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Editorial: Echoes of History

“On no notice at all, giant network operations were created, intricate
switching was arranged, cameras and crews were moved into position in cities a thousand miles apart, microphones were
tied into lines, mobile units were deployed in a
technical exercise of dazzling virtuosity. Meanwhile,
reporters, commentators, producers, writers,
directors rushed into action all over the
world. Out of all the frenzy came an orderly programming
in rational sequence.

“It was not a job that amateurs could have done.

“It was not a job that a marginal economy
could have supported.

“It was a job for professionals equipped with
costly implements and backed by the resources
of a broadcasting system that has grown big and
stable on a program of fiscal responsibility.”

That was how the Dec. 2, 1963 issue of Broadcasting
described the efforts of news staffers and
networks, forced to drop business as usual to cover
the assassination and funeral of President Kennedy.

Fast-forward to 2001 and much of the same
could be said of 9/11, when regular programming
and millions in ad dollars were cast aside so news
could run wall-to-wall covering another tragic story.

It has now become expected that when big
news breaks, broadcast and cable journalists will
be there to bring the story back at any time, from
anywhere, sometimes at the risk of life and limb.
Just check the reports out of the Philippines over
the past 10 days from correspondents repeatedly
warned about danger from looters.

As we put together this week’s FF/RWD view of
the coverage of the JFK assassination and funeral, we were struck by a number
of things, one of which was official Washington’s
almost universal praise for the industry and its reporting
during those four dark days 50 years ago.

Today, a popular parlor game is to pick at the
flaws in live, breaking-news coverage. Some of
that is healthy and necessary: News organizations
need to get it right, and getting it first is
increasingly more difficult and seemingly more
important in the never-ending news cycle.

But sometimes the baseline of overall quality
and commitment, and risk, is lost in the rush to
find fault. Covering breaking news is a tough,
sometimes thankless, job that is inherently stressful,
pressure-packed and risky.

Another thing we noticed was that not even CBS
News’ venerated coverage got it right all the time in
’63, reporting rumor on the air before it was confirmed—
a function of live TV and picking up a local
station feed—as well as local station reports that a
Secret Service agent had also been killed and that a
man and woman had been involved in the shooting.

Ironically, broadcasting’s willingness to drop everything
and essentially put the newsgathering process
itself on display in the assassination coverage
may have contributed to some of the negative stereotypes
of the news business that continue today.

“This was the first time the American people had
seen the news being gathered,” CBS’ Bob Schieffer
told B&C in an interview. “Up until that point, we
had seen the finished product. You would
see the edited piece in the newspaper or
the edited piece on television. Instead of
seeing the finished news product, they
saw it being gathered for the first time
and they were surprised to know it was
not always a very dignified and sophisticated
process. People pushed, shoved,
shouted, and I think it gave a lot of people
the wrong impression of the media,
one that stuck with them a long time.”

It also, perhaps, offered yet another
view of the news then rarely seen: the
breadth of humanity among its participants.
In one case, an on-air reporter is
seen breaking into regular programming,
offering an update on the fast-moving
story, while frequently apologizing for being “out
of breath,” a consequence no doubt of both racing
around the studio and the stress of the moment.
And for viewers, the image of the ever-stalwart
Walter Cronkite fighting back tears after confirming
the president’s death remains a TV touchstone
of the event. In a strange sense, Cronkite’s reaction
actually added dignity to the day. It was an instructive
moment for the news and for Americans: If
Cronkite loses it, no doubt America has as well.

Interestingly enough, in the 24/7, interactive,
always-running news world of today, there is no
longer any hiding how the news is gathered—and
sometimes missed, and sometimes misreported.

But as a whole, it is an amazing process. And
when it is done well, which it is much of the time,
it is an even more impressive example of dedication
to a tough job with inherent risks and an
even more virtuoso technological performance
across multiple platforms in real time.

It is the occupational hazard of journalism that
the medium is often at its best in the worst of times.
That was the case in 1963, and it’s still true today.