Quote of the Day: the “Golden Age” of Crisis Coverage Never Existed

Bulletin that announced President Kennedy had been shot.

Bulletin that announced President Kennedy had been shot.

Our Quote of the Day comes from University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, one of the country’s most accurate political analysts (he’s the flip side of Dick Morris) who notes the severe criticism the media is receiving for some of its Boston Marathon bombing coverage — and notes that the golden age of crisis coverage never existed. He says the JFK assassination coverage was worse then coverage of the events in Boston. He writes in part:

Critics say it is just another example of the decline of journalistic ethics in our anything-goes era of live, continuous broadcasting, blogging and tweeting. Why can’t today’s reporters meet the same high standards achieved by their illustrious predecessors in the golden age of journalism?

Well, the answer may be that the golden age never existed.

If you doubt this, take a look back to the start of live TV reporting of national tragedy, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963. The coverage of this watershed event has often been hailed as the epitome of sober, cautious treatment of a big breaking story.

Yet this is partly because people’s memory of the sorrowful four-day TV marathon is dominated by the dignified coverage of the weekend ceremonies and funeral of President Kennedy, which were beautifully designed almost overnight by Jacqueline Kennedy.

Sabato is working on a book about JFK, “The Kennedy Half Century,” and is reviewing all the old videos. Here is part of what he found:

Highly inaccurate information was aired almost immediately. In the minutes after he began his CBS broadcast, [CBS News anchor Walter] Cronkite suggested four times that a man and woman on the grassy knoll were the assassins, and that they had been surrounded by armed Secret Service agents and others. In fact, the couple, Bill and Gayle Newman, whom I have interviewed, had simply fallen to the ground to protect their two young sons from the gunfire. They were encircled mostly by spectators who wanted to insure they were safe and by reporters who wanted to interview them.

Then Cronkite and/or the KRLD anchor made a series of pronouncements, presented as facts, which would prove to be unfounded:

*A machine gun had been used to fire the bullets at the motorcade.

*Secret Service man was killed in the volley of bullets.

*The Secret Service had quickly taken a man into custody for the assassination attempt. In fact, no one was under arrest, and Lee Harvey Oswald, who had not yet been identified as the chief suspect, wouldn’t be apprehended until considerably later in the afternoon at the Texas Theater.

*A witness saw “a colored man” fire the shots from the Texas School Book Depository’s fourth floor. Oswald was white, of course, and the shots were fired from the sixth floor of the building.

There are other slip-ups, but you get the point.

He focuses on the key role in news played by CBS’s Walter Cronkite that day but also notes that Cronkite was not the only one cover the story. AND:

…A friend of President Kennedy who struggled to keep his on-air emotions in check, Cronkite was a skilled, comforting presence at a moment when the collective national heart stopped dead, and most Americans were deeply shocked and fearful. Many years later, I was privileged to discuss with Cronkite his views of the assassination and coverage. He freely admitted that he and his colleagues were flying, if not blind, then in pea soup fog.

Cronkite noted that live coverage of breaking news is inherently mistake-prone. Confusion reigns, and normally reliable sources can innocently provide incomplete or misleading information. Network bosses want their news professionals to “break it first,” and careers can be made or destroyed easily in such situations. While it was not as true in 1963, today’s audience demands a steady flow of information, and news consumers compare what they are getting on TV with what they are reading on Twitter or hearing from competing networks.

Media gaffes and goofs should not be easily excused, since commendable restraint — occasionally, simple silence — is the obvious remedy. There should be a penalty for a big error, even if it is only severe criticism.

But in our supercharged age, when we appear to lurch from crisis to crisis at hyper-speed, we need to remember two news fundamentals. First, we impatient consumers are a large part of the problem. Second, modern media blunders, while deeply regrettable, are consistent with a pattern that stretches back to the beginning of live breaking news.

The technology of news-gathering has changed radically, but human frailty is the constant that connects all eras.

Go to the link and read it all.

Also: this is from Sabato’s indispensable political Crystal Ball, put out by him and his University of Virginia team. You can get it for free by email and it is REQUIRED READING for political junkies who want to read serious, accurate analysis and not name-calling partisan rants peddled as analysis.

3 Comments

  1. People do tend to garner information from many sources when an important story breaks. They tend to give more credence to those sources they have come to trust in day to day reporting, but search all sources for any information they can find. It’s always wise to allow events to shake out before commenting too much.

  2. Thank you Joe. I really appreciated this post. It will be evident to anyone who watched that two hour uninterrupted video clip you posted a few months ago of the coverage from CBS news from the day of the Kennedy assassination how careful Cronkite was about every word he uttered. Meanwhile, it was quite clear that he and the rest of he people in the newsroom were improvising and had no idea what would happen next. They had very few conventions to follow – and to my mind, they were heroic.

    And that is the remarkable thing: Even in the midst of the ‘pea soup’ – Cronkite never jumped to any conclusions, and he was very clear when something was or wasn’t confirmed. He exhibited a level of professionalism and restraint we can all take a lesson from.

    To be fair to today’s journalists – mainstream and otherwise – Cronkite and his contemporaries had to deal with a stream of information that was miniscule compared to what we have to sift through today.

    It is hard to live up to an ideal – maybe impossible. It is like seeking the truth. One can never really know it – not completely in all of its dimensions. But we must always strive toward that ideal, like I believe Cronkite, Brinkley, and closer to our generation, Woodward and Bernstein did. And do so without reference to what people used to call “the man.”

    We will never be perfect. But we must always strive toward the ideal.

  3. Reading the post hysterical reports from the NYT I feel confident in their accuracy where, as others felt, the live reports were riddled with hype and speculation.

Submit a Comment