Eye On America
The co-authors of a new book about the assassination of JFK talk about how that tragic event changed the way the media cover news.
On November 22, 1963, President Kennedy was shot and killed as his motorcade passed through the streets of Dallas. The United States was forever changed. With the fortieth anniversary of the assassination upon us, Sourcebooks, in conjunction with the Newseum, will release a book that details the incident from the perspective of the members of the media who covered the event. President Kennedy Has Been Shot: A Moment-by-Moment Account of the Four Days That Changed America (Sourcebooks, 2003) closely chronicles the days of November 21-24, 1963, following various reporters, photographers, and television personnel as the timeline of events unfolded, from the wary anticipation and excitement of Kennedy’s impending Dallas visit to the separate funeral services of the president and his killer. The book is an exhaustive account of the people who witnessed and reported the history-making event, from police dispatches to Walter Cronkite’s unforgettable announcement of Kennedy’s death. It is accompanied by an audio CD, narrated by Dan Rather (who, at the time, was a fledgling reporter with CBS News), that allows the listener to hear the original television and radio broadcasts as well as the newly released recordings from Air Force One and the White House. President Kennedy Has Been Shot raises questions about how the JFK assassination altered the way the media cover major events. Cathy Trost and Susan Bennett, the co-authors of President Kennedy Has Been Shot, talk about their book.
texasmonthly.com: Over the years, much has been written about the JFK assassination. What makes this book different?
Cathy Trost and Susan Bennett: This book tells the story of the tragic murder of our nation’s young president through the eyes of the reporters, photographers, and editors who covered the dramatic events in Dallas and Washington in 1963. They reveal little-known details from their front-row reporting that weekend.
texasmonthly.com: In the book, Hugh Sidey refers to the “Kennedy mystique” as one of the elements that attracts and maintains interest in the assassination. Why do you think people are still so interested in this story?
CT & SB: The charisma of President Kennedy and his Camelot administration remains of intense interest to those who lived through those days and those who know him only through history books. Certainly the assassination of a president is a news story that will not soon be forgotten, nor will the murder of his assassin on live television. The murder of President Kennedy represented a turning point in American history and marked the dawning of a new age in television coverage.
texasmonthly.com: In the introduction, you compare the assassination of John F. Kennedy with September 11, 2001, stating that they were both “defining moments” that shattered the public’s illusions and effectively ended two eras in American history. How, in your opinion, did the media coverage of both events shape the public’s perceptions of them? Did the 24-hour coverage of these events serve as a comfort to the public or did it create a sense of panic?
CT & SB: News coverage of both events clearly created a focal point for the public’s grief and provided them with information that calmed a panicked nation. Media coverage of the Kennedy assassination and its aftermath demonstrated to the public that they could rely on journalists to provide them with detailed and largely accurate accounts of fast-breaking news. During the September 11 attacks, viewers and readers also turned to the media for explanation and reassurance during terrifying times.
texasmonthly.com: How do you think the role of the news reporter has changed since 1963?
CT & SB: Television came of age that weekend. Many think that television surpassed newspapers for primacy as a news source for the first time in media history. Print reporters who were used to being the first to get the story found themselves shoved aside by cameras and public officials who wanted to wait until the TV cameras had been turned on before they gave their interviews. Another major change for journalists is the issue of access. At a time when security was far less rigorous, reporters got much closer to news events and news sources. Reporters were with the police as they searched the Texas School Book Depository for the assassin; they peered into the presidential limousine as Mrs. Kennedy lay over the body of her dying husband; they watched from just feet away as Lee Harvey Oswald was wrestled to the ground by police at the Texas Theater; they were in the private compartment on Air Force One where Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as president; and they were in the Dallas police basement when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald. Heightened security, some in response to the Kennedy assassination, sharply limits reporters’ access to news events today.
texasmonthly.com: Do you think that the process of telling their stories has been cathartic for the people you interviewed for this book?
CT & SB: The journalists had remarkably detailed memories of what happened and were eager to share their stories. Some clearly were shaken during our interviews as they relived those awful moments. Some had shared these memories only with their friends and families; others had written about them from time to time. But this book is the first to present a collective memory of the assassination and its aftermath from a journalistic perspective.