The commemoration on Nov. 22 of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy is also a reminder – a stark and somber one, to be sure – of journalism as some call it: “the first draft of history.”
From the time that three shots were fired in Dallas at the presidential motorcade on Nov. 22, 1963, that “first draft” of reporting about the tragedy reached Americans in a manner unique in history.
Never before had an entire nation received and shared so much information at the same instant, so quickly and so widely. Of course, missteps, misinformation and rumor, combined with the speed of those events, all but guaranteed that a companion “conspiracy press” would grow up almost as quickly as events were reported.
From the official Warren Report – itself the subject of much second-guessing – and from news reports then and now, here’s a consensus timeline of those initial hours and days in which the nation learned by news bulletin, extra-edition newspaper headlines and through unprecedented, non-stop TV network coverage, about what had happened in Dallas:
In following days, the nation was provided nonstop coverage by the then-three TV networks, NBC, CBS and ABC, of the funeral preparations, and the funeral itself, right through the procession to Arlington Cemetery and the lighting of an eternal flame over Kennedy’s grave.
In this pre-cell phone, pre-Internet, still early days of TV, reporters on the scene scrambled to find pay phones to call in stories or news tips. Networks sometimes had to show anchors literally repeating one-air what they heard over a telephone handset held to one ear. Wire services communicated with each other and newsrooms over achingly-slow teletype machines. No instant messages, no e-mail and yet the first rudimentary steps were taken toward what eventually would become the “24/7” news cycle.
One indisputable fact from all of that reporting remains true a half-century later: There is no credible report of government censorship at that moment, or of an estimated 22,000 books since written about JFK, or of the seemingly inexhaustible supply of published theories on “what really happened,” such as Oliver Stone’s 1991 film “JFK” about attempts by New Orleans prosecutor Jim Garrison to find a conspiracy behind Kennedy’s death.
It’s fashionable to remark “we may never know” the ultimate answers to questions about reports of various conspiracies around Kennedy’s death, or be able to completely put to rest rumors of shots fired from the famed “grassy knoll,” or even know with certainty what Jack Ruby’s “real” motives were in shooting Oswald.
But outside of the most rabid conspiracy circles, it’s fair to say we know much more thanks to a half-century of news and information brought to us unfettered by government censorship.
Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute’s First Amendment Center. He can be reached at email@example.com.