November 22 – 25, 1963 (USA)
Air Force One touched down at Andrews Air Force on 22 November a little after 6 pm, a mere two minutes after technicians had cobbled together a bank of microphones that would enable Lyndon Johnson, the new president, to address a shocked nation.
Before he spoke, however, the coffin containing the body of his predecessor, John F Kennedy, was taken off the plane, accompanied by his widow, Jacqueline, her suit and stockings still stained with his blood. Though it had been suggested she freshen up, the former first lady declined saying “Let them see what they’ve done”.
And so, within hours of the horrific crime, the two most immediately affected by Kennedy’s assassination were incorporating television into their response: Johnson to establish that the democratic order would prevail, and Jackie to demonstrate the loss.
In November. 1963, television was at best an immature medium that produced a disposable product. With JFK’s death, that was no longer true. In the days following the assassination, network cameras caught nearly everything to do with the horror, and those images were flashed around the world.
Not only did TV surpass print for primacy as a news source for the first time, it also created a focal point for the public’s grief.
By the time the 24 November murder of accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was broadcast, TV had not only become legitimate, but necessary. The point was driven home by the images from Kennedy’s funeral on 25 November – a riderless horse, a veiled widow, a young sons salute – were transmitted into our cultural consciousness.
“When the president was assassinated” says Don Hewitt, executive producer of America’s 60 Minutes, who has spent his life in TV news, “people did not go to church or meetings. They came to their televisions, and everybody who was watching was, in a sense, holding hands”.
Sadly, the assassination, wars and other atrocities TV has since transmitted into our homes mean that we have scarcely had a chance to relax our grip.