The media-industrial complex loves nothing so much as an anniversary -- especially a grim anniversary. Considering that the assassination of President John F. Kennedy is an event that not only radically transformed our nation but the media itself, it's no surprise that the 50th anniversary of that tragic day (Nov. 22, 1963) has cranked up the existing, ongoing media cottage industry surrounding JFK to a new level of frenzy.
But the ultimate media-about-media-about-JFK experience I've had so far was during a recent trip to Washington, D.C.'s Newseum, the superb museum of news and journalism whose $450 million landmark building on Pennsylvania Avenue turned 5 years old this spring.
But the big draws, judging from where museumgoers clustered during my visit, are the flat-screen monitors showing contemporaneous TV coverage. A Newseum placard notes that "Television came of age that weekend," with ABC, CBS and NBC -- there were only three networks back then -- running nonstop, commercial-free coverage for nearly four straight days.
One clip shows CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite struggling to maintain composure as he reports the White House's announcement of Kennedy's death, conveyed by a United Press International news flash at 1:38 p.m. on the 22nd.
That official bulletin was preceded (and followed) by plenty of rumor. One of the most bracing sights in the exhibit is a Teletype machine -- a sort of late-model telegraph that resembles an oversized mechanical typewriter minus its keyboard -- from which a roll of paper emerges. A Newseum placard reads:
THE FIRST REPORT
Merriman Smith, a correspondent for the United Press International wire service, rode with three other White House reporters in the motorcade. Their press car was equipped with a radio telephone, an early type of mobile phone. Smith thought the first gunshot was a firecracker, but the next two shots were unmistakable. Grabbing the phone, he called UPI's Dallas bureau and shouted a one-sentence bulletin as the car sped toward the hospital. Rival Associated Press reporter Jack Bell lunged for the phone from the back seat, but Smith hung on to protect his scoop. Smith's bulletin … was the first to alert the world of the attack on the president.
That alert is on display in the Teletype machine, and it reads:
KENNEDY SERIOUSLY WOUNDED
PERHAPS FATALLY BY ASSASSINS BULLET.
Elsewhere in the exhibit, a placard titled "GETTING IT WRONG" details how "in the rush to report the breaking news," journalists screwed up big time -- with some, for instance, reporting that Texas Gov. John Connally was killed (he was wounded but survived) and that Vice President Lyndon Johnson was wounded (he wasn't).
JFK was assassinated before I was born, but I was still shaken by the Newseum's exhibit. And I came away thinking how the more things in the news media change, the more they stay the same.
And as much as we may think that social media has transformed the way news is reported and disseminated, "Three Shots Were Fired" underscores that media, even when it was controlled by professionals, was always social -- meaning deeply human, and therefore erratic, reactionary, competitive, presumptuous, sensationalistic, and, most of all, impatient.
Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. Follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.