JFK Assassination & TV: Lesser-Known Facts and Thoughts from Paley Curatorial

The Paley Center commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of the thirty-fifth president of the United States with a look at some of the lesser-known facts about the media coverage of the national tragedy. Also you can watch a video of the #PaleyLive event with novelists James Ellroy and Thomas Mallon in conversation about the continuing fascination the assassination holds on our culture, and read a blog about how this anniversary coincides with other historical anniversaries. 

Compiled by Barry Monush

Compiled from CBS’s November 25, 1963, documentary Four Dark Days, as well as NBC’s weekend news coverage following the John F. Kennedy assassination, here are clips that you may be less familiar with involving the event and its aftermath.

1) President and Mrs. Kennedy arrive at Love Field on the morning of the assassination, blithely greeting the well-wishers in the crowd.

2) The first interruption of CBS’s afternoon lineup with reports of the assassination takes place during As the World Turns.

3) Information both accurate and inaccurate comes to the Dallas Trade Mart, the president’s intended destination before he was shot.

4) The Texas School Book Depository becomes instantly infamous because the shots fired at the president came from the building.

5) Similarly, the Texas Theatre becomes a part of history when accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald is arrested there.

6) The wounded Oswald is loaded into an ambulance following his shooting by Jack Ruby, to be taken to the very place President Kennedy died, Parkland Hospital.

7) The casket containing the remains of President Kennedy leaves the White House.

By Ron Simon

Why do we always see Walter Cronkite in Kennedy assassination retrospective shows?

We see Walter Cronkite because he decided to go to lunch late on November 22, 1963, and so was among the first to see the AP and UPI wire stories that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Texas. He immediately broke into a taped airing of As the World Turns and made a voiceover announcement over a static graphic. He made several more announcements with developments before the studio was ready to put him on camera in the newsroom. Like the seasoned journalist he was, Cronkite relied on the wire services for final confirmation. 

It was more chaotic on NBC where staff announcer Don Pardo made the first mention of the shooting. News reporter Frank McGee was pressed into service and was receiving his information over the phone from correspondent Robert McNeil in Dallas. Their coverage, although informative, did not match the gravitas of Cronkite at his desk informing the country of the death of the president as he removed his glasses and struggled with his emotions. 

Surprisingly, in the end, more people tuned into NBC’s coverage, anchored by Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, than Walter Cronkite and the CBS crew. It would be several years before Cronkite was able to overtake NBC’s popular anchor duo in the ratings.

Was there any precedent for network TV’s preemption of regular programming for four days?

Yes. When network executives realized that President Kennedy was killed and the nation was in a state of shock, many flashbacked to the death of President Roosevelt in April 1945. Roosevelt, still leading the World War II effort, died of a stroke, and the nation was stunned. Radio preempted regular programming to cover his funeral and burial. Frank Stanton, the elder statesman of the industry and then president of CBS, understood that television at this moment needed to be communal hearth of national healing as radio had been eighteen years before. In fact, knowing that music played a crucial part in Roosevelt’s time, Stanton prompted enlisted musicians to record appropriate orchestral music that could be used throughout the four days.

How soon did the nation know of the Zapruder film?

Within hours of the assassination Abraham Zapruder was interviewed on the ABC affiliate WFAA in Dallas and talked about his filming of the assassination. By the time the twenty-six second film was processed, Zapruder had hired a lawyer and several organizations, including Time-Life and CBS, were bidding on the rights to broadcast the material. Representing CBS, Dan Rather had screened the footage and described his reaction to the film during the weekend. Time-Life eventually won the negotiation and printed photos of the film in Life magazine. Although screened by the Warren Commission on 1964 and bootlegged among collectors, the Zapruder film would not be seen on television until 1975, broadcast on Good Night America with Geraldo Rivera.

Was there any programming of interest that was preempted over the November 22 weekend?

Yes, a Grammy special, on Sunday night November 24. The Grammys were not broadcast live in the early years, but packaged as a special program called The Best on Record. Ironically, the highlight of the 1963 program that would have aired was a performance by the comedian who received “Album of the Year” honors, Vaughn Meader for his comic parody of President Kennedy, The First Family.

How did the coverage of the Lee Harvey Oswald shooting presage a new technology?

Only NBC broadcast live the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby on Sunday November 24. CBS scrambled to catch up as quickly as possible with a slow motion replay of the shooting. Slow motion replays had been used in sports coverage since 1961. Coincidentally, an early form of instant replay would be launched on December 7, 1963, two weeks later, when CBS sports director Tony Verna utilized a technology to replay plays at real-time speed during the Army-Navy Game, which was dedicated to the memory of John Kennedy.


Event curated by Arthur Smith


To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the Paley Center brought together acclaimed authors James Ellroy (American Tabloid) and Thomas Mallon (Mrs. Paine’s Garage) on November 14, 2013, to discuss the impact of the tragic event on their own work and the continuing fascination it exerts on our popular narrative.

This compelling conversation touches on the essential mystery that still enshrouds this signal event in American history, the questions that remain unanswered about the bewilderingly complex circumstances that led to that fateful moment in Dallas, and the more profound questions about, to paraphrase Ellroy, the secret architecture behind such significant historical events.


by Rebecca Paller

Rebecca Paller explores how the anniversary of JFK's assassination coincides with several other historical anniversaries. Read the blog.