanity becomes so great that several times, reporters have to shoved out of the way of the television camera so they don’t obscure the action. But then, police come back into the basement to cordon off the area and allow the ambulance through. A policeman stands right in front of the camera, his gun visible in its holster hanging at his side. One sees a hand not belonging to the cop precariously close to his gun. (Remember, just five minutes before, the suspect in the town’s biggest murder had just been gunned down in a room full of policemen.) From another side, comes another hand, belonging to a reporter, brushing up against the gun and asking the policeman to squat down so the camera can record the action. The policeman, in deference to the reporter, and in an act which would never be repeated by any policeman today, obliges. 

Probably most distressing was the level of discourse. The pictures may have been in black and white, but the word choices were kaleidoscopic. There was a much higher level of nuance in conversation, and a sense in the reporting that great events were passing before the eyes of those describing them, and therefore, great words should be given. This wasn’t always the case, but there was serious, visible effort. Where now there would be allusions to movies and a familiar bank of well-worn pop culture catchphrases, half a century ago newsmen drew on great literature, which was both familiar to them and their audience. For at least two nights, CBS closed with concerts of classical music conducted by Leonard Bernstein, something that would be unthinkable on any network today save public television. There was a sense of civic responsibility in the reporting, the coverage, and the tone of the weekend, a sensibility that today would be ridiculed or questioned for either being too partisan or not partisan enough. The air wasn’t thick with the unmistakable aroma of snark that seems to infect every crevice of our conversation. 

I do not for a moment mean to suggest that when John F. Kennedy was killed half a century ago that our nation forgot how to talk to itself, or that something passed from the world that will never again fill the air. I don’t believe that to be the truth at all, and in any case, it would take more than one singular event to do so. The history of the sixties and after can provide enough clues. But I would suggest that if we stayed with that broadcast beyond the four days, we might see in the years that followed what the pictures coming from that box had to do in shaping the world we inherited, and we might mourn the passing of something larger than one human life, no matter how great.  

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 
Read a piece I did for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
Read another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 

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