Cronkite set the standard reporting JFK tragedy

Those of us who are old enough to remember the events of Nov. 22, 1963 can recall two key elements: where we were and what we were doing when heard the news of a shooting in Dallas and who reported the tragic news that the president of the United States had been shot to death.

I was ill that day and stayed home from school watching TV when the news flash came across the screen: shots fired on the presidential motorcade in Dallas, Texas; not known if President John Kennedy had been hit. Then came the news. Yes, the president had been wounded. Later would come the worst news: The president is dead.

Who broke the news? For me the news came from CBS news legend Walter Cronkite. Indeed, it seems that the entire country was watching Uncle Walter that day, even though the two other broadcast networks — NBC and ABC — were on the story as well.

PBS broadcast a special Wednesday night that was shown on Panhandle PBS; it detailed the way CBS News covered the 20th century’s most chronicled crime. It walks us through the way CBS gathered the story as it happened, how it worked sources, double- and triple-checked information leaked to the network and then, after receiving the “Flash, apparently official,” reported that the president, indeed, had died of the gunshot wounds fired from the Texas School Book Depository Building.

The special is titled “Secrets of the Dead — JFK: One PM Central Standard Time” and can be watched online:

It reminds of us how TV journalism is supposed to work. CBS — and all the networks — had been getting unconfirmed reports from the field about the president’s condition. But as the PBS special notes, no one doubted Cronkite’s reluctance to announce the tragic news until he was certain of its veracity.

That’s what Cronkite did in that famous announcement that the president was dead. He took off his glasses, bit his lip, swallowed hard — and continued on with his work.

This all happened 50 years ago. PBS has been taking the nation back through that dark and sad time. “Secrets of the Dead” is worth watching as it gives a valuable lesson on how journalists must take great care to report the news accurately.

Yes, it’s good to be first. It’s best to be right.

Walter Cronkite set the standard for journalism excellence that day.


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