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The Assassination, Live in the Afternoon
November 13, 2013  | By Eric Gould  | 3 comments

George Clooney knows a little something about the infant power of television news, having directed, co-written and co-starred in Good Night, and Good Luck, his black and white homage to newsman Edward R. Murrow and his quest to discredit Senator Joseph McCarthy and his communist  witch-hunt in Congressional hearings in 1953-54. Although he’s not producing here, Clooney lends similar gravitas as narrator of Wednesday night’s JFK: One PM Central Standard Time. It airs Wednesday as part of PBS’s Secrets of the Dead series (10 p.m. ET; check local listings), and, like so many TV specials this month, is dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

While there has been every ilk and stripe of documentary this week, with varying degrees of hack sensationalism and serious journalism, One PM Central Standard Time takes perhaps the most familiar and well-remembered angle: Walter Cronkite’s live CBS broadcast on national television on the afternoon of November 22, when he confirmed to the nation that JFK was dead.

The documentary starts with less familiar archival footage of the President and his glamorous wife Jackie, and the shiny gloss they projected to a 60s America embarking on new technology and optimism. Reporter Bill Hampton, who helped break the story over the teletype newswires for United Press International, goes wistful remembering that JFK “was the new world… he was promising great things. He said we could fly to the moon. And we all believed him."

From there, One PM… follows Cronkite to his exclusive interview with JFK as the CBS Evening News went from a 15-minute format to a half hour. Quickly moving to events in the days before Dallas, there are first-hand accounts from some around the CBS newsroom at the time, and from Dan Rather, who was reporting from Dallas.

One PM Central Standard Time does a riveting job of creating the real-time tension of that day, starting with little-seen archival footage of JFK and Jackie in stops in Houston and Fort Worth before, and the day of the assassination. You get a palpable sense of the Kennedy team being pleasantly surprised at the overwhelming positive reaction they were getting at every stop, even though Texas was considered hostile political territory at the time.

And that perceived hostility builds with the inevitable dread of what’s about to happen next.

There’s also a bit of unnecessary reenactment fluff, with actors playing Cronkite and other CBS news people as the story was breaking. While not convincing or necessary, though, it's a forgivable narrative method, since minute-by-minute events of the assassination, and the instantaneous decisions made in the newsroom, are the story here. From the Dallas motorcade, Hampton shouted to UPI, on the only car phone available, that shots had been fired, while in New York, Cronkite and his team received the news with the only available TV news camera on another floor at CBS. On TV, the network had to break its initial news from a radio booth, with a "CBS News Bulletin" graphic card on the screen as Cronkite relayed the first available facts.

One of the first TV reports of the assassination had no pictures, and was, in reality, a radio bulletin.

As such, One PM… is a great news journalism lesson, with Cronkite eventually breaking onto the air and delivering sketchy reports coming in and delivering some of them, but all with the caveat that nothing had been officially confirmed.

It was a scant hour and a half between the shots from Dallas being reported and Cronkite’s now famous solemn confirmation, delivered through a choking moment of emotion, that Kennedy had finally been confirmed dead by a White House press spokesman.

There are great remembrances here, from Robert MacNeil, who was reporting for NBC at the time (and also calling the assassination within minutes), as well as former CBS correspondent Sandy Socolow, who plainly puts it: "Here we are 50 years later, and the memories are of Walter Cronkite on the coverage and not much else."

Cronkite would go on to be the voice of some of the most memorable American events of that decade, including Kennedy’s promised moon landing in 1969. NBC's Brian Williams, also interviewed for the documentary, perhaps sums it up best: "Walter turned in his best day, and one of the best days the business of news has ever had, and he happened to do it on what was one of the worst days of modern times."

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baroque fineberg
Had the tone, composition, stature, voice, that I had always associated w/ Walter.
Four years after his death he is still inspiring especially w/ the effort put into this show. The best KENNEDY show of the group. Still to this day those speaking do so somewhat haltingly and tinged w/ the same sadness of 50 years ago.
Nov 15, 2013   |  Reply
Brad - No worries. Rather is front and center in the story -- where he belongs. –EG
Nov 13, 2013   |  Reply
Do they delete any mention of Dan rather in this documentary the way CBS has out of all their historic retrospectives? Let's hope not.
Nov 13, 2013   |  Reply
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