Why TV holds eternal flame for JFK

Posted: November 22, 2013

WHEN I think of television and the assassination of the first president who made the medium his own, the first image is never of the handsome head snapping back, the pretty woman in the pink suit clambering onto the trunk of the moving car.

It's not even of CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite.

It's of a scrawny man in a crowded hallway, his face twisting as he's shot and killed on live TV as I sit, watching, at my father's feet.

"Did you see that?" my father shouts, rising out of his chair as Lee Harvey Oswald sinks from sight. "They've shot him!"

I did see it, but at 6, I might not have realized exactly what I'd seen until he translated the image for me. And we probably wouldn't have been watching TV together on that Sunday in 1963 if the assassination of President John F. Kennedy two days earlier hadn't brought television as we knew it to a halt to make way for the kind of saturation coverage that was then unique.

We didn't have 24-hour cable news. We had ABC, CBS and NBC.

What we also didn't have, at least not until Oswald stepped in front of the cameras for his perp walk, was anything akin to the searing, repetitive images of jets slicing through skyscrapers that accompanied coverage of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

If Kennedy were to be shot in Dallas today, 1,000 smartphones would record it from every angle, each ensuing YouTube video no doubt giving rise to its own conspiracy theory.

We had only those carefully selected and much-scrutinized frames from Abraham Zapruder's home movie in Life magazine's next issue. The film itself wouldn't make it to television for nearly a dozen more years, premiering on Geraldo Rivera's "Good Night America" on March 6, 1975.

Over time, those moving pictures may eventually have become part of a shared false memory of the assassination, but on Nov. 22, 1963, when the principal of St. Rose of Lima came into my first-grade classroom to announce that the president had been shot, I assumed it had happened a block or two from my Brooklyn school, little imagining that nuns had access to TV and radio.

Sent home from school early, I found my mother, unusually for her, in front of the TV. Cronkite, who'd broken the news of Kennedy's death on CBS, was still talking, I think. I could tell she'd been crying.

It would be nearly four days before television returned to anything approaching a normal schedule, but the set in the living room was a more insistent presence than usual. No one seemed to know what might happen next, and no one wanted to be disconnected from the wider world for very long.

Even without the on-screen murder of the man accused of killing the president, the coverage would have been memorable: the lines of people, the riderless horse, the veiled widow.

Amid her grief, Jacqueline Kennedy had helped plan what turned out to be one of the TV events of the century, a funeral patterned on the rites for Abraham Lincoln, assassinated nearly a century earlier. Nielsen reportedly estimated that at one point during the Nov. 25 funeral, carried on all three networks, 41,553,000 TV sets were in use in what was then a nation of 189 million people.

Kennedy, who had used TV so effectively as a candidate in his debates with Richard Nixon and continued to embrace the cameras throughout his presidency, had also made a TV star of his wife, whose tour of the White House the previous year had been shown on all three networks.

It may have taken his death, though, to finally establish television as the place we go when we don't know where else to turn.

Email: graye@phillynews.com

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On Twitter: @elgray

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