It was a new, shocking, traumatic thing for Americans — who were used to getting their bad news from kindly gentlemen who filtered it for them and helped them digest the worst bits — to watch reporters, live on air, learning new details and reacting as they happened.
First CBS Bulletin (at 10:45 into a soap opera.)
Walter Cronkite announces death of JFK. You can hear in the background people relaying what they have just heard. At the 5:00 mark, while Cronkite is giving some background information, someone off-screen hands Cronkite a report. He drops the background story, puts on his glasses, and reads the report. Hearing Cronkite’s professional newscaster voice go hoarse at this point was an iconic moment for many Americans.
Although studios did have the technology to broadcast live (in fact, most early TV was only live, with no videorecorded record of the images that went out over the air), there was no live TV camera covering the president’s motorcade in downtown Dallas. Images in people’s cameras had to be developed, printed, and propped on easels in TV studios where reporters and witnesses pointed at them and talked about them. (For more about the live coverage, WFAA legend on pioneering live coverage of JFK assassination.)
Just a few months after the assassination, TV Guide published this article, which reminds us how new it was for millions of people to bond over a shared, technologically mediated national trauma.
From the moment the first TV news bulletin cut through the sticky story line of a soap opera called “As the World Turns,” at exactly 1:40 (EST) on Friday afternoon, the world of communications – if not the world – was to be a vastly different sort of place, never to be quite the same again. It was not just the sudden, senseless cutting down of a young, vigorous President that made the experience cut so deep, but the fact that no one had ever lived a national tragedy in quite these terms before.