I’m watching “JFK: Breaking the News,” a documentary on WNET, one of the New York area’s PBS stations, about the media coverage of the November, 1963 assassination of president John F. Kennedy. It’s fascinating because in analyzing the way both print and broadcast journalists scrambled in Dallas after the shooting, the program shows how it was a bellwether event in the history of media. It marked the passing of the “breaking news” mantle from newspapers to television.
It was the biggest news event covered by the still-emerging medium, and TV journalists rose to the challenge, with live broadcasts cutting into “regularly scheduled programming” for four days from the Friday death of the president and capture of Lee Harvey Oswald, the suspect, to the Sunday shooting (on live TV) of Oswald by Jack Ruby, a night club owner, to Kennedy’s dolorous funeral on the following Monday. It was a remarkable stretch of journalism, which forced traditional print reporters to pick up the pieces and run some of the same stories that had already been read on TV stations, which used the same wire services as the newspapers .
There were some bright moments for newspapers, though, including the much more effective photos that captured the killing of Oswald as he was being transferred from the Dallas police station. One, shot by a young photographer named Bob Jackson, won the Pulitzer Prize. It captured Oswald at the moment he was shot, his face contorted with pain and the policeman to his right agog with shock.
Although all of America shared the assassination and the following weekend and Monday funeral as a live event thanks to TV, most people who were alive back then will also remember Jackson’s image, that moment frozen in time, as vividly as they can remember the moment they first heard about the assassination. Amazingly, Jackson kept ownership of his photograph even though he worked at the time for the Dallas Time Herald, and when I worked with him at the Colorado Springs Gazette, he was still making money every time someone asked permission to use the image.
Part of what’s so fascinating to me about this documentary is that we are in a period now when the rules of media are changing.
In some of the same ways that the instantaneous, live and increasingly global reach of television changed the dynamic of media away from the established order of newspapers, I think the Internet is changing the rules of news coverage away from TV (and alas, also newspapers) to the Web.
Like the Kennedy assassination, in the future we might point to one event that revealed the changing of the guard. When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, the Times-Picayune newspaper was also hit hard. Its newsroom was flooded, as was its printing plant. But the reporting staff kept working — on the NOLA.com Web site. (Full disclosure: NOLA.com is owned by my employer, Advance Internet.)
And the site became a focal point for the community, where citizens became reporters in a very real sense, posting messages on the site’s forums about news that complemented the work of the professional journalists. Rescue workers even began turning to the site every day for the latest posts from people who were stuck and stranded, or to respond to messages posted by victims’ family members and friends.
The world turned to the site for the latest news, and the site’s staff scrambled to keep up. It was a heroic effort amongst many heroic acts in the storm’s aftermath, and the Times-Picayune won a Pulitzer this year because of its coverage.
I think that award will be a prophetic acknowledgment of the changing media landscape some day. The media — and the way people use the media — are evolving, like they did that November weekend 43 years ago.