CU Professor Rick Stevens: The Kennedy assassination and how America fell in love with live TV

Published: Nov. 22, 2013

It’s hard to imagine, but 50 years ago it wasn’t TV, the Internet, Twitter or a myriad of social media that alerted people to breaking news, instead they probably heard it on the radio. But that all changed one afternoon in Dallas, Nov. 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. That’s when people discovered the power of live TV, says Rick Stevens, a professor of journalism at CU-Boulder.

“The Kennedy assassination was one of those watershed moments where suddenly we were witnessing history unfolding in front of us and news after that started to just unfold that way," Stevens said. "Now we just expect that. When something’s happening, we turn on the television and we can see it. But that was the first time that that occurred in our country.”

Stevens, who teaches new media journalism, says for four days, from the hospital where Kennedy was initially taken to the funeral procession in Washington, D.C., to Arlington National Cemetery, Americans were glued to their TV sets eight hours a day watching history unfold.

“The Kennedy assassination was the first live event that got wall-to-wall coverage," he said. "It was the first time that Americans could turn on the televisions in their living rooms and see the events of the day unfold in front of them. We’d never had anything like that – that shared experience. Prior to these events, radio had been kind of the dominant medium for breaking news.”

The spontaneity of live TV caught a lot of of people off guard. From the TV journalists to the politicians, Stevens says, people had to make do on the run.

“You can tell that a lot of them were caught in that moment trying to figure out how to cover this event in a way that had never been done before," he said. "There’s a lot of interesting historical artifacts in there too, lots of cigarettes, people drinking coffee on the air and things like that that we wouldn’t do today. But the politicians you could see were wrestling with it as well. Particularly Bobby Kennedy and LBJ, who had historically had some tension, who had to be in close proximity on camera for such a long duration. You could imagine what that was like.”

The live coverage of the Kennedy assassination set the stage for TV to play a role in many significant American events down the road, says Stevens.

“In the ensuing years it’s television that changed the way we thought about civil rights conflict," he said. "It’s television that changed our opinion on Watergate. All of those events, being able to see the ramifications and results for ourselves in our living rooms, changed our relationship with the public.”

Stevens says the tragic irony of this being the first live breaking news event covered on a national scale is that it was about a man who clearly understood the power of TV.

“John F. Kennedy was the first presidential candidate to make effective use of television using the images to promote his message in a revolutionary way," Stevens said. "His whole political career and national politics kind of rose on television. So it was fitting in a tragic kind of way that his assassination was recorded this way.”

Another irony is that the news coverage of the assassination launched the careers of several reporters who would become prominent household names. Names like Dan Rather, Robert MacNeil, Jim Lehrer, Peter Jennings and Bob Schieffer.


Image courtesy the National Parks Service.