First Amendment: Reporting JFK’s death—Fifty years of facts, conspiracy theories
The commemoration on Nov. 22 of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy is also a reminder—a stark and somber one, to be sure—of journalism as some call it: “the first draft of history.”
From the time that three shots were fired in Dallas at the presidential motorcade on Nov. 22, 1963, that “first draft” of reporting about the tragedy reached Americans in a manner unique in history.
Never before had an entire nation received and shared so much information at the same instant, so quickly and so widely. Of course, missteps, misinformation and rumor, combined with the speed of those events, all but guaranteed that a companion “conspiracy press” would grow up almost as quickly as events were reported.
From the official Warren Report—itself the subject of much second-guessing—and from news reports then and now, here’s a consensus timeline of those initial hours and days in which the nation learned by news bulletin, extra-edition newspaper headlines and through unprecedented, nonstop TV network coverage, about what had happened in Dallas:
Kennedy is shot at about 12:30 p.m. CT. Within seconds, the presidential car speeds away from the rest of the motorcade, reaching 80 mph at some spots in the four-mile trip to Parkland Memorial Hospital, arriving about 12:35 p.m. The first news service bulletin, from United Press International, reached the nation’s newsrooms at 12:34 p.m. as shown on a paper copy of the bulletin shown online. Dictated by correspondent Merriman Smith, who was first to grab the press car’s radio-telephone, the bulletin says that three shots have been fired at the presidential motorcade.
The ABC Radio Network reports the shooting at 12:36 p.m. Lee Harvey Oswald is out of the Texas Book Depository in less than three minutes after the shooting, the report says. Just a little more than 40 minutes later, at about 1:15 p.m., after walking several city blocks, riding a city bus and changing clothes, Oswald is stopped by Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit. Oswald shoots Tippit with a handgun.
Within 35 minutes of the killing of patrolman Tippit, Oswald is arrested by Dallas police, who find him hiding in a movie theater. At 11:26 p.m., Oswald is also charged with shooting Kennedy.
On Air Force One, at 2:38 p.m., Lyndon Johnson takes the oath of office as the 36th president. Just nine minutes later, the flight to Washington, D.C., lifts off. At 5:58 p.m., Air Force One lands at Andrews Air Force Base, just outside the district. Kennedy had begun his trip to Texas from Andrews only 31 hours earlier.
Two days later, Oswald is fatally shot at 11:41 a.m. Sunday, in the basement of the Dallas Police Department building by Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub owner. This shooting takes place in full view of a national television audience and a host of news photographers. In ensuing days, the nation was provided nonstop coverage by the then-three TV networks, NBC, CBS and ABC, of the funeral preparations and the funeral itself, right through the procession to Arlington Cemetery and the lighting of an “eternal flame” over Kennedy’s grave.
In this pre-cellphone, pre-Internet, still early days of TV, reporters on the scene scrambled to find pay phones to call in stories or news tips. Networks sometimes had to show anchors literally repeating on-air what they heard over a telephone handset held to one ear. Wire services communicated with each other and newsrooms over achingly slow teletype machines. No instant messages, no email and yet the first rudimentary steps were taken toward what eventually would become the “24/7” news cycle.
One indisputable fact from all of that reporting remains true a half-century later: There is no credible report of government censorship at that moment, or of an estimated 22,000 books since written about JFK, or of the seemingly inexhaustible supply of published theories on “what really happened,” such as Oliver Stone’s 1991 film “JFK” about attempts by New Orleans prosecutor Jim Garrison to find a conspiracy behind Kennedy’s death.
It’s fashionable to remark “we may never know” the ultimate answers to questions about reports of various conspiracies around Kennedy’s death, or be able to completely put to rest rumors of shots fired from the famed “grassy knoll,” or even know with certainty what Jack Ruby’s “real” motives were in shooting Oswald.
But outside of the most-rabid conspiracy circles, it’s fair to say “we know much more” thanks to a half-century of news and information brought to us unfettered by government censorship.
Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute’s First Amendment Center. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.