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.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.