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CBSNews.com Replays the JFK Tragedy in Real Time
November 21, 2013  | By P.J. Bednarski  | 5 comments

In the mini-deluge of commemorative specials revolving around the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, it seems odd to me that so little notice is being paid to CBSNews.com’s plans.

Starting Friday afternoon at 1:38 EST, the Website will begin streaming the same TV coverage CBS aired, also at that exact moment, in 1963 and the Website will continue streaming it through the Monday funeral, just as it happened on TV 50 years ago.

This is as close to reliving the media event as it can be—kind of real-time coverage, 50 years later.  I can’t recall an instance of this kind of echo chamber. a media event about a media event, extraordinary in itself. 

If you don’t want to watch much of it in real-time, CBS says a schedule on the Website will let viewers know when some specific events will be streamed, and will live-Tweet streaming coverage. Also important moments from the original broadcast will be available on-demand on the Website, and will be shared on the CBS News accounts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram using the hashtag #JFK50.

But watching it again, as it happened-- hours and hours of it--will seem so different in its 20th Century see-it-now, untech savvy clunkiness.

By now, everyone has seen footage of the moment when CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite announced that Kennedy was indeed dead.  Cronkite read, “From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official: ‘President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time,’  2 o'clock Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago.' ” But he had been on the air for a while with other reports, from a young Dan Rather for one, that reported sources that were unofficially saying the same thing, before the official word came down.   

The Kennedy assassination was a pivot point for this nation, like the TV debates were, like his election was. But for television the assassination coverage was an early indicator of the power of television to gather us together. The nation mourned, on TV. Never had the emotional power of the medium been so put on display, because, probably, it had never before played the role.  

Strictly as TV, the assassination coverage replay on CBSNews.com will certainly have the moments we all remember or have learned about—Cronkite seemingly wiping away a tear, the live coverage of Lee Harvey Oswald, on his way to being transferred to another Dallas facility, gunned down by Jack Ruby, and the solemn funeral, with little John-John’s salute to the casket holding his father’s lifeless body.

But there was a lot more, and that was at a time the TV industry had not yet cultivated anything like the bunch of experts and ex-White House pundits the cable news industry now keeps employed. Nor was it so easy for TV to go live. This was long before satellites were used to deliver the news. This truly was TV on the fly, and frankly, I can’t remember how the networks filled it up during the ordinary times, when nothing particularly newsworthy was happening.

Nor was TV, or TV news, a 24/7 proposition. Television signed off, sometime after midnight or 1 or 2 am in most places as it did right into 80s on some stations.

That’s true with this CBSNews.com coverage too. There will be times that its coverage isn’t there. That was the way it was, as Cronkite might put it.

What I remember is that the networks unspooled documentaries and long reports created earlier, about the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis and Jacqueline Kennedy’s tour of the White House. We got more information about this Lee Harvey Oswald monster. Who was he? Was he a Communist?

I remember I watched everything, just everything, on those days. More likely, I missed most of it. I was 11 years old.

I knew what was going on was momentous. People I knew just cried. The radio stations that usually played rock ‘n’ roll were playing classical music, every one of them, and nothing but.

But I’d bet that through the entire weekend neither CBS nor NBC or ABC presented even one child psychologist with careful advice about how parents explain Kennedy’s assassination to young minds. I could have used a little of that, probably. After Oswald was murdered, I remember fearing --seriously—that someone would then kill Ruby. And on and on until somehow all the killing stopped.

It’s impossible to feel all of that fear and regret again. We now have a more jaundiced view of Kennedy than the mourning anchors did that weekend, and we’re plenty accustomed to assassinations and senseless, crazed-gunman violence. There's about one a month. But if you are a Boomer who remembers, or a Millennial who doesn’t, it would seem the CBSNews.com event will be worth several hours of your time over the weekend.


ON A RELATED NOTE, NPR earlier this week reminded us that the Boston Symphony was about to perform its regularly scheduled Friday afternoon concert that day in 1963, when just before it began was to begin, news of the assassination of its hometown Kennedy, was relayed on stage.

Here’s what NPR reported happened next: “First, we hear the gasps and shushes after BSO music director Erich Leinsdorf utters the words: ‘The president of the United States has been the victim of an assassination,’ Second, a wave of groans and sighs after Leinsdorf continues, ‘We will play the funeral march from Beethoven’s Third Symphony’ — as if the crowd's shared response is that they couldn't possibly have heard the first part right, but that then the orchestra's change in repertoire confirms the awful, unimaginable truth. And then, for the next 14 minutes ... utter silence, save for the incomparably somber music.” The NPR dispatch has footage of that crowd reaction, and the piece the orchestra played, which was followed not by applause but silence. It is, even in a cynical age, just plain sad to hear.


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Tom Shaer
Great work by P.J. Bednarski, whose work I read for years in the Chicago Sun-Times. Also, fine comments by the readers. So very interesting, ALWAYS. Tom S., Chicago.
Dec 15, 2021   |  Reply
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Aug 9, 2014   |  Reply
Thank you for bringing this cbs webcast to our attention. I have been checking in and out of it and I find myself riveted to it as though it were breaking news. I was 12 years old at the time and we were definitely a cbs household so I watched a lot of this coverage as it happened 50 years ago. Of course I remember little of it in detail although I do remember being in front of the tv when Oswald was shot. To my regret I would not have been interested in the orchestral performances at that time, but I don't even remember them taking place. Now it seems unbelievable that, even under these circumstances, these broadcast performances took place. Classical music doesn't even get a token 1.5 minutes on the Grammys any more. The Kennedy's did a lot to encourage all the arts when they were in the White House and these performances seem a fitting tribute and requiem.
Nov 23, 2013   |  Reply
Thanks, Jim--I have found the more ordinary moments really interesting. To see Cronkite hand off the anchor chair to Charles Collingwood, to see Robert Trout and Eric Severeid just sit down and start talking, lucidly, eloquently, that's been something. Harry Reasoner, I see now, was so amazingly lucid, calm, and in-command. What I end up realizing is that one of the things that has been lost as the medium has gotten faster and more graphically capable is the precise efficiency of thespoken word. Randomly, I was also struck by the fact that for at least the first four hours, and maybe more, no body referred to it as the "Texas Book Depository." From watching CNN Friday night, I also discovered that in the moments before Oswald was transferred, much of the TV chatter was about how Dallas officials were being so careful to protect Oswald. It was as if moments after saying that for the last time, Ruby did the deed. Thanks for reading, and giving me an excuse to update myself.
Nov 24, 2013
A fine, thoughtful, heart-felt piece, P.J. Thanks.
Nov 22, 2013   |  Reply
A&E did a version of this with NBC's footage for the 25th anniversary and PBS showed it a few years later(30th?).Some web investigating revealls that NBC never archived their two original bulletins(voiced by Don Pardo,later,of SNL fame)and the first few minutes of what would become near wall-to-wall coverage,but a donated aircheck filling in those gaps exists today.
Nov 22, 2013   |  Reply
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