The More Social Media and Cable Change the News, the More Things Stay the Same

A Fascinating Newseum Exhibit About Press Coverage of JFK's Assassination Puts the Contemporary Media-Industrial Complex in Context

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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.

Credit: Kelsey Dake

In a single day last week I experienced nine (I kept count) exposures to JFK-related media products -- from promos for the flood of TV specials airing all month (including National Geographic's "Killing Kennedy," a dramatization of Bill O'Reilly's book starring Rob Lowe as JFK) to one-off print specials (my local newsstand in Manhattan is selling an exact replica of the Nov. 23, 1963 Dallas Morning News with its "KENNEDY SLAIN ON DALLAS STREET" headline) to a copy of "The Day Kennedy Died" (a newly published Life-magazine-branded compilation book) in a Barnes & Noble window. If I'd actually walked in to the bookstore, I probably could have easily doubled my count; as New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson wrote in a recent front-cover New York Times Book Review essay, "An estimated 40,000 books about [JFK] have been published since his death, and this anniversary year has loosed another vast outpouring."

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.

Tucked away in a too-small space on its sixth floor is a riveting exhibition titled "Three Shots Were Fired" (on display through Jan. 5), which examines the press coverage of JFK's assassination. It includes some astonishing you-are-there artifacts, including JFK's Air Force One typewriter, the Bell & Howell 8mm movie camera that Abraham Zapruder used to capture footage of JFK's assassination, the long-sleeve shirt Lee Harvey Oswald was wearing when he was arrested (he was a small man), as well as his wallet and its contents, and even the revolver carried by Clint Hill, the Secret Service agent who climbed onto the back of the presidential limousine moments after JFK was hit.

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:

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:


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.

The cable-news era may have only technically been born upon the launch of CNN in 1980, but it's clear that today's reviled 24/7 news cycle -- with all its airtime-filling, rumor-driven excesses -- was really born in November 1963.

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.

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