Sabato's Crystal Ball

Yearning for the Golden Age of Crisis Coverage…That Never Existed

Think the media blew their reporting on Boston’s bombing? JFK assassination coverage was worse.

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics April 25th, 2013

There were real victims in the Boston bombings last week — the dead, the wounded, the grieving families, the terrorized communities — but there was substantial collateral damage done to news media credibility.

We’ll leave to others the listing of specific winners and losers. Goodness knows, there have been enough scathing reviews published already. Innocent “bag men” were plastered onto front pages, arrests that had not occurred were ballyhooed by several news organizations, and widespread media speculation about the groups behind the terrorism was dead wrong.

Critics say it is just another example of the decline of journalistic ethics in our anything-goes era of live, continuous broadcasting, blogging and tweeting. Why can’t today’s reporters meet the same high standards achieved by their illustrious predecessors in the golden age of journalism?

Well, the answer may be that the golden age never existed.

If you doubt this, take a look back to the start of live TV reporting of national tragedy, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963. The coverage of this watershed event has often been hailed as the epitome of sober, cautious treatment of a big breaking story.

Yet this is partly because people’s memory of the sorrowful four-day TV marathon is dominated by the dignified coverage of the weekend ceremonies and funeral of President Kennedy, which were beautifully designed almost overnight by Jacqueline Kennedy.

Few were actually watching the chaotic opening hours of the television broadcasts on Friday afternoon. The assassination occurred at 12:30 p.m. local time (1:30 p.m. on the east coast), when the country was at work or in the classroom. Most schools and businesses had no television sets in those days, and even in homes with people present, the TV was not necessarily turned on. Unlike today, the television in 1963 was used intermittently to watch specific shows, not left on constantly as background noise or faux company.

Fortunately, in the pre-VCR/DVD age, the networks taped many of their own broadcasts, and the Kennedy assassination programs were preserved. For scholars, those back-and-white tapes are golden. I am working on a book about President Kennedy entitled The Kennedy Half-Century, scheduled for publication by Bloomsbury this fall — the 50th anniversary of Dallas. As part of my research, I am reviewing the assassination and how the press covered it. For example, you might want to see the first two hours of the CBS News broadcast on Nov. 22, which is available on YouTube.

The primitive cameras in use at the time took about 15 minutes to warm up, so at first the coverage alternated between a soap opera, As The World Turns, and increasingly gloomy bulletins read by anchorman Walter Cronkite. By the time live pictures appeared on the TV screen, President Kennedy was nearing the end of the doctors’ heroic though hopeless efforts to revive him in Trauma Room One of Parkland Hospital — though no one in the media knew it then. (By our definition of life in this century, the president had already expired. He was actually brain-dead the instant the bullet struck his head and blew out over a quarter of his gray matter.)

The CBS newsroom scene leaves an indelible impression on any viewer. Cronkite is not at his usual evening news desk, and a wide range of frantic action can be seen all around him. The wire service machines were churning out bulletins at an agitated pace. All available personnel had come to the newsroom to work the phones and contact sources. CBS had established a direct connection to its Dallas affiliate, KRLD, so local reporters could air their on-location reports. CBS was as equipped as the technology allowed in 1963, but events soon proved that live television reporting in a crisis is inherently a dangerous business.

Highly inaccurate information was aired almost immediately. In the minutes after he began his CBS broadcast, Cronkite suggested four times that a man and woman on the grassy knoll were the assassins, and that they had been surrounded by armed Secret Service agents and others. In fact, the couple, Bill and Gayle Newman, whom I have interviewed, had simply fallen to the ground to protect their two young sons from the gunfire. They were encircled mostly by spectators who wanted to insure they were safe and by reporters who wanted to interview them.

Then Cronkite and/or the KRLD anchor made a series of pronouncements, presented as facts, which would prove to be unfounded:

There are other slip-ups, but you get the point.

Let me stress that similar errors were made by the other networks, and I cite Cronkite only because his dominating, calming role as anchor on that shattering 1963 afternoon is well remembered by history. A friend of President Kennedy who struggled to keep his on-air emotions in check, Cronkite was a skilled, comforting presence at a moment when the collective national heart stopped dead, and most Americans were deeply shocked and fearful. Many years later, I was privileged to discuss with Cronkite his views of the assassination and coverage. He freely admitted that he and his colleagues were flying, if not blind, then in pea soup fog.

Cronkite noted that live coverage of breaking news is inherently mistake-prone. Confusion reigns, and normally reliable sources can innocently provide incomplete or misleading information. Network bosses want their news professionals to “break it first,” and careers can be made or destroyed easily in such situations. While it was not as true in 1963, today’s audience demands a steady flow of information, and news consumers compare what they are getting on TV with what they are reading on Twitter or hearing from competing networks.

Media gaffes and goofs should not be easily excused, since commendable restraint — occasionally, simple silence — is the obvious remedy. There should be a penalty for a big error, even if it is only severe criticism.

But in our supercharged age, when we appear to lurch from crisis to crisis at hyper-speed, we need to remember two news fundamentals. First, we impatient consumers are a large part of the problem. Second, modern media blunders, while deeply regrettable, are consistent with a pattern that stretches back to the beginning of live breaking news.

The technology of news-gathering has changed radically, but human frailty is the constant that connects all eras.