On Sunday morning, Nov. 24, 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald, the prime suspect in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, was escorted before live TV cameras—and shot dead. A horrified nation watched as television showed the first live, on-air murder.
It was a disturbing turn to what had already become a defining moment for television. In its news coverage of the Kennedy assassination, TV proved to be a force that had surprised viewers with its depth and sensitivity. Even more powerful was that TV could take viewers directly into the unfolding, real-life drama—from the deeds in Dallas to the somber funeral procession in Washington, D.C.
This was an era of only three major networks. Local stations signed off overnight. There was no cable, no satellite. The networks had just expanded the evening news from 15 to 30 minutes. That eventful weekend, though, was a coming of age for live TV news, as it replaced all commercial programming for several consecutive days.
Television showed every moment it could capture, and its immersion coverage was widely embraced. Armed with access, television could do more than talk about the news. Television could literally bring those images home.
And so the transfer of Oswald between jails was done in public view. The press could attend, and so could Oswald’s assassin, Jack Ruby. With its hunger to relay every image, television helped set the stage for a shocking turn of events. This was a sobering warning that when TV news arrived at a scene, it was more than as just another reporter.
A standard was set: Major news events demanded saturation coverage—live if possible. But merely by being there, television could change the news it covered, from the civil rights movement to antiwar demonstrations to today’s coverage of overseas conflicts.
Television news is like a lightning flash. It makes a loud noise, lights up everything around it, leaves everything else in darkness and then is suddenly gone.
— Hodding Carter
In the decades since the shootings of both Kennedy and Oswald, every sort of conspiracy theory has been debated. We still may not be clear on what happened that weekend in Dallas, but there is no doubt about the power of television coverage.
Walter J. Podrazik is co-author of 10 books, including Watching TV: Six Decades of American Television (Syracuse University Press). He is also a media contributor for the Chicago Public Radio program Eight Forty-Eight, and a consulting curator for the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago.
Text copyright 2007 by Walter J. Podrazik. All rights reserved.
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